What would usually be an insignificant mid-season friendly game between Sweden and England will no doubt be written in to Swedish football folklore after what transpired on the pitch. In the inaugural match at the stunning new Swedbank Arena in Stockholm, Sweden, for what was the 100th international appearance of England skipper Steven Gerrard’s career, it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden’s captain and talisman, (and one time Arsenal target) who will rightly take all the headlines after his stunning four goal display gave Sweden a 4-2 win.
His fourth goal was a moment of pure inspiration, pure genius, and will be regarded as one of the iconic moments of modern day football. Quite how he managed to a) connect with the ball as cleanly as he did whilst running towards it b) judge the direction of the overhead kick given he’s on line with the vertical line of the penalty area, and c) perfectly judge the weight the kick is unfathomable. His critics will point to Joe Hart’s awful header as reason to diminish the brilliance of the goal, but what’s the point? Just enjoy such a moment of brilliance.
He had to endure humorous chants of "you're just a s**t Andy Carroll" from the England fans, but the only similarities are their physical stature and flowing locks; in terms of playing style they’re polar opposites. The song was tongue-in-cheek, but there’s no doubt that he’s held in much higher regard around Europe than he is in Britain. A few underwhelming encounters against English sides in European competition were enough to declare that he can’t perform in the big games – which was a valid criticism but it isn’t anymore – and thus he shouldn’t be heralded as a world-class player.
It is understandable to a certain degree: unless you regularly watch Serie A you could only really go on what he did in the Champions League against English clubs, which wasn’t a lot. Before last night Ibrahimovic had scored four times against English opposition in 1,536 minutes. He equalled that total in 71 minutes, and he became the first player to ever score four goals in a single game against England in the process. He’s a much improved player now from the one who Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool kept in check when he played against them for Juventus and then Internazionale some years back.
But people always find some reason to dismiss his achievements and his talent as a player. His ostentatious nature certainly does him no favours, yet this is a man who was instrumental in helping his team win the league title for eight consecutive years, a record that spanned five different clubs in three different countries. Still, Zlatan can do no right for some. The criticisms levelled at him range from him being a mercenary to not working hard enough; from bottling it in big games to not playing in a ‘top’ league and only playing for good teams. Some are or were true; others are ridiculous.
He is a player who has always had unbelievable talent, and maybe lacked the desire and attitude in his earlier years to transfer that ability in to consistent form. His languid playing style is often misinterpreted as laziness, but he has matured in to the complete forward; he is a creator as much as he is a scorer and his goalscoring record speaks for itself. 141 goals and 53 assists in 205 starts since the start of the 07/08 is a phenomenal return, and he is on course for his most prolific season yet with 12 goals in 14 appearances in Ligue 1. Like a fine wine, he gets better with his age.
The mercenary tag is often banded about, but none of his moves, bar leaving for PSG this summer - which Milan needed to happen - were predominantly motivated by money. Moves from Malmo to Ajax to Juventus were natural progressions in his career. Then his move from Juve to Inter came about due to Juve getting relegated to Serie B and needing to cut costs, and with Trezeguet and Del Piero much older, he was the more expendable of the three. Barcelona made a ridiculous offer that Inter couldn’t refuse, and then, when he fell out with Guardiola, Milan offered him a return to Italy.
Ibrahimovic is a world-class player, so is he not entitled to be paid accordingly and play for the elite clubs in European football? He has been accused of lacking loyalty, too, but plenty of brilliant players have moved between the big clubs in Italy; it happens all the time. In recent memory, Andrea Pirlo, Gabriel Batistuta, Rui Costa, Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Christian Vieri, Edgar Davids, Patrick Vieira, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi all played for at least two big Italian clubs, and in some cases moved directly from one to another, yet nobody thinks any of less of them, do they?
He does possess a dark side, and is capable of producing moments of sheer lunacy as much as something brilliant. He has a black belt in taekwondo, and sometimes performs some moves on the pitch; he’s currently serving a domestic ban for performing what is best described as a kung-fu kick on Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier. His career has been littered with mindless acts of stupidity that led to suspensions, and it’s not just saved for opposition players – he has no problem doing it to his teammates, as Rodney Strasser and Antonio Cassano have found out in the past.
His imbecility appears to largely be a thing of the past, and his temperament is no longer an issue – or at least not as much as it was. His ubiquitous influence on recent games and has put paid to the suggestion that he can’t do it in the big games; he’s produced the goods when it really matters countless times over recent years – and he is becoming a leader for club and country (have a look at a great Guardian piece on this here). He is a polarising figure. An enigma, but by God he’s entertaining.
At 31, now playing the best football of his career, he has the opportunity to play a key role in the revolution in Paris. They appear to have everything in place to utterly dominate Ligue 1 for at least the next decade, but the real challenge – and it is the one thing that has eluded Ibrahimovic – is success in the Champions League. Apart from one season at Barcelona he’s never really been part of a side that have had a strong chance of winning the competition, but the open chequebook at Carlo Ancelotti’s disposal is fast putting an end to that problem.
Maybe if he can lead PSG to European glory that will finally win over his detractors. Maybe they’ll never change their mind. Regardless of your opinion of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he is undoubtedly a technically gifted player who is capable of moments of brilliance that few, if any others, can replicate. He talks the talk, he walks the walk, and it is people like him that make football so captivating and compelling.