He is a global superstar at one of the biggest football clubs in the world, but—as it stands—Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be heading to the 2018 World Cup.
Sweden have qualified, that much was decided on November 13 as they secured a 1-0 aggregate play-off victory over Italy.
But Ibrahimovic retired from the international scene after Euro 2016, so he was not involved in the triumphant scenes in Milan as players celebrated the joy of heading to a World Cup for the first time since 2006. Earlier in November, he seemed adamant he would stick by his decision when speaking to Sky Sports Italy (h/t Marcus Christenson of the Guardian), but what happens from here?
Ibrahimovic—Sweden's all-time top scorer with 62 goals—has just returned from a potentially career-ending knee injury and hinted immediately after the Italy game that his presence is still felt.
A tweet from his official account read, "We are Zweden." A slightly indulgent way for him to celebrate a huge moment in Sweden's history, but a fitting one nonetheless.
This team prospered without the most famous footballer Sweden has ever produced, and there is certainly an argument that they are better off without him.
But this is Ibrahimovic; an icon. And he has never scored at a World Cup finals. Will he really let this moment pass?
While we wait to discover whether there is a change of heart, the nation is divided over whether he should even be granted the opportunity to return.
Zlatan Ibrahimović @Ibra_official
We are Zweden https://t.co/rDXzRImev42017-11-13 22:37:03
A poll published here by tabloid newspaper Expressen last week showed that 63 per cent of 1,011 people surveyed did not feel Ibrahimovic should return to the Sweden squad.
That opinion could of course change before manager Janne Andersson names his squad for Russia, but there is certainly fear among supporters that the team ethic will be broken if Zlatan and his ego arrive back on the scene.
There is no doubt he is still loved in his homeland. It's just that the football community are confused by whether he can actually help them enjoy a successful tournament.
There is a long-felt sentiment that the side was far too Ibra-fied under former boss Erik Hamren. The Swedish superstar seemed to have too much control, too much power, and the team suffered as a result.
That mentality has changed over the past 17 months, as Andersson has won nine and drawn three of his 16 matches in charge.
Swedish football expert Gunnar Persson has been writing about the game for almost 40 years and is in no doubt about a change of feeling around the national squad since Ibrahimovic stepped aside.
"The team spirit has been rebuilt, and that is something the Swedish side was always famous for," he explained.
"Everybody involved seems happier, and the new manager is what you might call a 'real football man,' with lots of common sense. There is no anxiety among the players, just the will to perform well. Emil Forsberg is a particular darling, never really pleased with himself, always trying to do better."
Forsberg has become the inspirational figure this Sweden generation look towards for inspiration. The 26-year-old RB Leipzig winger has become a king of assists in Bundesliga, yet his talismanic qualities are not held back by self-worth.
Daniel Kristofferson, football writer for Swedish outlet Expressen, agrees that the national team have more of a bond now.
"Janne has built a fantastic team, and he gets the maximum out of every player," he said. "That is different from the former coach, who gave Zlatan total freedom on and off the pitch. Zlatan had different rules for everything back in the days of Hamren, so I do not know if he would fit in this national team—or if he would make it better.
"Of course, it sounds a little strange that the best athlete Sweden has ever had would not make the team better. But if you have followed the national team closely for many years, you would see that it is complicated."
Opinion over a potential Zlatan return may not seem straightforward among football supporters in his homeland, but Tomas Nilsson, reporter for Helsingborgs Dagblad, believes the 36-year-old forward will fancy one more shot at World Cup glory.
"It's the biggest stage of all, and we're talking about Ibrahimovic," he said. "Of course he will be tempted to play. I think he still looks up to Henrik Larsson, a player that came back from retirement three times."
Ibrahimovic still commands respect wherever he goes. He is an iconic player of our generation, and the incredible hold he has over people remained clear at the weekend as he made his Manchester United return.
Following a seven-month lay-off through injury, he was included in the squad against Newcastle United as a substitute and made his entrance on 77 minutes.
He played well. There was an acrobatic volley attempt, clever passing and fancy footwork. Ryan Wales, a United fan who was at Old Trafford for the comeback, told me of the celebratory mood that surrounded the occasion.
"From the moment Zlatan put on his bib to warm up the anticipation and noise level increased," Wales said. "His chant kept coming: 'Six-foot-five, hard as f--k, he gets the Reds excited.' It echoed around the ground as excitement grew that we were going to see the return of a footballing legend.
"The roars were deafening as he entered the pitched, and every touch was greeted by a loud cheer. It's incredible how one man can have such aura."
That he is not being begged to return to the Sweden team does not mean that same aura is not still felt back home.
"He is still worshipped among the fans and the people of Sweden for his performances at Manchester United," Kristofferson insists. "The nation is just divided about whether they want to see him back in the national team again."
It seems Ibrahimovic's international career falls into two stages. Between 2001–2009 he was a member of the team, held in place by older and more experienced team-mates such as Henrik Larsson, Freddie Ljungberg and Olof Mellberg. That role changed between 2010–2016, as he was allowed to run the show.
"He became too big, too important, as older players retired one by one," Swedish expert Persson explains. "This became very evident when Hamren took over as team manager in early 2010. Zlatan's first call was to say 'no' to Sweden. They played without him until July 2010. Then he got back in, but only after Hamren had laid down flat and handed over his full authority to this player who suddenly had the last say in any matter concerning team selection.
"In the long run his team-mates—or, rather, the other players—became wary of him. It didn't take them long to realise they were now only a supporting cast to him. The team had no tactics, just the intimidating presence of Zlatan. Every attack should go through him.
"It didn't matter if he was up for the occasion or not. When he was on, maybe it worked. When he wasn't? Absolute disaster."
Ibrahimovic's last tournament, Euro 2016, was not one to remember.
The side failed to collect a win in a group alongside Italy, Belgium and Ireland, and Ibrahimovic did not score a goal. Yet still, he has his supporters.
Following Sweden's qualification, calls for Zlatan to return to Sweden began to arrive in waves via social media. And one supporter, Martin Engstrom, explained: "Zlatan is the greatest player we have ever witnessed here in Sweden, and for me it would be stupid to not at least ask the big man. No matter the answer he gives to the head coach, I would accept it with 100 per cent respect."
B/R Football @brfootball
A changing of the 🇸🇪 guard. https://t.co/bYbHYgHUUi2017-11-20 21:36:16
Ibra has more top-level experience in the game than pretty much any other player on the planet, following spells with Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, PSG and now Manchester United.
It is an incredible list of clubs to have represented, but while he is currently adored in red, will he simply now be remembered in yellow?
It may be that Sweden really do leave their superstar figure out of the squad when their lineup for Russia is announced next year.
"My view is there is not a chance we will see him at the World Cup," Kristofferson told me. "The first reason is that I do not think Zlatan would want to come back. He has too much to lose.
"What if Sweden lose all three games in the group stage with Zlatan in the team? His legacy would take a huge turn in Sweden—many people would blame him. So I do not think he would risk that.
"Secondly, do we honestly think Zlatan Ibrahimovic would take No. 17 and let Andreas Granqvist be the captain? Not a chance. Thirdly, I do not think that Janne Andersson wants Zlatan in the team."
Persson agreed. "He would ruin everything that has been built over the past 18 months," he said. "If you ask me, would I like to see him back? My answer would be no."