Sweden must focus on the future after Ibrahimovic's international retirement
The scene, viewed now, is like something from an alternate reality. A Sweden side, having battled the odds for three weeks, has pulled off the impossible. Their captain, Oscar Hiljemark, hoists the trophy aloft while Portugal, laden with better-known names, look on in disbelief. Stockholm comes to life, its squares a sea of yellow as local supporters emerge to celebrate. A team short on stars but huge on heart has conquered the continent.
Sweden under-21s were the team, the venue was Prague's Eden Arena and the competition was the UEFA Under-21 European Championship, held in June 2015. It did not capture imaginations as widely as subsequent team-oriented successes -- Leicester City's in particular -- but it was an unprecedented moment in the country's football history and the plaudits flooded in. "There are no limits to how far a Swedish national team can go," said journalist Erik Niva, while the country's biggest sporting star also had his say.
"Yeeeeeeees! Fantastic! Awesome! At a loss for words. The Bragdguld awaits," wrote Zlatan Ibrahimovic, referring to a Swedish award for extraordinary sporting achievement. It was a nice touch at the time, but 12 months later, it seems mildly ironic that Ibrahimovic paid tribute to a team that valorises the collective. Sweden's senior side, although it includes a sprinkling of talent from last year's victors, appears bereft of ideas without its talisman -- who is indisputably far more talented than almost all of his teammates -- and you wonder what effect his retirement from international football, announced on Tuesday, will have.
"The last game for Sweden at the Euros will be my last game for Sweden. I hope it is not tomorrow," Ibrahimovic said before the decisive Group F game with Belgium. "I will not play at the Olympics, so I hope we go as far as possible here. Either way, I will not end disappointed. I am very proud to be captain of Sweden.
"I want to thank all the supporters who have helped me achieve what I have done. Wherever I go, I will always bring the Swedish flag with me and be proud of it. I will never be disappointed. Thank you, everyone."
It was curious timing, and maybe Ibrahimovic was trying to motivate himself, and those around him, for a last hurrah. Sweden must look to the future now, and it might not be outlandish to suggest that they could be a better side without him.
They have struggled for inspiration in their two matches so far, failing to land a single shot on target and looking completely inert as an attacking force against Italy. Ibrahimovic has found himself foraging in areas of little influence, and the supply line, with winger and most likely alternative threat Emil Forsberg quiet, has been nonexistent. Sweden seem too insistent on seeking out their star man at times, but the truth is that, at this stage of his career and no matter how bold his pronouncements, he is unable to do it all on his own.
As his words on Tuesday suggested, Ibrahimovic's commitment to Sweden has never been in doubt. "I work for them and they work for me," he said of his teammates before the tournament, and while he is acutely aware of his exalted status, there has never been any suggestion -- bar his social-media persona, perhaps -- that he seeks the limelight for himself.
The issue is more that others can be tempted, even if subconsciously, to surrender the initiative. Euro 2016 has so far been a tournament in which superior teamwork has been key; David Alaba has had a similarly difficult tournament to Ibrahimovic, and reliance on a player who forces the issue too much can unbalance a whole unit. Wales' victory over Russia on Monday, and the support their players afforded Gareth Bale, was perhaps the best example, summed up by the sight of Neil Taylor galloping from left-wing-back to score his first goal in six years.
Whether or not it is Ibrahimovic, somebody from Sweden needs to make the difference in Nice on Wednesday. Only a win will further their interest in the tournament, and it would be a disservice to their captain's international career, which has brought 62 goals in 115 appearances, if they bowed out here. A decisive flourish is far from out of the question, but the euphoria in Prague last summer pointed the direction they will need to follow in the longer term.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.