Sweden's moderniser has led his team to the finals, but defeat and elimination in Kiev on Friday will test supporters' faith
In the buildup to Euro 2012 Sweden's manager Erik Hamren said he would be insisting his players sit talking at breakfast for at least half an hour in order to generate "positive energy". No doubt this seemed like a good idea at the time. Or at least, it probably did before a week in which Sweden's players have evolved from chummy breakfast-fellows into a unit displaying a fascinating, and for England all too familiar, sense of fissure.
It has been quite a week for Hamren as he prepares his team for a meeting with England on Friday in Kiev's vast Olympic Stadium that could yet see Sweden eliminated only five days into their manager's first tournament. This has been a surprisingly volatile Swedish camp, encompassing most notably Wednesday's bizarre "Bumgate" incident, in which the players were encouraged to kick balls at the naked posterior of the reserve goalkeeper, Johan Wiland, as a forfeit in training, drawing censorious comment from, among others, the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Speaking on Thursday before Sweden's final training session Hamren urged his critics to "look at the event from the bigger perspective", albeit there is a danger this might offer further unflattering reflections. After defeat to Ukraine on Monday Zlatan Ibrahimovic was heavily critical of his team-mates' willingness to go across and speak to their families, apparently insufficiently repentant after defeat, while Hamren was reported to have called some of his players "cowards". Bothered, if not beleaguered by stories of internal division, it would be tempting to call Sweden the new Holland if Holland themselves were not still so definitively Holland. Instead Sweden are perhaps looking a little more like recent-vintage England; whereas it is instead Roy Hodgson's team who have arrived in Kiev in the guise of restrained and resilient defensive technicians, roped together in a formation that ranges between two banks of four and, in extremis, one bank of eight.
Sweden on the other hand have entered a more expansive incarnation under Hamren, a modernising, expansive coach appointed – in the English style – in deliberate contrast to his predecessor the dour but reliable Lars Lagerback. Where Lagerback was a laconic pragmatist, Hamren has the air of an ambitious New Labour minister. He preaches short-passing attacking football, has an obsession with players' diet and offers a sightly chummy, Steve McClaren-ish presence (albeit McClaren never made it through qualifying).
On Thursday Hamren found time to speak about "good feelings", "good energy" and the interconnectedness of all things, mental and physical. With Sweden currently taking their turn at the awkward transition from psychically impressive set-piece specialists – and at training Sweden looked every inch the tallest team at Euro 2012 – into cutting-edge possessionistas, there is a temptation to suggest that in appointing Hodgson England have adopted the same well-worn template Sweden are trying to abandon.
There was the usual praise for England's manager: "He is a really good coach and a really nice person too. He is a big name in Sweden and we will never forget what he's done for Swedish football." But unlike Lagerback, Hamren is not a Hodgson-acolyte. Asked if he was attempting to take Sweden a step beyond the dogged entrenchment of the Hodgson style, Hamren shied away from the implication: "When you're working in football or whatever, you're always taking steps. You don't want to stay on the same platform. You take steps – that's life. Sometimes you take them forward, sometimes down."
Then, of course, there is the perennial disorientation of Ibrahimovic. This time it is Sweden, not England who arrive in thrall to the celebrity presence of their own captain.
Ibrahimovic is no longer a maverick element in a triangulation of star names. Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson have departed, leaving Zlatan a lone and rather exposed heavyweight. Returning to the team halfway through qualification, and appointed Cristiano Ronaldo-style as an unlikely captain, Ibrahimovic missed Sweden's best display in qualifying, the decisive defeat of Holland. He arrives in Kiev at a peculiar moment in his own international career.
Hampered by a thigh injury – but declared fit along with all his team-mates – Ibrahimovic is now 30 with one international semi-retirement already behind him. Should it end in defeat Friday's match could prove his final live tournament appearance for Sweden. For all his 35 goals for Milan last season, he remains undervalued in England, often condemned for that strolling, shrugging quality that has occasionally – but less so recently, ask Arsenal – surfaced in big matches. Hoist as the figurehead of a listing Swedish ship, his response here may help to define many things, chief among them the fortunes of both nations at this championship.
Still, Sweden have been here before: Ljungberg and Olof Mellberg famously brawled at the 2002 World Cup. And Ibrahimovic, for all his manifold responsibilities, has scored in his last four matches. If there is more tangible hope for England beyond the variables of morale and preparation, it lies perhaps instead in Sweden's unusually permeable defence, in particular a perceived weakness at full-back. Whether England have the wide men to exploit this is another matter.