Johansson: It’s unbelievably impressive Zlatan is still so good

  • Jakob Johansson fired Sweden to Russia 2018 qualification at Italy’s expense

  • Injury agonisingly ruled him out of the global finals

  • He discusses those events and Sweden’s play-off against Czech Republic

Sweden stunned Italy in the European play-offs to reach the 2018 FIFA Word Cup Russia™. A solitary goal settled the two-legged tie, sending Swedes to seventh heaven and devastating Italians, and Jakob Johansson was the man who scored it. Ahead of this year’s play-offs, we caught up with the 18-times-capped international for an extensive interview. Here, Johansson tells the story of his first and only goal for the Blågult, and explains why ultimately he has bittersweet memories of the occasion. The 31-year-old also gives us an insight into his emotions in the weeks and months after the triumph over Italy, as well as looking ahead to Sweden’s upcoming challenge in this year’s play-offs.

Sweden's midfielder Jakob Johansson (2nd,L) celebrates scoring

FIFA: After spells at AEK Athens and Rennes you returned to IFK Gothenburg in 2020, the club where you started out as a professional. You also ended your career there last year. What led you to make that decision? Jakob Johansson: In the end it was due to all the injuries I’d had to battle against in the previous years. I’d had continuous problems with both my knees since 2017. Major issues. After that I never had the feeling that I was 100-per-cent fit. I still played a few games but you just need a certain amount of time to recover completely, and then I would always pick up new injuries or aggravate old ones. I was in a lot of pain in my last year as a professional, so I was in regular contact with doctors and physiotherapists. But there wasn’t a lot I could do to get rid of the pain. In the end I decided to finish my career at Gothenburg. Presumably you can still remember Friday, 10 November 2017 very clearly… I’ll never forget that day. There was so much attention on our national team and on me too – I wasn’t even in the starting line-up. After that day, we gained a huge amount of self-confidence as a team going into our next games. That day, Sweden’s World Cup play-off against Italy took place in Solna. You came off the bench around the hour mark. Did your coach Janne Andersson give you any specific instructions? I can’t remember his exact words. He wanted me to replace Albin Ekdal in central midfield and to just play my game, work hard and perhaps be a little bit more defensive. I think my style of play was really well suited to facing Italy, because we had a lot of defending to do. They were a really strong team, but we competed well and gave them a real fight. Italy were favourites but I don’t think we performed like a typical underdog in that game. We had the match under control pretty well and wanted to put ourselves in a good position ahead of the second leg.

SOLNA, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 10:  Jakob Johansson of Sweden celebrates (obscure) scoring his sides first goal with his team mates during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-Off: First Leg between Sweden and Italy at Friends arena on November 10, 2017 in Solna, Sweden.  (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

A few minutes after you entered the pitch, your team had a throw-in on the right wing. Can you describe what happened next? It was just a normal throw-in. I took up a position outside their penalty area in order to pounce on any second balls. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but suddenly the ball came towards me. I knew I was fairly near the goal, so I just hit it and tried to keep the ball down, because a lot of the time you can blaze it over in situations like that. Initially I didn’t think my shot was particularly good, but I kept it down and it was going towards goal. Then I just watched where it went. Obviously there was a bit of luck involved because it took a deflection. When the ball went in, we were just over the moon. I’m not known for being a goalscorer, but that was obviously a very important goal in a very important match. It didn’t just mean a great deal to me and the team, but it was a wonderful moment for Sweden’s entire footballing family. You don’t forget something like that. It was your first international goal, and an important one at that. You were in the starting line-up in the second leg and the team stood a good chance of qualifying for the World Cup at Italy’s expense, which you ultimately ended up doing. But would it be fair to say that, for you personally, the world crumbled around you after just 19 minutes? Absolutely. There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about the situation. I just wanted to change direction and then suddenly felt a sort of click in my knee. I’d never felt anything like it. I’d never really been seriously injured before that and I knew straight away that it was bad. It really hurt a lot. There were just so many emotions on the line in the game that evening. It was a disaster for me personally. I knew very quickly that it would be extremely difficult to get back to full fitness in time for the World Cup. It’s unbelievably difficult to put into words. I didn’t know what to think.

It’s unbelievably impressive that he’s still so good. It shouldn’t actually be possible. Anything is possible when he’s on the pitch.

Jakob Johansson on Zlatan Ibrahimovic

It must have been a real mix of emotions for you in that situation. What did you do immediately after it happened? Were you able to somehow watch the rest of the match? No, I was taken straight to hospital. After the doctors took some x-rays, they told me they had both good and bad news. I found out that we’d successfully qualified and that I’d sustained a serious injury at the same time. Obviously I was really happy that we’d managed to qualify, but I was also miserable as well. It was your cruciate ligament, meaning a year on the sidelines. You fired your country to the World Cup but were unable to take part yourself. What went through your mind during that difficult time? It wasn’t an easy period but I received a lot of support. Not only from the national team but also from my club at the time, AEK Athens. I was allowed to do the majority of my rehabilitation at home in Sweden. I got over it relatively well, mentally. Of course it was tough sometimes, but there was nothing I could do to change the situation. I knew it was an injury that you have to be careful with and not rush things. You have to take rehab seriously and work conscientiously throughout it. My objective was to continue my career. That’s why I didn’t want to take any risks in terms of returning for the World Cup. Every little boy dreams of one day playing at a World Cup, but to me it wasn’t worth destroying my career over it. I knew I just wouldn’t be able to recover in time for the start of the tournament. After that serious injury you unfortunately continued to have problems with your knees. What impact does it have on you when you are continually unable to do your job? You eventually get used to it, but in a sad way. When I made my comeback from the cruciate ligament injury, I thought I’d be back to my best after a while. But then I got the next injury and I realised it would be very difficult. There is a definite before and after with your first injury. I came to the realisation pretty quickly that from then on, I would get injured more frequently than I had previously. That’s when it dawns on you that you’re no longer in your early 20s. It wasn’t always easy, but I learned to cope with it and I knew that I would have to retire one day anyway. So I simply enjoyed every training session and every match.

Four and a half years after your goal against Italy, both teams are in the play-offs once again – Sweden for the third time in a row. They face Czech Republic in the first game. What do you think will help your country qualify again? I don’t have any inside information on the Czechs, but I know we have a lot of experience in these types of games. We’ve got a lot of players who’ve been in this situation before. That’s a plus for us. As is the quality of the team, of course. We’ve got a good mix of talented youngsters and experienced older players. I think that’s very important, especially in these all-or-nothing games. That all gives me a good feeling. Which player in the Sweden team do you think stands out the most? The most obvious name is probably Alexander Isak. But that’s not really a secret because he’s developed tremendously in the national team and in Spain over the past few years. His performances have of course been noticed by the rest of Europe.

In 2017, Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrated your goal from the stands, but now he is back in the Sweden squad. How would you describe his importance to the team? Zlatan speaks for himself, he needs no introduction. He’s been a superstar for two decades and it’s unbelievably impressive that he’s still so good. It shouldn’t actually be possible. He’s been battling with injuries recently, but we all know Zlatan. Anything is possible when he’s on the pitch. That’s why he’s a superstar. Finally, if you had to make a prediction today about who will win Qatar 2022, who would you go for? That’s always a difficult question, especially with the tournament still so far away. A lot will depend on the form of individual players when it does get going. Right now I’d say France. As always, they’ve got a strong team that works very well in harmony. But if you ask me again in six months I could well give you a different answer.