CNN’s Pedro Pinto, one of the best commentators in world football, spoke to Zlatan Ibrahimovi? in 2013 just before Paris Saint-Germain played Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League; a tie that the Parisians ultimately lost.
Zlatan said, when asked if he was hard to work with, that when you got to know him, you would realise that life is plain sailing. “I am not difficult to work with … if I work for you, you need to convince me.”
He was respectful of his former teammate David Beckham, calling him “very elegant”, while of the two best players in European football, Messi’s talent “is natural”, Ronaldo is a “trained product”.
Zlatan seems a complete combination, and I am utterly convinced of his legacy as a true legend having watched a Canal+ documentary from 2013, which showed just how brilliant a star the French Ligue 1 has in Zlatan.
In this two-hour feast, there are songs in his name interspersed with Zlatan facts that make him sound like The Stig or Chuck Norris: ‘Zlatan is never off the game’s pace; it’s the others who are off Zlatan’s’; ‘Zlatan doesn’t turn with the ball; the stadium turns 180 degrees’; and, my favourite of all, ‘Zlatan left Spain, then Italy; when he did so, it was a disaster for those countries.’
There emerges, amongst the hagiography, a portrait of someone who is paid a lot of money to do something he is very good at: stick a ball in the net with any part of his body but his hand. He commands high transfer fees – some of the highest accumulated in history – and helps teams win titles. When he won the 2013 Ligue 1 championship for Paris Saint-Germain, it was a case of another medal for a room-sized cabinet.
Starting in Rosengård, where he now has a place of residence named after him, Zlatan moved from Malmö to Ajax at 19. After a troubled teenage upbringing, where his mother struggled to provide for the family, he quickly became the most promising talent in Swedish football since Henrik Larsson. That was despite being the son of Bosnian immigrants and facing a number of cultural and racial hurdles in his early years.
He began his Ajax career with Zlatan on his back, and now despite not having it on his shirt, people in Amsterdam still know him by that name. From an early age he was confident in his ability without being arrogant, perhaps the mark of a solid upbringing.
Every touch looks remarkable, especially for a man with such a high centre of gravity. Having impressed Ronald Koeman and Leo Beerhakker, Fabio Capello told him to study Marco van Basten and stop trying to score the perfect goal. Few, however, will forget his world-class effort against NAC Breda in 2004 when he danced around six defenders before selling the goalkeeper a dummy and slotting in the far corner.
Moving from Juventus’s number 9 to Inter Milan’s number 8 after scoring 26 goals in 92 games for the Bianconeri, his goalscoring touch didn’t deserted him. There’s a claim to be made that he is the last true number 9, one who scores from three yards with his head and, famously and often, 30 yards with his boots. He scored 15 goals in seven games in one super spell and helped Inter win the 2006 Scudetto, their first in 15 years. In 2007 he was Italy’s Player of the Year, and in 2009 won the Capocannoniere (25), sealing the glory with a delightful back heel.
Of course, few back heels of Zalatan’s will ever match his stunning effort against Italy at Euro 2004. It announced him onto the world stage and set in motion a decade of divisive attitudes towards the black belt taekwondo expert.
Fellow pros like Nigel de Jong, Seydou Keita and Marco Materrazzi praised his goals and his ability to do the impossible. Like Messi, he always seems to be enjoying himself, always tricking with his feet; like Ronaldo, he makes his teams better and is strong enough to shrug fellow professionals off.
He may well be the most composed striker in front of goal of his time, even rivalling Messi and the man he replaced at international level, Larsson. He can bend it better than Beckham and strike it as forcefully as Roberto Carlos. His mentality is as fierce and stubborn as Kenny Dalglish and his hunger akin to an ageing Paolo Maldini, who never gave us his quest for success.
He fell out with José Mourinho at Inter – in a case of who had the bigger appendage, and pride you may feel – and went to Barcelona. He had already won titles with Juventus (asterisked), Ajax and Inter Milan, so could his power bring glory to Barça and could he become the best player in La Liga? For the doubter, this is where Zlatan had to step up and cement his legacy.
He was their record signing, swapping shirts with Samuel Eto’o and becoming the number 9 to the Argentine’s 10, each scoring as many as the other until Messi took over with 15. Ibra finally scored 22 in 46 games for the Catalans but one of those was vital: in El Clasico at Camp Nou, his first, he scored within three minutes of coming on the pitch. Who writes his scripts?
