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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Marcus Berg, the self-deprecating successor to Ibrahimovic who Sweden rely on for more than just goals

The prolific Al Ain striker is yet to find the mark at the World Cup 2018, but his all-round contribution to Sweden's cause is immeasurable 

Sweden's Marcus Berg collides with Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer during a 2-1 defeat to the world champions. Francois Lenoir / Reuters
Sweden's Marcus Berg collides with Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer during a 2-1 defeat to the world champions. Francois Lenoir / Reuters

There is an interview with Marcus Berg on Dubai Sports, broadcast towards the end of last season following another victory with Al Ain, where the Sweden striker converses in English but with a slight Arabic inflection.

It is perhaps understandable: Berg had joined the Garden City club from Greece’s Panathinaikos, spending the previous 10 months in the UAE scoring 36 goals in 36 appearances en route to success in the Arabian Gulf League and the President’s Cup. He concluded the campaign with the top flight’s Golden Boot.

The video of the interview made its way back to Sweden, becoming a hit on social media, and making its way into the national team’s dressing room, too. Berg, upon meeting up with the squad last month ahead of the World Cup, was reminded of the interview by Mikael Lustig, the Celtic full-back and Swedish team’s resident joker.

Lustig’s phone was passed around the players while Berg, the language chameleon who apparently had previous at Panathinaikos, accepted it and laughed it off.

It is instructive when considering Berg’s role within the Sweden set-up. He is selfless and self-deprecating; a reluctant star who carries the weight of his side’s goalscoring expectations in Russia this month.

Berg has not yet found the net in Sweden’s two Group F matches, although he was guilty of spurning straightforward opportunities in the opener against South Korea. In the second against Germany, he seemed certain to score but for Jerome Boateng’s push as he bore down on Manuel Neuer’s goal.

As it is, Sweden need Berg to find his shooting boots in Wednesday’s group decider against Mexico in Ekaterinburg. There are others, of course, and Berg falls behind RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg and Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof in profile and popularity. But the sense is that is exactly how he likes it. The 31 year old is comfortable away from the limelight, although he has thrived in it as well. In World Cup qualifying, Berg top-scored for Sweden with eight goals. He played an integral role in plotting the path to Russia.

A long time ago, Berg appeared destined for such a contribution. In 2009, he won the Golden Boot at the Under 21 European Championship, on home soil, as Sweden took bronze. Already representing Groningen in the Netherlands, his form made him one of that summer’s most sought-after young strikers in Europe. It prompted a €10 million (Dh43m) transfer to Hamburg, a sizeable fee at the time.

Understandably, expectations were high. However, Berg’s career stalled, a combination of the internal chaos at the Bundesliga side and a serious hip problem tugging at his potential.

An unexpected, and initially peculiar, move to Panathinaikos in 2013 revitalised Berg. The prolific scorer reemerged: he struck 73 times in 116 Greek Super League matches, clinching the top-scorer award in his final season. One year later, he had achieved the same with Al Ain.

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Read more on World Cup 2018:

World Cup 2018: Day 13 updates - Messi's Argentina face Nigeria test

Richard Jolly: Germany in unfamiliar World Cup territory, but their strength lies in being Germany

Nigeria to send Messi and Argentina home - says Achilles the cat

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The club revival has cemented his worth to his country. Internationally, Berg became the perfect foil for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his diligence and dedication, especially in making space or covering runs, ensuring Sweden’s leading light was provided the platform to preen.

Now Berg fills that void. He is Ibrahimovic’s successor, if not in public persona but in being tasked primarily with putting the ball in the net.

His partnership with Ola Toivonen, a fellow forward from the same place in Sweden and with whom Berg grew up playing football, is an obvious and easy fit. He is universally liked by teammates and backroom staff, for he gives everything for the cause, often sacrificing his own chance to score to push someone else’s. With Berg, the team comes first. His importance is recognised and, within the dressing room where Lustig leads the playful jibes, his value cherished. Goals are not his only currency. A couple against Mexico on Wednesday, though, would be welcome.