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Why Andreas Granqvist is more popular than Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Sweden and could join Man United

ESPN FC's Paul Mariner believes the ball is in Zlatan Ibrahimovic's court when it comes to the rumours linking him with a loan move to Milan.

Jose Mourinho once had Zlatan Ibrahimovic to help him out at Manchester United. Nowadays, his attention has reportedly switched to another Swedish veteran, Andreas Granqvist, who is rumoured to be a target ahead of the January transfer window.

"I am not closing any doors, and flattered to even be linked with such a big team," the 33-year-old defender told Expressen from Helsingborg where he plays in the second division.

Second division? Yes, you have read that right. Back in January, Granqvist agreed to return to his first club Helsingborg (an important and traditional club from the south of Sweden) in July and, despite his performances at the World Cup opening many doors for him this summer, he never even considered breaking his word.

His decision was heavily influenced by the example of Henrik Larsson. Granqvist was a young player in the squad when the Helsingborg-born legend came back to his beloved club in the summer of 2006, just after providing two sublime assists for Barcelona in the Champions League final win over Arsenal. So he wanted to do the same.

However, the major difference is that Helsingborg were a major force in the Allsvenskan in Larsson's final playing days. In 2016, they were relegated (ironically with Larsson as coach) and finished the 2017 season midtable in the second division, with a negative goal difference.

Yet while the club had reached rock bottom, Granqvist was flourishing.

For years, he was considered by many to be a boring and limited central defender. The biggest headline he made was when Johan Elmander accidentally poked him in the eye during the goal celebrations in the game against England at Euro 2012. The defender tried to play on, but his vision was blurred and he had to be substituted.

Other than that, his career wasn't special by any means. A difficult spell at Wigan was followed by three years at Groningen, two seasons at Genoa, and then five years at Krasnodar in Russia. Those performances, far away from the spotlight, were hardly noticed back home, until Ibrahimovic retired from the national team following the fiasco of Euro 2016 as Sweden failed to win a game and finished bottom of Group E. 

Sweden coach Janne Andersson wisely gave the captain's armband to Granqvist, the complete opposite of Zlatan in terms of personality, and the atmosphere in the dressing room changed completely as a result.

Granqvist proved to be a magnificent leader, as Sweden overcame low expectations in a tough group in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. They managed to beat France at home, finished ahead of Netherlands and Bulgaria to reach the playoffs, and then sensationally kept a clean sheet for 180 minutes in the couple of games against Italy.

That is when the centre-back finally gained the respect he deserved. Voted Swedish Player of the Year in 2017 -- a prize which had been dominated by Ibrahimovic for a decade -- he then signed with Helsingborg

The move stunned Swedish football, but Granqvist explained: "I could continue at a higher level elsewhere for another three years, but I want to play for Helsingborg when I still have a lot to give to the club."

It is hard not to respect such humility. The Helsingborg fans were already excited about his arrival, but even they couldn't have imagined the incredible events in the summer as the defender became idol and cult hero during the World Cup.

One of the best centre-backs in the tournament, he was absolutely brilliant as Sweden unexpectedly reached the quarterfinals, eventually eliminated by England. He was rock solid in a defence that kept three clean sheets against South Korea, Mexico and Switzerland and played exceptionally well in the unlucky injury-time defeat by Germany. No player blocked more shots during the tournament than Granqvist (13) and he converted two immaculate penalties as well, becoming Sweden's top scorer at the World Cup since Larsson.

Back home, people fell in love with him.

"Emil Forsberg and Victor Lindelof are better known globally, but in Sweden it was all about Granqvist. The adoration broke all records," Helsingborgs Dagblad reporter Tomas Nilsson tells ESPN FC.

Granqvist's nickname is "Granen," which means "fir" in Swedish, and supporters brought countless plastic trees to fan zones where Sweden games were shown on huge screens. When Granqvist's daughter was born on the eve of the quarterfinals, it became a huge national celebration.

And yet, despite the adoration of a nation and plenty of other more high-profile job offers, Granqvist still chose to play in the second division.

"It was a well-thought decision, and Andreas will become the sporting director at Helsingborg after he retires," Kvallsposten journalist Mattias Larsson tells ESPN FC.

Nilsson adds: "In fact, he is acting as sort of a sporting director already, helping the club with transfers."

Granqvist made his debut for Helsingborg in late July, less than a month after returning from the World Cup, and the team top the league on the way to certain promotion -- winning eight games and drawing three times in the 11 fixtures since.

"Granqvist is the most popular footballer in Sweden at the moment by a distance," Larsson said. "Zlatan is now considered more of a businessman than a footballer and irritated fans with some commercial moves. Andreas is the boy-from-next-door type, the perfect face for Andersson's hard working national team. I followed him when he started his career at Helsingborg in 2004, and I met him now. He hadn't changed at all. He is the same polite guy."

Now Manchester United appear to be interested. Henrik Larsson famously went to Old Trafford on loan from Helsingborg in 2007. Would his former protege follow his footsteps in 2018? It is still rather unlikely, but one thing is certain -- Granqvist is the ultimate leader of the national team, even from the second division.

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