Nice (France) (AFP) – Sweden bid farewell to Zlatan Ibrahimovic with noisy tributes but no goals and exited the European Championship finals meekly after a 1-0 defeat by Belgium.
The brash giant of football ended his 116-cap international career on Wednesday with 62 often spectacular goals yet not a shot on target during Sweden’s three matches at Euro 2016.
Ibrahimovic brushed away the disappointment of elimination at the group stage and said he was proud of having emerging from “the ghetto” to become Sweden’s record goal scorer.
“It’s heavy, it’s disappointing, but at the same time I enjoyed it,” he said.
“This was my last game in the national team. I have many fantastic memories, because it’s a nice story because where I came from, a little… what people call the ghetto, and I made that country my country.”
Ibrahimovic, 34, was born to a Bosnian father and a Croatian mother in the tough Malmo neighbourhood of Rosengard and had a difficult childhood.
He will be dearly missed by Sweden and many of their opponents as the Zlatan portraits on yellow flags and thousands of Swedish fans chanting his name to the Pet Shop Boys song “Go West” testified.
Triumphant Belgian fans in the Nice stadium only slightly spoiled the occasion when they changed the words to “Bye Bye Ibrahimovic.”
Ibrahimovic scored at three previous Euro finals but barely got a look-in in France.
“I hoped for a better finish for him,” said Sweden coach Erik Hamren, who admitted he was losing a rare talent.
“I hope we can find another player, not a Zlatan as I don’t think in a small country like Sweden you can find someone like that, he’s really unique.”
“He is a big personality of football, I told him ‘bravo’ for your career. I was a player myself so I know how it feels when you finish your international career,” said Belgian coach Marc Wilmots. “He has done a lot of things for Sweden.”
– ‘Big man in football’ –
Belgium captain Eden Hazard described Ibrahimovic as “a big man in football”
“He did a lot of important things. Of course he wanted to go further in this tournament but our objective today was to qualify and we did that,” Hazard said.
“Unfortunately for him he was eliminated but I think he can still do a lot of things at club level.”
Indeed Chelsea midfielder Hazard could well be facing ‘Ibra’ in the Premier League next season as the Swede is rumoured to be heading to Manchester United after parting company with Paris Saint-Germain following four highly successful seasons.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Ibrahimovic thanked supporters who he said “made it possible for me to achieve what I have achieved”.
“So wherever I go, wherever I come, I’ll always bring the Swedish flag with me and stand with it. So for me disappointment doesn’t exist, only pride, and gratitude. I’m very thankful. So thank you,” he said.
The Swede has almost guaranteed success wherever he played with league titles in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. However, the Champions League has proved frustratingly out of reach.
Ibrahimovic made his international debut against the Faroe Islands in January 2001, but he has been unable to fire Sweden beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament.
The striker missed a penalty in a shootout defeat to the Dutch at Euro 2004 with subsequent appearances at the European Championship ending at the group stage.
He featured at just one World Cup, in 2006, and missed out on the last two global showpieces.
He famously said the 2014 finals in Brazil would “not be worth watching” after Sweden lost to Portugal in a two-legged play-off.
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