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‘There’s a disconnect’ – Why Sweden and Newcastle feel differently about Alexander Isak

From the front, Mikael Persson was largely indistinguishable from the rest of the Sweden fans.

Standing amid a sea of yellow shirts outside O’Learys bar, where ABBA’s Mamma Mia is playing, it was only when Persson turns around to reveal “Isak” and the No 9 printed on the back of his one that he stood out.

The overwhelming majority of replica jerseys at the bar, outside the Friends Arena stadium in Swedish capital Stockholm, had “Ibrahimovic” on them.

Perhaps that was unsurprising, given Sweden were about to face Serbia in a match dedicated to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the country’s record goalscorer, a year on from his retirement. Yet there were also multiple tops bearing the names “Kulusevski”, “Lindelof” and “Gyokeres”.

Despite specifically looking for shirts with “Isak” on the back, Persson’s was the only adult-size one The Athletic could find.

Newcastle United striker Isak is fresh from scoring 21 top-flight goals — a new Premier League record for a Swede, bettering Ibrahimovic’s 17, set with Manchester United in 2016-17.

His form has led to links to Europe’s biggest clubs, though Newcastle will not entertain selling the 24-year-old, valuing him at over £100million ($127.3m) and seeking to tie him to a new contract. It could be argued that, aside from Erling Haaland, Isak is the best player not to be featuring at this summer’s European Championship.

“It is clear that Alex has the potential to be world-class,” says Henrik Larsson, the legendary Swedish striker of the 1990s and 2000s. “But it is always harder for the national team, just look at the players around him. There is so much more to come for Sweden, and that’s exciting.”

From 46 caps, 34 of them as a starter, Isak has 11 international goals. Perhaps reflective of the general mood surrounding the national team, following their failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and now this year’s Euros, there is not universal adoration of Isak’s talents throughout Sweden in the same way there is among Newcastle’s fanbase.

“There’s a disconnect between Sweden and Newcastle,” Therese Stromberg, of Swedish national newspaper Sport Expressen, says. “It’s like the Swedish crowd have been waiting for years now for him to explode for the national team as he has done domestically.”


Most Sweden fans have failed to appreciate Isak so far (Chris Waugh/The Athletic)

“Us Swedes should be prouder that we have a player scoring so many Premier League goals,” says Bojan Djordjic, the former Sweden Under-21s and Manchester United winger, now a prominent pundit in his homeland. “We’re talking about one of the world’s top strikers.

“The easiest thing is to point at your best player and say, ‘He’s not scoring for the national team like he does for Newcastle, he’s the problem’. But that’s bulls**t. Why don’t people look at the reasons why?”

Defender Emil Krafth, his club and country team-mate, says of Isak, “You haven’t seen it all yet, especially not for Sweden. He had a fantastic season for Newcastle and hopefully he can continue that for club and country.”

Back outside O’Learys, Persson explains why he is wearing an Isak jersey.

“He is special, unique,” says Persson, a fan of AIK, the Stockholm club where the striker broke through. “Eventually, all of Sweden will see that. His time will come.”

Persson’s friend, Hugo Akesson, who is among those in an Ibrahimovic shirt, interjects: “I hope you are right. For the national team, I have not seen it yet.”

Linda, his wife, adds: “We all want Isak to succeed, of course we do. But we’re still waiting for him to really explode for Sweden.”

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Alexander Isak: Newcastle’s stubborn game-changer


“In the present environment, it is not easy for Isak,” journalist Stromberg says. “He is trying to carry the burden of coming after Zlatan — and in a team that has not been good.”

Sweden finished third in their qualification group for Euro 2024 last November, behind Belgium and Austria, 14 months on from being relegated to the Nations League’s third division after coming bottom of a second-tier pool also containing Serbia, Norway and Slovenia.

Home crowds have dropped off massively. The three previous attendances at the Friends Arena before this Serbia match were 17,892 (Albania), 11,201 (Estonia) and 10,097 (Moldova), all in friendlies. Against Serbia, a near-capacity 46,956 turned out to celebrate Ibrahimovic, but Sweden were humbled 3-0 by their Euros-bound guests. Isak, a half-time substitute who was voted man of the match, offered a rare ray of hope.

“I’m in good form and I’ve been playing well back home in Newcastle,” Isak told The Athletic. “Obviously you want results as well, but next time. I feel good and I am enjoying my football at Newcastle. I always give my all for the national team and I believe goals and results will come, for me and for Sweden.”

Swedish expectations of Isak have always been high. An AIK debutant and goalscorer at 16 years and 160 days, he made his senior Sweden bow aged 17 years and 109 days on January 8, 2017, and became his nation’s youngest goalscorer just four days later.

