James Lawton: Ibrahimovic's princely strike exposes Irish lack of quality
IF any football nation on earth was in less need of fresh exposure to the harshest of realities, it was surely Ireland on the occasion of still another dispiriting result, this time against those most improbable European champions of 2004, Greece.
But that's what landed on the head of the people – at least the meagre number who turned up – and their beleaguered leader Giovanni Trapattoni.
The missile was fired by Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and was the most searing evidence of the scale of Ireland's challenge down the road of their bid to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
It was already bad enough that the enigmatic star of the Swedish team, who recently performed a miraculous re-incarnation after going four goals down to Group favourites Germany in Berlin, was in the kind of blistering form that has marked his latest big money move to Paris Saint-Germain.
That he should then inflict on the psyche of the Irish team arguably the most brilliantly intuitive goal ever scored, as he crowned the 4-2 triumph over England in Stockholm, was quite savage.
This was an England, let's not forget, which despite the absence of Wayne Rooney displayed enough budding natural talent to control much of the game which ultimately became nothing more than a a vehicle for Ibrahimovic's genius.
Yes, genius. His fourth goal belonged in a dimension new to most observers.
A sharp imagination, on a particularly good night, might just have envisaged the possibility of the astonishing 30-yard 'propeller' kick after England 'keeper Joe Hart had attempted to clear England's lines with a feeble header. The execution, shaped so instantly was, however, sublime.
You could ransack your memory for the most extraordinary goals in the history of the game. Diego Maradona's unbreakable run at the Azteca Stadium would be the choice of many. Pele scored goals which will never die. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are doing it as a matter of routine these days.
Yet Zlatan's bolt from the skies had still another element. It was that speed of thought and accompanying faculties, which announces another level of endeavour – a way beyond the means of almost every rival.
For Trapattoni, as he went into the Dublin night, it was another flash of that old insight which had bombarded him in the European Championships earlier this year.
It said that you can cover every page of the most superior coaching manual, you can delve into every device of motivation that has come to you in a long and brilliant career, yet you are still at the mercy of the most relentless fact of football life – that some players are simply so much better than others.
In Stockholm, England manager Roy Hodgson witnessed performances of great promise from some young contenders, most notably in the smooth progress of Manchester United's Danny Welbeck and the waspish presence of Liverpool teenager Raheem Sterling. That, and the prodigious efforts of Steven Gerrard, gave Hodgson plenty of reasons to believe that he had emerged from the grinding pressure of Premier League managers to restrict the playing time of their players, with a notably encourage result.
In the middle phase of the game, before Hodgson submitted to the need to appease the likes of Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson and Brendan Rodgers, there was reason to believe in the glimmerings of a new dawn. Certainly, it was easy to presume that Trapattoni would have happily taken a large slice of the England resources.
Yet Ibrahimovic drew a dividing line between hope and fulfilment in the most unanswerable terms. As he did so, he put into still sharper perspective the crisis in Irish football.
The playing crop is simply no longer fit for any purpose other than the most strenuously applied discipline and effort. Of course, you seek out the best coaching that your money can buy.
You do not forget Old Trap's impressive, but ill-starred effort to return the Irish game to World Cup finals action after an eight-year-break. You certainly do not discount the work and the nerve that took Ireland to the Euro finals. But then nor can you ignore the fact that when Ireland arrived at a level that had become familiar under the management of Jack Charlton, the shortfall in their ability was quite withering to behold.
It was the starkest reminder that not only did Ireland lack the ghost of an Ibrahimovic, they were also critically short of players who might have been deemed adequate for the challenge among the other 15 squads.
If Big Jack had so many admirers, so many believers in his old pro pragmatism, he also had his critics, some of whom near foamed about his unwillingness to play football more in keeping with the potential of some of his most talented players. Trapattoni is certainly free of any such pressure, at least in terms of players of such significant ability as, say, Liam Brady.
Brady! He, of course, evoked the highest aspiration of the best of Irish players.
He had beautiful craft, the flair that you could believe had come with the genes of a nation which could pride itself on producing players for whom even the most demanding stage seemed to be a natural habitat.
Such a notion now simply waits for its next ritual exposure as a fiction that should have been long interred.
That it may be resurrected any time soon is surely the longest reach in the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (© Independent News Service)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic factfile
Born: Malmo, October 3, 1981
Zlatan Ibrahimovic factfile Born: Malmo, October 3, 1981
Club career: Malmo FF (1999-2001), Ajax (01-04), Juventus (04-06), Inter (06-09), Barcelona (09-11), AC Milan (loan 10-11, permanent 11-12), Paris St Germain (current)
International career: Caps 85, Goals 39
Honours: Eredivisie (Dutch League): 2001/2, 03/04; Serie A: 2004/05*, 05/06*, 06/07, 07/08, 08/09, 10/11; La Liga 2009/10. KNVB Cup: 2001/2. Italian Supercoppa: 2006, 08, 11. Supercopa de Espana: 2009, 10. UEFA Super Cup: 2009. FIFA Club World Cup: 2009. *Revoked after Calciopoli scandal
€180m: Combined fees paid for his services
6 – He is the only player to have scored for six different clubs in the Champions League
In his own words
"You bought a Ferrari but you drive it like a Fiat" – message to Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
"Nothing, she already has the Zlatan." – when asked what he would get his other half for her birthday.
"Come to my house and you'll see if I'm gay... And bring your sister" – responding to a female reporter who asked about the infamous picture of Ibrahimovic and Barca team-mate Gerard Pique