Zlatan Ibrahimovic: the great enigma of Swedish football

The mercurial striker divides opinion like no other: for some a world-beater, for others a flat-track bully. Rory Smith investigates

Click to follow

It was the sort of moment that said it all. About Fabio Capello's reign as England manager, about his relationship with English football, about this country's view of the game, about the act of observing the game itself. Mostly, though, it said it all about Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Italian, legs crossed, hands gesticulating, had swatted aside the questions over John Terry and now found himself asked for his assessment of Terry's opposite number as captain. "He is one of the top players in the world," said the England manager of the man who will lead Sweden at Wembley tonight.

Capello knows him well, of course, from their time together at Juventus, some five years ago. The Italian's hard-line approach really ought to have caused constant friction with his wilful, enigmatic charge, but for some reason the chemistry worked. Capello elicited the best from the striker: his pupil became one of Serie A's most prolific forwards.

"He improved a lot because he wanted to improve," recalled Capello. "I spoke with him, showed him a video of Van Basten. Zlatan was always around the goal, but he never went in front of goal. [After that video] he started to score goals. He is a fantastic player. Absolutely. He is so tall, so big, his movement is like a..."

Capello's language failed him for just long enough to allow the quip from the quickest-witted member of the assembled throng. "So he's a bit like Peter Crouch, then?"

In his homeland, though, Ibrahimovic is hero and icon, with his own section in Sweden's biggest-selling newspaper, author of an autobiography – published this week – which has sold out in days. No wonder. The book paints a picture of a man at war with the world, who grew up on one of Malmo's sink estates constantly fighting for the respect he feels he deserves.

Pep Guardiola is told, after the pair clash, that he "s**ts himself in front of Jose Mourinho" while Leo Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta are "schoolchildren" who "stood and bowed" in front of their manager.

The irony is that one of the few who come out of the score-settling book well is ... Fabio Capello.

And, while Ibrahimovic has scored 235 goals in a long career, at Ajax, at Inter, at Barcelona and at Milan, just two have come against Premier League sides – against Arsenal last year – plus one in an international friendly in Gothenburg in 2004. In between, he failed to score against English opposition in 10 games.