Isak’s record for Sweden

Competition Appearances (sub) Goals Assists Wins Draws Losses

Euro 2020

4 (0)

0

2

2

1

1

European qualifiers

8 (7)

4

1

8

3

4

World Cup qualifiers

10 (0)

4

2

5

1

4

UEFA Nations League

5 (2)

0

0

2

0

5

Friendlies

7 (3)

3

0

5

0

5

Total

34 (12)

11

5

22

4

20

The “new Zlatan” moniker bestowed upon him — an easy link to make, given their shared nationality, similar height and playing position — has long become tedious.

“It was more annoying when I was younger,” Isak told Alan Shearer, during an interview for The Athletic in January. “I’ve never cared too much about it, being ‘the next this or that’.”

But the constant comparisons do grate.

“Alex has always been level-headed and he doesn’t let it affect him,” says Roland Nilsson, Isak’s former Sweden Under-21s coach. “Unfortunately, he will always be compared to Zlatan because he plays up front for Sweden.”

“I have interviewed Alexander a lot of times and he is not fond of getting questions about Zlatan because he doesn’t want to compare himself,” says Johan Kucukaslan, a reporter for domestic broadcaster SVT Sport. “They’re two different players, two different personalities.”

“He is not Zlatan, is not trying to be Zlatan and shouldn’t be compared to Zlatan,” Larsson says.

“This tribute to Zlatan is emotional, and it is also a reminder of what we previously had,” Daniel Nannskog, a former Sweden player turned pundit, says. “So much is placed on Isak’s shoulders and the national team hasn’t quite delivered yet. Neither has Isak, not to the levels he can actually reach.”


Isak developed in the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

If many of the older Sweden fans who witnessed Ibrahimovic’s pomp are yet to be convinced by Isak, the country’s younger generations, especially those in his home city, have adopted the Newcastle centre-forward as their icon.

“Isak is the darling of Stockholm, especially among the kids,” Stromberg says. “They all know he’s a star, they’re just desperate for him to shine on the international stage as well.”

Around the Friends Arena on the night of our visit, when it came to junior shirts, the most popular player, almost on par with Ibrahimovic, was Isak. In the shopping mall opposite, a group of 10 children were kicking a yellow-and-blue inflatable ball around. Seven wore jerseys with the Newcastle striker’s name on them. “Isak!,” one yelled, as he unleashed a shot.

As a child, Isak was raised on the Bagartorp estate and would walk through the city’s northern district of Solna, past the towering Friends Arena, to get to secondary school. AIK, whose home ground is shared with the national team, are the club who developed Isak.

“We know the real Isak, we saw it from a young age,” says Abi Karlsson, inside the AIK club shop. “He is the best talent Sweden has had since Zlatan. In Solna, everyone pretends they are Isak on the school playground. He’s an inspiration for kids here.

“I don’t watch much Premier League, but he is doing there what we expected him to do. Maybe he hasn’t been 100 per cent himself for Sweden, and we hope for more, but he cannot do it alone. He needs other players around him.”

While the loudest cheers during the match against Serbia were reserved for Ibrahimovic, Isak’s half-time introduction drew the most animation for any current player by a distance.

The Newcastle striker immediately injected pace, movement and threat into Sweden’s play. There was eager anticipation whenever he got the ball, an excitement at what he might produce.

After one delicious curled shot from the left-hand edge of the box (shown below), for a two-minute spell the ultras chanted his version of the global terrace staple: “Isak’s on fire, your defence is terrified.”

Torbjorn Ek, who calls himself a Swedish Geordie, was “nervous” when Isak joined Newcastle, desperate for his countryman to perform. “He has shown how good he is,” Ek says. “Now the rest of Sweden just needs to realise it.”

His son, Jesper, also loves Isak. “I keep telling everyone he is special and that the Sweden team is not up to his level,” Ek Jnr says. “He’s among the best players I’ve seen play for Newcastle and, considering the strikers we’ve had, that tells you how good he is.”

The level of exposure some fans here have to his weekly performances for Newcastle perhaps shapes their view of Isak when he plays for Sweden.

“There definitely is an age element to how fans respond to Isak,” Djordjic says. “But I also think it’s who does and doesn’t watch the Premier League regularly. Those who do surely recognise that Isak can achieve great things for Sweden, if the environment is right.”


There is tentative optimism that the environment is changing.

Janne Andersson, the Sweden manager who gave Isak his debut, departed in 2023 after seven years in charge. He was replaced by Jon Dahl Tomasson, a former Newcastle forward, who has promised a team who “want to entertain, get our best players into the game and be positive in possession”.

“The team has been set up in a negative way for a while as, historically, Sweden has been a strong defensive team,” Nannskog says. “But this group is better suited to attacking than defending. Tomasson is trying to change that style, but it’s going to take time.”

