Zlatan Ibrahimović got his first taste of a major international finals at the 2002 FIFA World Cup and now, ten years later, he is buzzing at the prospect of leading Sweden out at UEFA EURO 2012 wearing the captain's armband.
The 31-year-old has known little else but success on the domestic scene since first making his international breakthrough, winning titles in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain as well as collecting an impressive haul of individual awards. Those exploits have helped him raise his profile enormously back home, and he is thrilled to now be skippering the Blågult at an international tournament.
"I'm very proud," he told UEFA.com ahead of Sweden's opening Group D meeting with co-hosts Ukraine on Monday. "To experience a finals as team captain – it doesn't get any bigger than that. It is also a big responsibility to lead the team in the direction you want."
The AC Milan striker goes into the competition having missed out on the Serie A crown this season but as the division's top scorer with 28 goals, and he also led the way for Sweden in qualifying thanks to his five efforts in eight games. As captain, though, he was pleased to see that so many of the side's 31 qualifying strikes were shared around. "We have shown that there are many of us who can score goals and decide matches," he explained. "We can even switch positions and still perform well."
No one illustrates that versatility better than Ibrahimović. Under Erik Hamrén's leadership, he has frequently been deployed further back than in his previous role as an out-and-out striker. "We've tried to find a balance between the No9 and No10 roles, and lately I've mostly played as a No10, which has worked well."
That was certainly true in Sweden's 3-2 warm-up win against Iceland on 30 May, when Ibrahimović's withdrawn position allowed him to take on the opposition defence, deceive his markers and send in a cross that Ola Toivonen tapped in to put Hamrén's side 2-0 up. That came after Ibrahimović himself had volleyed in the opener with just two minutes gone.
Sweden then rounded off their preparations with a 2-1 defeat of Serbia, and they have now settled down in their base in Kyiv, where they will dispute all of their Group D games, with England and France to follow after they begin against Ukraine. "All four teams are on an equal level," said Ibrahimović. "We don't know if there is a favourite to win the group, but it will be exciting and the matches should all be good. We will have to play smart."
Without wanting to single out any of the games as must-win occasions, he nonetheless sees the Ukraine encounter as fundamental to Sweden's tournament prospects. "It's important to start well," he said. "I remember other final rounds where we did that, and we were able to just hold on during the following matches. And when we start off well, we become more self-confident."
Their confidence is also likely to aided by their travelling fans, with 12,000 Swedes having bought tickets for Monday's game and around 18,000 expected to take in the match against England on 19 June. For Ibrahimović, their presence could have a significant bearing on how Sweden perform. "I have always said that 50% of football is about the spectators and the atmosphere. How the fans react and chant, that's what gives you adrenaline and motivation. When things are hard on the pitch, the fans' support can lift you 10 to 20%."
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