Zlatan Ibrahimovic - six reasons why he flopped at Barcelona
Paris Saint-Germain striker returns to Barca in the Champions League last 16 tonight desperate to prove a point to his old club
Published 21/04/2015 | 11:47
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not a footballer who is accustomed to failure.
The man who once pronounced that he couldn't "help but laugh at how perfect I am" has enjoyed stellar success wherever he has travelled in his career, with one glaring exception - Barcelona.
The Swedish international endured a turbulent year in Catalonia in the 2009-10 season before quitting for AC Milan, but ahead of his return with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League tonight - with the French club 3-1 down from the first leg - just why did it all turn so horribly sour?
It is fair to say that relations between Zlatan and Lionel Messi were far from warm. Two great talents and two enormous egos meant they were on a collision course from the moment Ibrahimovic walked through the door at the Nou Camp, although the tipping point came when Messi allegedly demanded a change of tactics from Pep Guardiola.
"It started well but then Messi started to talk," Ibrahimovic claimed in his book, 'I Am Zlatan' in 2011. "He wanted to play in the middle, not on the wing, so the system changed from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1. I was sacrificed and no longer had the freedom on the pitch I need to succeed."
The pair seem to be on friendlier terms now: Ibrahimovic recently chose him in his all-time XI, describing simply as a "genius".
Another case of when egos collide. Ibrahimovic was infuriated by Guardiola apparently giving him the cold shoulder at Barca, despite having been the club's marquee signing the previous year, and confronted him on the training ground after playing only five minutes in a 4-1 win against Villarreal.
"He was staring at me and I lost it. I thought ‘there is my enemy, scratching his bald head’. I yelled to him: ‘You have no balls!’ And probably worse things than that.
"I added: 'You are s****ing yourself because of Mourinho (then in charge at Inter). You can go to hell!’ I was completely mad. I threw a box full of training gear across the room, it crashed to the floor and Pep said nothing, just put stuff back in the box.
"I’m not violent, but if I were Guardiola I would have been frightened."
The system employed at Barca during Ibrahimovic's time at the club never suited his talents. Whereas previous clubs had indulged the striker - tailoring their tactics to his strengths and allowing him free rein to drift into whatever position he wanted - at Barca, the team was built around the squad's hallowed spine: Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi.
Ibrahimovic was often deployed in wide areas where he felt cut adrift and powerless to bend the game to his will, a point he made in a meeting with Guardiola.
"I said I was being used in the wrong way and that they shouldn’t have bought me if they wanted another type of player," he recalled. "I told him what a friend had said to me - 'you bought a Ferrari but drive it like a Fiat'."
The emergence of Bojan
It seems strange that a footballer now plying his trade at Stoke City could have played a part in Zlatan's Barcelona downfall, but at the time the emergence of Bojan was seen as a pertinent reason as to why Barca could cope without him.
And it wasn't simply the fact that Bojan was a Catalan which saw him fall from favour: the teenager was considered one of the finest prospects to have emerged from Barca's renowned academy, having broken Messi's record as the youngest ever Barcelona player to feature in a La Liga match. Barca's powerbrokers decided that he could help fill the void left by Ibrahimovic, and once the latter had departed for Italy, Bjoan was handed his No9 shirt.
Lack of attitude
Ibrahimovic could never understand the culture of deference which appeared to exist at Barca at the time. In particular, he singled out of the unquestioning, anti-confrontational approach of senior players such as Xavi and Iniesta as being beyond his comprehension.
“I'd already got the impression that Barcelona was a little like being back at Ajax, it was like being back at school," he wrote in his book. "None of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. The whole gang – they were like schoolboys. The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn't understand any of it. It was ridiculous."
His taste for cars
One of the in-house rules at Barcelona was that none of the players were allowed to drive their expensive cars to training. For a while, Ibrahimovic - whose taste for sports cars is as well-developed as his taste for himself - toed the party line; when he fell out with Guardiola, however, that changed.
"What kind of nonsense was that, anyway? I’ll take whatever car I want, at least if I can wind up idiots," he wrote. "I jumped in my Enzo [Ferrari], put my foot down on the gas and parked up right in front of the door to the training facility.”