Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Swedish enigma

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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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 another of football's great dichotomies. "He is one of the top players in the world," said the England manager of the man who will captain 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, corroding friction with his wilful, enigmatic charge, but for some reason the chemistry worked. Capello elicited the best from the striker. He knew how to finesse the raw talent which had convinced him to bring Ibrahimovic to Turin, and he was rewarded by watching his pupil develop into 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 Marco 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?"

That is Capello and England, forever unable to comprehend each other, forever struggling to find common ground. The continental and the islanders. Such is the nature of football, of course: it is a subjective experience, vacillating depending on personal taste and chance encounters. But that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, too. One man's Marco van Basten, another man's Peter Crouch.

In his homeland, he is hero and icon, afforded 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, serialised in the newspaper Aftonbladet, paints a picture of a man at war with the world, an enfant terrible who grew up on one of Malmo's most deprived sink estates constantly fighting to be afforded the respect he feels he is deserved.

Pep Guardiola is told, after the pair clash at Villarreal, that he "shits himself in front of Jose Mourinho;" Leo Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta are "schoolchildren" who "stood and bowed" in front of their manager. Co Adriaanse, his coach at Ajax, had "a face of stone," Mido was a "pussy", Roberto Mancini "a bit of a snob" and Fredrik Ljungberg a "Prima donna".

He details fights with team-mates – from Oguchi Onyewu, the American international, to Jonathan Zebina and Rafael van der Vaart – as well as opponents. Juventus's Giorgio Chiellini cowers "like a disobedient dog," according to Ibrahimovic's version of events.

Few of those tasked with dealing with him over the years come out of the book – rather tellingly titled, for its Italian edition "I, Zlatan" – at all well. Capello does; the Italian's respect is reciprocated. So, too, Mourinho. Much of the rest is score-settling and point-proving.

That, though, will not discourage the thousands who have followed his every move since he first exploded into the national consciousness with Malmo as an 18-year-old in 1999. It is a captivating story, too: a self-confessed thief and arsonist, born to Bosnian and Croatian parents, who almost quit football entirely to work in his hometown's shipyards, now ranked alongside Bjorn Borg as one of Sweden's most famous sons, its greatest heroes.

To Sebastian Larsson, he is a "world superstar". "Of course, he is going to be key for us," the Sunderland midfielder said yesterday. "He is a top performer. You only have to look at what he has done for us in the past. If we ever want to achieve our dreams or goals, we need him performing."

In Italy, too, Ibrahimovic is seen as a standard-bearer for a league which has seen its lustre tarnished by scandal and its fame faded by failure. He is Milan's highest-paid player by a considerable distance, earning £180,000-a-week after tax; only Wesley Sneijder, at the 30-year-old's former club, just across northern Italy's great metropolis, is paid more in Serie A. "For us, he is worth as much as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi," said his manager at San Siro, Massimiliano Allegri, this week. It is only right that Milan, owned by Silvio Berlusconi, should pay him as such.

 

The esteem in which Ibrahimovic is held on the continent, though, is best illustrated by the fact that Barcelona were prepared not only to offer Samuel Eto'o in part exchange to tempt Internazionale to part with their prized asset in 2009, but that they were also happy to pay around £35m on top, and then grant Ibrahimovic £10 million-a-year to play alongside Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and the rest. It is hard to imagine Guardiola sanctioning such a deal for Crouch.

Yet to English observers, the former Tottenham and Liverpool striker might have been a more worthwhile choice. It is no wonder, on these shores, that Capello should find himself in the minority; Terry, the Italian's captain, yesterday uttered all the usual platitudes – "one of the best about at the moment, quick, great feet for such a big man, great in the air, comes off well" – but it is hard to accept that the Chelsea defender actually believes it.

After all, Ibrahimovic has scored 235 goals in a long, distinguished, prolific career, at Ajax, at Inter, at Barcelona and at Milan, but just two of those goals have come against Premier League sides – both for Guardiola's team against Arsenal last year – and one more arrived in an international friendly in Gothenburg in 2004. In between, he failed to score against English opposition for 10 consecutive games.

That could be, as is widely accepted here, because Ibrahimovic does not possess the gumption, the strength of character, to perform to his best in the harsh, unrelenting glare of the Champions League's spotlights; in Italy, too, there is a lingering suspicion that for all his goals, he remains at heart a flat-track bully.

It may be that his physicality, his greatest asset in Serie A, is negated against more powerful Premier League opponents; it may be, as Swedish observers suspect, that most of his experience playing against English defences has been as a lone front-man in inherently cautious sides, a role in which he is not likely to excel but one, sadly, he is likely to have to fulfil this evening.

His curious impotence when faced with English opponents, though, is not the only issue which lingers over Ibrahimovic. Infinitely more serious is the statistic produced by the Swedish media before last month's crucial Euro 2012 qualifier with the Netherlands that, when the Milan striker plays, Sweden win only 54 per cent of their qualifying ties.

"We are always asked whether we would be better without Zlatan," said Larsson yesterday. "I don't know why." The winger should: according to the research, when Ibrahimovic is absent, as he was when Erik Hamren's side beat the Dutch, Sweden are all but invincible, losing just once without him.

The very idea that of dropping Ibrahimovic, though, is anathema. Hamren, who afforded his star striker the status of captain in a (thus far vain) attempt to coax the best from him, simply dismisses the statistic with a curt: "It's not true." It is, though, typical of Ibrahimovic: few players divide opinion quite so starkly, so why should he not simultaneously be his nation's best player and its biggest problem? That almost says it all.

With or without you: Ibrahimovic and Sweden

Sweden's record in competitive games with Ibrahimovic

 

Games: 50

Won: 27 (54%)

Lost: 12 (24%)

Drawn: 11 (22%)

Sweden's record in competitive fixtures without Ibrahimovic

 

Games: 21

Won: 17 (81%)

Lost: 1 (5%)

Drawn: 3 (14%)

Zlat-track bully? Record against Brits

Only three of Ibrahimovic's 235 senior goals have been scored against English opposition.

 

Before his two goals for Barcelona at Arsenal in 2010 he had failed to score in 10 games against English clubs.

 

Against English clubs

Games: 13

Goals: 2

 

Against the England national side

Games: 2

Goals: 1

 

Against other British and Irish sides (club and national)

Games: 6

Goals: 1

 

Against all British and Irish sides (club and national)

Games: 21

Goals: 4

Comments