Two stars go to war
it's last man standing for Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic as Portugal and Sweden prepare for do-or-die World Cup play-off, writes Ian Hawkey
Within a few hours of Sepp Blatter's impersonation of Cristiano Ronaldo at the Oxford Union circulating on the internet at the end of last month, some resourceful Lisbonites set to work on their protest.
By nightfall it was up, a six-foot laminated banner, hung from railings at the busy Rato junction. "Blatter, You're Offside!" it read, "Ronaldo is the Greatest."
The banner stayed for several days, sharing space with other protest art, flyers announcing strikes or demonstrations, graffiti casting blame for the country's economic crisis. Portugal the nation suffers daily and wearily because of its empty treasury. Insult its national football treasure and it galvanises.
The FIFA president later said he meant no offence with his light-hearted strut, mimicking Ronaldo's martial gait whenever he approaches a dead ball.
Nor did Blatter mean harm by stating, in the same talk to Oxford students, he marginally preferred Lionel Messi, with whom Ronaldo has been disputing status as the world's best player for most of the last five years.
Blatter added that, to his mind, the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly at the summit of individual brilliance is currently challenged more significantly than at any time in five years, and cited Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paris Saint Germain's Swedish striker.
Awkwardly for Fifa, only two of that magic trio can participate at their showpiece event next summer. Over the coming five days, one of Ibrahimovic or Ronaldo are going to knock each other out.
Try as they might, it is hard for the coaches of Portugal or Sweden, and for the 20 other mortals who start tomorrow's Lisbon leg of their World Cup play-off, not to distil the contest into a joust between two men.
"Ibrahimovic doesn't play on his own," insisted Bruno Alves, the Portugal defender likely to be assigned marking duties on Sweden's captain. But then Alves got to the nub: "Denying Ibrahimovic space is the key."
And for the home team? It would be 11 against 11, said Alves, although Portugal's XI do have a special one: "If there is one player in our team who is irreplaceable, it is Ronaldo, the best in the world. He can settle a game on his own."
Even if Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, CR7 and 'Ibracadabra', were not towering over the fixture because of their fame, form casts them as accelerating juggernauts, colliding at maximum speed. Last weekend, Ronaldo struck a hat-trick for Real Madrid against Real Sociedad. So did Ibrahimovic for PSG against Nice. Over their last seven matches, across competitions, the pair have scored 25 goals between them, 12 for the six-foot-four Swede, 13 for the Portuguese.
Nor are these freakishly prolific streaks. Ronaldo has racked up 62 goals in 2013; Ibrahimovic scored 30 times in France's Ligue 1 last season, matching a 23-year-old domestic landmark and guiding PSG to their first title this century. Real Madrid and PSG, two of the most ostentatious and high-spending clubs in the world, have made these men the sport's highest earners, built their tactics around them and based their corporate strategies on their image. And they are very glad to have done so.
For their national teams, occupying such a high pedestal is more complicated, less negotiable. Both Sweden and Portugal are captained by exceptional sportsmen, who both grew up with a self-consciousness about being seen as outsiders.
when Ronaldo arrived as a child prodigy at Sporting Lisbon, he stood out because, uniquely, he was from the island of Madeira. Contemporaries laughed at his thick off-shore accent. Ibrahimovic is the son of Balkan immigrants, was in trouble at school, and remains an incorrigible maverick.
Their individualism made both stand out. Alex Ferguson, the manager who prised Ronaldo from Portuguese football, recalls with unrestrained joy the moment he first saw him play with unrestrained joy. It was, Ferguson writes in his autobiography, "the biggest surge of excitement, of anticipation I experienced in football management."
Leo Beenhakker, the former head coach of Ajax who signed a gangly teenager from Malmo, recalls being struck by how unlike the prototype Scandanavian Ibrahimovic seemed: "You saw him doing things Swedish players had never done before."
Once they left home, Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo soared, achieving milestone after milestone in club football. However, at the same time their national teams have declined. Tomorrow's contest is between a side ranked 14th by Fifa, and one rated 25th.
Rewind to just under a decade ago and Portugal and Sweden were much more muscular. At Euro 2004, a 22-year-old Ibrahimovic announced himself to a global audience with a brilliantly unorthodox goal, a back-heeled volley against Italy; Sweden would go within a penalty shoot-out of the semi-finals. Ronaldo, meanwhile, maturely helped Portugal, in front of home crowds, to the final. He cried when his team lost it 1-0 to Greece. Neither Sweden nor Portugal have gone so far at a major event since.
Ibrahimovic's early Sweden career gave him the distinguished Henrik Larsson as a striking partner and the lively Freddie Ljungberg – with whom he quarrelled off the pitch – as a foil. With their retirements, Sweden became more mundane, more 'Ibra-centric'.
"Zlatan is a wonderful footballer," says former Sweden and Liverpool defender Glenn Hysen, "but there have been times when there has been the idea that the every ball should go via him, and for some periods Sweden have even looked better without Zlatan."
The Portugal side in which Ronaldo debuted had two or three superstars. It still called on Luis Figo, one of Ronaldo's predecessors as a record-breaking Real Madrid recruit; it had the former AC Milan No 10 Rui Costa and the country's record goalscorer, Pauleta.
Though Joao Moutinho is a midfielder of recognised pedigree, the current squad has fewer icons.
Expectation that Nani might emerge as a new Figo on the flanks has long expired. Ronaldo must be that. He must also do what Rui Costa did at set-pieces, and provide the goals Pauleta used to.
"Ronaldo is a player in a different class," said Portugal coach Paulo Bento, "and it's an honour to have him." It is also an obligation for any Portugal coach to ensure Ronaldo stays loyal. Several of his contemporaries – like Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Jose Bosingwa – called time on their international careers while still playing at a high level for their clubs, frustrated at the environment.
Ronaldo's exasperation with Portugal, who find themselves in a play-off because they could not beat Israel home or away, who would have taken only one point off Northern Ireland in their qualifying group had Ronaldo not struck a remarkable hat-trick to rescue a team reduced to 10 men in Belfast, is sometimes explicit.
At Euro 2012, he exhibited it through gestures, arms spread out and fingers pointing to where passes never arrived.
"Cristiano is a perfectionist," explains Jorge Valdano, who was director of football at Real Madrid when Ronaldo began his career there, a record-breaking £81m signing from Manchester United.
At that tournament, Portugal made the last four and held Spain goalless for 120 minutes. The penalty shoot-out, though, would go wrong. There was confusion over the order of kickers, so that at one stage Nani and Alves were both walking up to take the same kick. Spain had won before 10 kicks were completed, the Spanish players mystified why Ronaldo, an expert from 12 metres, had not taken one. Bento said he had been pencilled in for the fifth.
Spain have been Portugal and Ronaldo's nemeses at the last two major tournaments, both of which Portugal required play-offs to reach. Before the meeting of the two countries in the last 16 of the South Africa World Cup, several of Spain's senior players, some of them club colleagues of Ronaldo's, decided together on a policy in the immediate build-up to kick-off: Ignore him, don't look at him. They reasoned he would unsettled by that. Spain won.
The Swedes, touching down in Lisbon this afternoon, will find it hard to avoid looking at Ronaldo everywhere, or at least his image. He's not just on protest art, he's on advertising hoardings, celebrity magazine covers.
But when the Portuguese reach Stockholm on Monday they will see the same.
Ibrahimovic towers not just over his sport, but his country's public life, witness Monday's announcement he is to be honoured on new set of Swedish postage stamps. The maverick as monarch. (© Independent News Service)