Cristiano Ronaldo v Zlatan Ibrahimovic: The battle to avoid World Cup 2014 heartache
Sweden take on Portugal in the play-offs - which means one of the planet's superstars will miss out
Between 1962 and 1989 Rangers and Celtic were never drawn to face one another in the Scottish Cup semi-finals, despite reaching that stage together 11 times. The odds against this were 86-1. Fifa must have wished for some of the incredible fortune of its Scottish Football Association counterparts when the draw was made for the European zone World Cup play-offs, and it paired Portugal and Sweden. Or, to put it another way in this personality-driven age, it threw up Cristiano Ronaldo v Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It is a blow for the 2014 tournament and the viewers, worrying for TV advertising sales staff, and little short of catastrophic for Nike's marketing division who, with Poland and Denmark failing to qualify, have already lost Robert Lewandowski and Christian Eriksen from the jamboree in Brazil next year.
Part one of the Ronnie-Zlatan showdown is on Friday in Lisbon, with the second leg in Stockholm on Tuesday. Much as both camps will argue it is about the teams not the individuals, the reality is otherwise. Both are captains who are pivotal to their team's prospects: Ronaldo has scored five of Portugal's last seven goals in matches he has played in; Ibrahimovic seven of Sweden's last 10 when he has featured.
The news that Ronaldo has missed training this week with a foot injury has thus caused consternation from Faro to Porto, and delight for their opponents' supporters. If the two cannot be at the World Cup, however, it is to be hoped they do face off because they have shared a pitch surprisingly rarely.
Lionel Messi and Ronaldo play each other, it sometimes seems, every week, but during Ibrahimovic's globe-trotting he has rarely crossed paths with Ronaldo, even during his angry year in Messi's shadow at Barcelona. There have been only six competitive meetings, five at club level, one in the international arena. Ronaldo holds a slight edge with two wins to one, and two goals to one. The only international, a World Cup qualifier in 2008, was a goalless draw, but Ronaldo emerged the victor as Portugal subsequently went to the 2010 World Cup while Sweden missed out.
The two superstars are not thought to be close. At the start of his recent book, I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Paris St-Germain striker explains the Real Madrid man will be "usually referred to as Cristiano to distinguish him from the player who, for me, will always be the one true Ronaldo." They do, though, have much in common, not least in both being outsiders from difficult backgrounds – each had a father with a drink problem (Ronaldo's died at 52 from alcohol-related liver illness), and a sibling with a drug issues.
Ronaldo grew up in poverty in Madeira and was taunted about his accent when, at 14, he went to the mainland to join Sporting. Ibrahimovic is the son of Yugoslav immigrants who spent his childhood in Malmo's tough Rosengrad estate feeling very much apart from mainstream Swedish society. While Ronaldo had some misdemeanours at school, Ibrahimovic was a genuine tearaway well into adulthood. Now, though, the Swede appears to have the more stable family life. He has long been settled, with wife Helena and two children. Ronaldo has a long-term girlfriend, but also a son, whose mother is unknown.
What they also have in common is an extraordinary level of individual skill, honed through years of practice, with a love of tricks. Inevitably this was accompanied, in their early years as professionals, by a tendency to be self-indulgent to such a degree it infuriated both coaches and team-mates. Ronaldo matured more quickly as a team player, probably due to the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. It was not until Fabio Capello – and agent Mino Raiola – took Ibrahimovic in hand at Juventus he acquired the same team ethic.
What is curious is that neither have had the impact outside the domestic arena that might be expected. Ibrahimovic won 10 successive league titles with six different clubs, but has never played in the Champions League final (he admits in I am Zlatan to being "fixated" by the competition). Ronaldo won that crown with Manchester United in 2008, despite missing in the penalty shootout, but not since.
Less surprising is their failure at international level, for both countries lack the depth to support their superstar, especially Sweden, even when Henrik Larsson was playing. Ibrahimovic was a barely used reserve at the 2002 World Cup, one of the players who missed a penalty in the quarter-final shootout defeat to the Dutch at Euro 2004, struggled with poor form and a groin problem at 2006 World Cup, and was hampered by a knee injury at Euro 2008. In 2010 the Swedes did not even qualify for the World Cup and last year, despite Ibrahimovic playing well, went out at the group stage of Euro 2012.
Portugal have been more successful, having had their own "golden generation" beginning with Luis Figo and Rui Costa, through to Ronaldo, but reached only one final, when as Euro 2004 hosts they were stunned by shock winners Greece. They have twice made major semi-finals since, but there is an increasing sense Ronaldo is carrying the team, despite the presence of players such as Joao Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, Nani, Fabio Coentrao and Pepe.
Ibrahimovic is even more the main man for a Sweden side with far fewer players at major clubs (the five in the Premier League are at West Bromwich, Norwich, Sunderland and Fulham).
Sweden traditionally function as a unit but they will be looking to their 6ft 5in talisman to take them to Brazil. He will be desperate to succeed and not just because, at 32, this will surely be his last World Cup. As a boy Ibrahimovic idolised Brazilian players, notably Ronaldo, and has often socialised with South American footballers, finding them more in tune with himself than northern Europeans. A World Cup in Brazil would be something to savour.
But Ronaldo, too, has that extra incentive. The links between Portugal and Brazil run deep; to miss a World Cup there would be anguish for the Portuguese. However, one of them will be watching next summer's extravaganza on TV – if they can bring themselves to do so.
Head to head: Cristiano v Zlatan
Cristiano Ronaldo (Port)
Age 28 Caps 107 Goals 43
Clubs Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United, Real Madrid
Tournament record Euro 2004 F; World Cup 2006 SF; Euro 2008 QF; WC 2010 Last 16; Euro 2012 SF
Combined transfer fees £92m
European titles One
League titles Four
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Swe)
Age 32 Caps 94 Goals 46
Clubs Malmo, Ajax, Juventus,Internazionale, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain
Tournament record WC 2002 L16; Euro 2004 QF; WC 2006 L16; Euro 2008 GS; WC 2010 DNQ; Euro 2012 GS
Combined transfer fees £150m
European titles One
League titles 10 (two revoked)
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