STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden and Denmark’s playoff for a place in the Euro 2016 finals will be much more than just another Scandinavian derby between the two neighbours.
The ripple of excitement that went around the room as the seeded Swedes were pitted against the Danes in Sunday’s draw in Switzerland only hinted at the significance and intensity of the battle ahead.
This is a derby that has always had an edge to it, as illustrated by the 2007 game in Copenhagen when a Danish fan ran on to the field and attacked referee Herman Frandel, resulting in a 3-0 victory being awarded to the Swedes.
It is also a clash of footballing traditions, with the cultured Danes and their adherence to Dutch-style passing football meeting the technically limited but physically imposing Swedes.
As usual, a war of words awaits in the run-up to the two-legged playoff but the matches could also represent the end of the international road for some of the biggest names in Scandinavian football.
One of the longest-serving international coaches with more than 15 years in the job, Denmark’s Morten Olsen has already said he will step down either after the playoff or, if successful, the finals in France next year.
On the playing front, injury-plagued Daniel Agger may choose to concentrate on club football, and 36-year-old defender Lars Jacobsen is also expected to hang up his international boots.
The subject of much criticism over everything from team selection to tactics, Olsen’s Swedish counterpart Erik Hamren is also highly unlikely to continue when the Euro campaign ends.
On the playing side, Swedes Kim Kallstrom and Sebastian Larsson may head off into the sunset.
But the biggest shadow of all is cast by the looming retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s all-time leading goalscorer and the man who essentially dragged a mediocre side into the playoffs single-handedly.
Coy about his interest in playing at next year’s Rio Olympics, the home leg of the playoff against Denmark could be the last competitive international game the 34-year-old plays on Swedish soil.
Without Ibrahimovic, the Swedes will have a hard time filling the 50,000-seat Friends Arena.
But having made the stadium his own with a slew of spectacular goals, few would bet against further Ibra miracles in the playoffs.
(By Philip O’Connor, Editing by Alan Baldwin)