“Alex is the star, the player with the best quality, so Sweden should look to build around him,” Larsson says. “But it also has to be a collective. He cannot just do it himself. Sweden expects him to deliver but it has to be about the whole team, everyone contributing more. Then Alex can thrive.”

Theoretically, this new approach should suit Isak, particularly given how highly Tomasson rates him.

“Alex is one of the best strikers in the world, a machine who scores goals,” Tomasson says. “The timing of his runs, he’s top on the ball, his quality to score goals is at such a high level. You see it for Newcastle, I smile every time I watch him. There’s probably a big chance for him to score more goals for Sweden now.”

That was evident during the 2-1 defeat to Denmark, another side who made it to Euro 2024, in a Copenhagen friendly on June 5.

Jens Cajuste had the ball on the edge of the D, with Isak asking to be slipped in.

Cajuste attempted to shoot and his effort was deflected, but Isak had already started his run. The ball ricocheted to him in the area.

Without hesitation, he flicked a touch into his stride and whipped a left-footed shot into the far corner of the net.

Yet, under Tomasson, that Denmark game marked Isak’s solitary start as a No 9 so far. Against Portugal and Albania in March, he played as a No 10 and a left-winger respectively, while Gustaf Nilsson started centrally against Serbia before that half-time introduction.

Tomasson is still searching for a system that gets the most from Sweden’s impressive array of attackers. Once Viktor Gyokeres, who scored 43 goals in 50 appearances for Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon last season, returns to fitness following knee surgery last month, Isak may again find himself shifted out wide.

“This is the big dilemma for Tomasson,” Kucukaslan says. “We’ve seen Isak thrive as No 9 for Newcastle but he may not play there regularly for Sweden because of his versatility. He will move positions, as he is a team player, but you can see it on his face that he wants to be a striker.”

At Newcastle too, coach Eddie Howe has occasionally shifted Isak wider or deeper to play alongside Callum Wilson. But his consistent scoring bursts have come when playing regularly as a striker.

“I enjoy No 9, that’s my main position,” Isak says. “I like freedom and it means I can drift out left, where I feel comfortable as well and can create chances. But I don’t think too much about the position.”

Being deployed elsewhere will affect Isak’s scoring return, however, and, regardless of how well he plays, the disparity with his Newcastle numbers will remain.

“The football Tomasson plays suits Isak,” Stromberg says. “But he won’t always play as a lone striker and that might be the problem. Swedish fans have been forgiving with Isak, because Sweden haven’t been playing a style that suits him. But their patience will not last forever.”


A 3-0 loss to Azerbaijan in Euros qualifying last year illustrated Sweden’s problems (Fredrik Sandberg/TT News Agency/AF/Getty Images)

At St James’ Park, the view is that Isak is irreplaceable. He may have represented a calculated gamble as a £60million club-record signing from Spanish side Real Sociedad in August 2022, but Isak’s worth has only soared in a market where demand outstrips supply for top-level strikers.

Those who have followed Isak closely are adamant that, in time, if he gets adequate support, everyone in Sweden will come to appreciate his true value.

“Some players are good around the pitch but then crumble in the box,” Djordjic says. “Since he was young, Isak has always had that unique ability where he is actually cooler once he is in the area. His finishing for Newcastle is phenomenal in pressure situations.

“If Isak scores 21 goals in the Premier League, do you not think he will score against Moldova or Azerbaijan? Of course he f***ing will — if he gets the chances, if you service him properly. He can’t just take the ball, dribble pass everyone and score in every game. It’s not Football Manager.”

Even so, a record of less than one goal in every four Sweden appearances, or fewer than one per three starts, is not reflective of Isak’s prowess, but as his team-mates attest, Isak cannot improve upon that alone. “If we are going to succeed as a national team, we need Alex to be scoring goals,” Krafth says. “I am confident he will because he is top-class, you see that every match for Newcastle. We need to step up around him for Sweden.”

Isak’s only international major tournament came at the Euros three years ago, when lead BBC football presenter and former World Cup Golden Boot-winning striker Gary Lineker described him as an “exceptional talent”. Across four appearances in that tournament (Sweden lost 2-1 to Ukraine in the round of 16), Isak provided two assists but did not score. He has unfinished business at that level.

“Alex has the talent to take us to the World Cup in 2026,” Larsson says. “Nobody hopes for that more than me and, if he does, he will get the recognition he deserves.”

That is Isak’s immediate Sweden objective.

“For sure,” Isak says, when asked if he can fire Sweden to the next World Cup. “That’s the plan and I believe that we can and we will do that.”

If Isak’s goals help his country return to prominence on the global stage, then supporters of all ages will soon be wearing Sweden shirts with his name on them.

Isak may not be the next Zlatan. He is an exceptional Swedish striker in his own right.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Alexander Isak wept, for there were no more Everton defenders to conquer

(Top photo: Erik Simander/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

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