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Forsberg, Sweden thriving in a new era

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Emil Forsberg and Sweden are thriving in a new era

Saturday's quarterfinal against England is Sweden's fifth game at the World Cup but, in another sense, it will be a debut. For this appointment in Samara marks the first game of the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era for the Blagult.

Sure, the LA Galaxy striker has not actually featured for the national team since retiring in the aftermath of Euro 2016. He has been a phantom menace for the past two years, however, constantly threatening to return to a squad that had long moved on and was happier for it.

Ibrahimovic's grandstanding has ensured that every interview and press conference before and during the tournament in Russia has featured questions about Sweden's theoretical strength, had the 36-year-old still been involved. Up until the 1-0, round-of-16 win over Switzerland, that is.

You-know-who was again a topic in the mixed zone in St Petersburg, but the slant was different: "Would Sweden have played this well with Zlatan?" reporters asked.

"That's for you to talk about, not us," said Emil Forsberg, who scored the winner on the day and who has done more than most to flip the "Ibra" narrative on its head this summer.

The RB Leipzig forward arrived at the World Cup as Sweden's great hope, as Ibrahimovic's introvert, reluctant heir. But three games without a goal and 12 missed chances had seen him heavily criticised at home, just as he had been after anonymous showings at Euro 2016. The result of that was the 26-year-old stopped talking to the Swedish media.

But after his breakthrough in the 66th minute against the Swiss, the scion of a Swedish football dynasty -- grandfather Lennart, nicknamed Stor-Foppa (big Forsberg) and father Leif, AKA Lill-Foppa (little Forsberg) were both professional footballers -- talked to everyone.

Forsberg dedicated the goal to his pregnant wife Shanga, a recently-retired professional footballer for RB Leipzig's women team, declared himself unaffected by the criticism -- "it doesn't get to me" -- and was glad to receiver the plaudits of his teammates.

"We have seen sides of him I hadn't seen before," defender Mikael Lustig said. "He's shown what a leader is, putting so much hard work into defending. He is our star. When he's in midfield, people might think he's hiding or not taking part, but it's the opposite. Off the ball, he's on his opponents all the team. He's incredibly important to us."

Emil Forsberg scored the only goal of the game as Sweden beat Switzerland in the Round of 16
Emil Forsberg scored the only goal of the game as Sweden beat Switzerland in the Round of 16.

It is obvious the team value Mini-Foppa (mini Forsberg), as he has become known in Sweden, more than is generally appreciated. His seven goals in 40 games are quite a way off Ibrahimovic's 62 in 116 but, then again, it's inconceivable that Ibrahimovic would have been praised for his unselfishness by colleagues.

In Janne Andersson's rigid 4-4-2 system, Forsberg's main job is to protect the left back, in line with three other midfielders, and press the opposition. Only in possession is he allowed to break free and make the darting runs that echo his teenage years as an indoor hockey player in Sundsvall, a sleepy coastal town some 230 miles north of Stockholm. "He sets our tempo," Andersson has said.

Beyond complex tactical demands, Forsberg's influence extends to the more discrete and intermittent. He is not the type to bully friends and enemies into submission but a quietly confident, quintessentially modern player, who concentrates on playing the game to the best of his abilities. That is not to say he shirks responsibility, however.

"I can feel that the pressure and the expectations on me have grown," he said after the Switzerland win. "But that's not problem. We can deal with that, especially when things are going well."

As it happens, his role in the team combines the two seemingly contradictory but, in fact, complimentary strands of Swedish public life. Society is organised along strong collectivist principles -- a belief in the common good and political compromise -- designed to grant maximum personal autonomy.

Off the pitch, Forsberg prefers staying at home and cooking with his wife, to parties and events. He and Shanga met at age 14 in school; he contacted her via social media and politely asked for her mobile phone number.

Forsberg has been a little less loyal to his current employer, pointedly refusing to commit to Leipzig, where his contract still runs until 2020. It is an open secret that he would be willing to make the next step in his career this summer or next, having moved to Saxony in 2015.

The World Cup provides a chance to firm up interest from potential buyers, who might have gone a little cold following a disappointing second half of last season, in which the 26-year-old was beset by injuries and also received a three-game ban for hitting an opponent.

Before considering his long-term future, though, there is the opportunity to, in his words, "dream big" and help Sweden to a first final in 60 years. And even regardless of the outcome vs. England, he and his colleagues have done enough to stop the Ibrahimovic nostalgia.

All that remains is for Forsberg is to make this World Cup his.

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein

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