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South Korea-Sweden Preview
NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) Sweden is without Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, for the first time since 2006, it's at the World Cup.
That's the strange thing about Sweden. It may be better off without one of its best ever players.
Sweden was expected to struggle after the international retirement of Ibrahimovic at the end of the European Championship in 2016. But it hasn't worked out that way.
Sweden put a positive spin on the striker's absence by finishing ahead of Netherlands and then beating Italy in a playoff to qualify for Russia. It also beat France along the way. Maybe life won't be so bad without Ibrahimovic, whose dominance of the team might have been as much of a hindrance as a help. That notion has been suggested by the Swedish media.
Sweden starts its first World Cup in 12 years on Monday against South Korea , a team that has failed to maintain its status in world soccer.
South Korea reached the semifinals at home in 2002 and the last 16 in 2010, but the 2014 World Cup in Brazil brought no wins and a humiliating return home, when angry supporters pelted the team with candy at Incheon International Airport.
The opening game is crucial for both teams with defending champion Germany and Mexico, who meet in Moscow on Sunday, waiting in Group F. It'll only get tougher for the Swedes and the South Koreans.
Sweden's top frontman post-Ibrahimovic is striker Marcus Berg. Under coach Janne Andersson, there's a feeling that this team, with defender and captain Andreas Granqvist and attacking midfielder Emil Forsberg, is more balanced. Not so reliant on one player, albeit an exceptional player.
In contrast, South Korea is hugely reliant on Tottenham forward Son Heung-min to restore some faith. Excitement for soccer in South Korea appears to be near an all-time low, with U.S. President Donald Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the after-effects of that far more fascinating for Koreans right now than an under-performing national team.
Now with LA Galaxy, Ibrahimovic is at the World Cup in Russia doing sponsor commitments. He's still attracting attention after hinting at a comeback for the World Cup that ultimately didn't happen. He said Sweden without him won't be under as much pressure and that might allow the team to operate with more freedom. But he's recently reacted sarcastically - and in a typically Ibrahimovic way - to suggestions that he wasn't a team player and Sweden is better off: "I played in Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, PSG, Manchester United, (Los Angeles) Galaxy," he said. "So if you don't know how to do it ... why did you play in the biggest teams in the world and you won?"
Ibrahimovic's running commentary could inspire the team to prove itself without him, but it could also become a distraction when it faces bigger tests later in the group stage.
While Son's attacking versatility is the key to South Korea's chances of restoring some of its reputation at this World Cup, the team also has high hopes that 6-foot-6 striker Kim Shin-wook will be a factor with his power in the air. Kim is nicknamed "Chinook" after the big Boeing tandem-rotor helicopter.
Sweden vs. South Korea sees the World Cup come for the first time to Nizhny Novgorod , the city east of Moscow where the famed Volga River converges with the Oka and where writer Maxim Gorky was born. It's also the city that was closed off to foreigners for years to safeguard the Soviet Union's military research and production facilities.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Updated June 16, 2018