- Sweden currently leading Group A, ahead of France and the Netherlands
- New captain Andreas Granqvist has played in Russia since 2013
- Skipper convinced that "Swedish national team is more than just Zlatan"
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced his retirement from international football after UEFA EURO 2016, many assumed that the loss of Sweden’s talismanic leader would damage their chances of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
However, this has proved far from the case, as after six matches played the Swedes are sitting atop qualifying Group A above favourites France and the Netherlands. Ibrahimovic’s replacement as captain, Andreas Granqvist - who plays his club football in Russia for FC Krasnodar - says that he never doubted that there would be life after Zlatan.
"Zlatan is a fantastic player, one of the best in Sweden’s history," Granqvist said in an interview with FIFA.com, "but the national team was not only Zlatan. After he retired, there were still three or four experienced and respected footballers in the squad, whom everyone looks up to.
"For now, everything is working out fine and few would have believed before the qualifiers that we’d be first in a group with France and Holland."
Toivonen’s superb strike
Janne Andersson’s side climbed into pole position after beating Les Blues 2-1 in June. Ola Toivonen’s winner from the centre circle, catching Hugo Lloris off-guard following his poor clearance, was a memorable strike and undoubtedly stands as one of the stand-out goals from the qualifiers so far.
"It was an unbelievable feeling when Ola’s effort dropped into the net," Granqvist recalled. "Snatching victory in the last minute against one of the best countries in the world, with a goal from the halfway line, was amazing. Honestly, we’d have been happy with 1-1, because France were pressing hard in the second half and we were forced into a lot of defending."
Three of Sweden’s four remaining matches in qualification are away from home, including against Bulgaria and the Netherlands, who are both in hot pursuit.
"We need to continue to believe in ourselves," Granqvist insisted. "We’ll try to take maximum points in the upcoming games against Bulgaria and Belarus, while keeping an eye on the other teams. France are hosting Holland in August – that could be a defining fixture in our group."
Andersson has previously stated that the failure to qualify for the previous two World Cups was a hammer blow to the team’s self-esteem. On this point, the skipper is in full agreement with his head coach.
"I've played in three EUROs," the 32-year-old continued, "but so far I’ve never made it to a World Cup. Yet for an international footballer it’s the most important competition. It would be extremely painful to mess up this chance and miss the boat for the World Cup again, especially as it’s taking place in Russia, where I’ve been playing for the last four years.
"I’m not bothered about the cities that are hosting it; excellent new stadiums have been built all over the country. The Confederations Cup in Russia left a good impression, and I’m sure the World Cup will be an even greater success. I really hope we’ll be partaking in this celebration. Getting to Russia 2018 will be a breath of fresh air for Swedish football."
A captain’s role
Bagging such a reliable, consistent and self-assured central defender is a stroke of luck for any side. In the four years since Granqvist joined Krasnodar from Genoa, he has become a mainstay at the club and has made over 150 appearances.
"When I first heard that Krasnodar were interested, I thought, 'Where even is that?'" the defender remembered with a smile. "I had no idea about Russian football back then. When I came to have a look around at the club, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I definitely wasn’t expecting such good conditions for training, and the climate turned out to be pretty pleasant as well.
"Since I’ve been here, Krasnodar have finished in the top three for the first time in history and we regularly play in Europe. The new stadium was recently unveiled, which I think is the best in Russia. And, of course, I’m very proud the team chose me, a foreigner, as their captain."
But does wearing the armband for club and country sometimes bring too much responsibility?
"The captaincy is a huge honour," Granqvist responded. "How can it possibly be a burden? I’m the kind of person who talks more on the pitch and in the dressing room than in everyday life. A captain needs to speak a lot. I like being a leader and inspiring my team-mates with positive energy.
"It’s true that sometimes you have to give the lads a jolt so they don’t take their foot off the gas too soon. For example, currently we’re sitting pretty in the qualifying group - but we'll continue to strive with everything we've got."
Bulgaria-Sweden (31 August, Sofia)
Belarus-Sweden (3 September, Borisov)
Sweden-Luxembourg (7 October, Solna)
Netherlands-Sweden (10 October, Amsterdam)