By Philip O'Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be about to thrill Swedish soccer fans again if Janne Andersson names him in his squad for this month's World Cup qualifiers after the pair settled their differences to pave the way for the talismanic striker's return.
Ibrahimovic, 39, walked away from the national team after Sweden exited Euro 2016 at the group stage and his relationship with Andersson, who took over after that tournament, was limited to sniping form the sidelines while hinting at a comeback.
Throughout that time, Andersson remained adamant that if Zlatan wanted to come back he would have to get in touch, and that looked most unlikely until the AC Milan striker opened the door in a newspaper interview in late November 2020.
The 58-year-old Sweden coach quickly flew to Milan to have a private conversation with Ibrahimovic.
Since then both sides have been tight-lipped but few people would be surprised if Ibra was named on Tuesday in the squad for Sweden's Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Kosovo in March and the country's fans would be ecstatic.
Ibrahimovic may not be the unstoppable physical phenomenon he once was but Sweden's record scorer (62 goals in 116 games) has netted 14 times in 14 Serie A appearances so far this season, proving he can still contribute at the highest level.
Including the striker in the squad would be a gamble but might inspire the well-organised Sweden team at this year's Euros where they face Spain, Poland and Slovakia in Group E.
Born one day after Zlatan made his senior debut for Malmo FF on September 20 1999, striker Alexander Isak has never known a time when Ibra was not his country’s best known sporting name.
Like many players in the current squad, Isak grew up watching Ibrahimovic scoring goal after stunning goal in Italy, Spain, France and England, saving some of his best strikes for his adoring home fans in Stockholm’s Friends Arena
However, despite his unquestionable status as Sweden’s most successful player of all time, Zlatan, who was born in Malmo to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, has plenty of critics.
Some regard him as arrogant, belligerent and not Swedish enough -- something he described in January 2018 as "undercover racism" because he does not have a Swedish-sounding name.
"I don't say there is racism but I say there is undercover racism," he told French TV station Canal Plus. "This exists, I am 100 percent sure. Because I am not Andersson or Svensson."
There has also been criticism in the media that Ibrahimovic lacks humility and is not a team player.
His strong personality undoubtedly dominated the national team and at times the Swedish FA (SvFF) during a 15-year run, and Sweden's former manager Erik Hamren has been criticised for allowing Ibra to dictate tactics and squad selections.
Many players felt the sharp edge of his tongue when things did not go the way he wanted them to. Several froze when meeting him or playing with Zlatan for the first time.
For all the titles he has collected in a glittering career, Ibra has never won the Champions League, but a medal from the European Championship would likely be given pride of place in what is already a stuffed trophy cabinet.
Andersson’s toughest task would be to decide what role to give Ibrahimovic. He already has a generation of forwards Zlatan inspired such as Isak, Robin Quaison and Dejan Kulusevski. Would he drop one of them or change his tactics to accommodate Ibra?
Or could he utilise Zlatan’s vast experience on the training ground and in the team HQ, and maybe spring him off the bench for the last half-hour when Sweden really need a goal?
If Andersson got that balance right, the Sweden side that he has spent five years crafting in the wake of Ibrahimovic’s international retirement might be transformed from one that is good to one good enough to challenge the top sides in Europe.
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)