Barça won La Liga in Guardiola’s first season in charge, but things changed in the 2010.
I would imagine Canal+ and the video editors had fun putting the show together, more because it increased the likelihood of Zlatan leaving the Blaugrana and coming to the country they operate in.
Against Arsenal in a Champions League quarter-final, he put two past a helpless Manuel Almunia. But Inter Milan neutralised Zlatan in the semi-final, Mourinho frustrating Barcelona as he would when he first moved to Real Madrid.
One respected journalist said that Zlatan was always the “prima donna” at every other club and in Catalunya, “he realised there were two or three who were better players than him.” Indeed, Barcelona played without a recognised centre-forward, so was it Guardiola’s fault that Zlatan would inevitably be frozen out? Sometimes no matter how good the player, the team comes first, as Guardiola said himself. His last goal was in the Spanish Super Cup 2010. Fans interviewed after Ibra left said he was not a good team player and was pretentious. A year can be a long time in football.
Next, Zlatan became Silvio Berlusconi’s new pet as he returned to the San Siro to play for the red half of Milan. Introducing himself in Italian to the fans that previously booed him, Zlatan wore 11 and scored from the start. Having already played with some of the world’s best, he was now alongside Robinho, Nesta, Pirlo and Seedorf. And Ronaldinho.
Winning and scoring a penalty against Inter Milan, he continued to dazzle and bamboozle, leading his team to the Scudetto in 2011, the final titbit of success before the Rossoneri nosedived into their current troubles. He grabbed 14 goals, and in the next season AC Milan and Barcelona were drawn together in the same Champions League group; the match at the San Siro matched Ibrahimovic with his old friends and foes.
Messi’s goal won the game 3-2 but Ibra scored a blinder. They met again later in the tournament; Ibra gave Nocherino an assist but Messi scored two penalties to win them the game. As consolation, in 2011-12 he was Serie A’s top scorer – of course – including a double at the San Siro against Inter.
Had he achieved the feat in La Liga or the Premier League – where he has sadly been absent – he would be given more coverage and more respect. Euro 2012 was a great platform; he scored a stunning volley against France. A few weeks later, he scored on his PSG debut at home, after being unveiled at the Eiffel Tower.
France poked fun at Zlatan initially, creating a TV puppet of him singing My Way and saying “Kids don’t believe in Father Christmas; they believe in Zlatan.” For some reason he was now wearing 18 on the back of his shirt.
In the away fixture at Marseille, he scored another of those Zlatan goals with his heel (though the goalie does let it slip through his hands), then two minutes later he scores a free-kick from 38 yards out. In a home game against Dinamo Zagreb, he conjured up four assists, and a few weeks later scored that astonishing hat-trick for Sweden against England, with a stunning free-kick and a stupendous moment of skill over his head for his third and fourth.
In the television show that fourth is repeated ten times for effect, with the Swedish coach saying it was like a video game.
Last season he scored yet more sublime goals, including an impossibly audacious back heel against Bastia. If you haven’t seen it on YouTube yet, check it out. His talent shows no sign of waning. Zizou himself said he’s too good for the league, “un joueur formidable” making it seem as though France have a Superman who, of course, is paid the most handsomely of all. Christophe Dugarry calls him a “horseman”, un chevalier.
Yet beneath it all lurks the omnipresent Rosengård spirit who leads with his boot or his arm, who gets sent off for stamping. Yet above this spirit is an unquenchable will to win, to dribble with style and to play the game he loves at the top level. He has won titles with five clubs in four countries.
And through all his fame, fortune and division, there is no mention at all of his private life. There’d be no time for it anyway, because this is a story about the most complete footballer of the modern era. It’s a story of proven success, hardened silverware and goal after goal, some so audacious that the players we consider greats could only dream of scoring them.
Zlatan Ibrahimovi? is to football what Novak Djokovi? is to tennis: sometimes number one, but always beneath the public estimation of the top two in the world. With Neymar becoming Spanish football’s new shining light, can Zlatan do anything to convert the world to Paris Saint-Germain, whom he leads with such brilliance? Probably, although he may not be around to raise the toast when they finally rule the world.
About the author – Omar Saleen
Based in London, Omar is the editor-in-chief at These Football Times. A professional coach by day having worked at clubs including Fulham, QPR and Red Bull New York, he also writes freelance for a number of outlets.
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