Thursday 22 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Zlatan will expect to run through the Irish defence like a bull through a picket fence

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So to Saint Denis and our day of reckoning with the goofiest God around, Sweden's irascible, pony-tailed emperor.

Will those who ride to Stade de France in Zlatan's company be team-mates or valets then? The gold standard of braggarts doesn't simply concentrate our minds just now, he terrifies us slightly. What if he has one of those days where everything shrinks around his giant form and our defenders become Subbuteo dolls endlessly sent spinning off the cloth?

Without him, Sweden come to mind true to national stereotype. Ordered, disciplined, undemonstrative. But, with him, the light around them changes. He gives them that ghetto edge, the glow of disrespect. He becomes a raven among doves.

It is maybe the first time a single opposition footballer has so consumed our thinking since we set green hounds on Gheorghe Hagi in Genoa more than quarter of a century back. When the weather is cold, you have to suspect 'the Maradona of the Carpathians' still remembers us through an ache in his shins.

But kicking Zlatan might not be so simple.

Read more: Daniel McDonnell: Date with destiny in State can shape our Euro adventure

He is bigger than us for a start, but he is also a natural ruffian.

"I need to be angry to play. I need to shout and make some noise" he says in his autobiography, I am Zlatan. The book is remarkable in tone and candour. Maybe most famously for its ridicule of Pepe Guardiola "the frightened little over-thinker", but even more so for its unvarnished depiction of a sundered, chaotic early family life in ghetto flats on the outskirts of Malmo and the ungovernable edge it carved into his personality.

Often when asked what he might have become if not a footballer, Zlatan answers with inviolable logic: "Maybe I would have become a criminal."

His tattooed, cartoon-like features would make him conspicuous in any environment but, in football, they render both team-mates and opponents almost invisible against a translucent glow. He is, of course, capable of extraordinary beauty inside the whitewash. But maybe the key to Ibrahimovic is that that beauty comes stitched to an outlaw's psyche.

No question, his natural hardness will worry Martin O'Neill now.

Because Zlatan will roam wherever he chooses this evening. He won't play as an orthodox striker, because orthodoxy in any forum would probably bring him out in hives. Zlatan gives himself to the Swedish cause not as a servant, but a gift.

He refused to play for his country after being sent home from international duty by then national coach Lars Lagerback for breaking a curfew in 2006. Zlatan, you see, considered the idea of being lectured and disciplined an affront to his concept of adult behaviour.

Read more: O'Neill backs players to handle pressure

Ibrahimovic's account is that the three players involved were "sober and well-behaved" when they arrived back to their Stockholm team hotel, albeit 75 minutes later than permitted. As Lagerback scolded him, he likens the experience to being lectured at school. "You just go ahead and yak, I'm not arsed!"

So he left Sweden behind, his one stated regret being that he had not done so in more tumultuous circumstance: "I should've smashed up a bar and crashed a car into a fountain. . ."

Zlatan did not play again for Lagerback and, when Erik Hamren replaced him as national coach in '09, the initial energy of reconciliation was strictly one-sided.

When Hamren first phoned, Ibrahimovic told him that he was wasting his time. But the new coach proved persistent.

"He was a stubborn bastard and I like stubborn bastards," recalls Zlatan, who eventually invited him to his Malmo home to discover a kindred spirit. How?

"He was no regular Swedish coach. He was willing to cross some boundaries and those guys are always the best. I don't believe in sticklers for rules. Sometimes you break the rules. That's how you make progress."

Logically, Hamren could not have approached Zlatan in any other way. The player's self-dramatising presence isn't something that can be roped into place by what he regards as stuffy, schoolboy stricture.

Since leaving Malmo, Zlatan has won league titles everywhere he's gone (13 in total between Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and PSG, albeit the two at Juve were subsequently erased from history due to the Calciopoli scandal). His cumulative transfer fees run to almost €170m.

Before becoming Sweden coach, Hamren's CV was rooted in smalltown Scandanavia. You wonder who cracks the whip here.

No this is Zlatan's show, probably his Swedish swansong. He has scored 62 goals for his country (five fewer than Robbie Keane for Ireland), but never quite graced an international tournament in the style he would presumably have seen for himself as a successor to the side that finished third at US 94.

He was a barely used substitute at the 2002 World Cup, missed his kick in a penalty shoot-out defeat to Holland at the '04 Euros, still bristles at the distractions (among them ending up as his family's "travel co-ordinator") that so diminished him at the '06 World Cup finals and describes being "crushed" by Russia as Sweden bowed out of the '08 Euros.

The Swedes have been absent from the last two World Cup tournaments and, like Ireland, were evicted at the group stage of Euro 2012.

So Zlatan's international career has been one, largely, of frustration. He can look exasperated with the limitations of those around him, something media likes to pounce upon as they did in Saint-Nazaire on Friday with an image of Zlatan holding his head in his hands.

He has what he himself regards as a Balkan temper, something inherited from a Bosnian father whose role in his upbringing seems to have veered between neglectful drunk "sometimes there was nothing but lager (in the fridge) and my stomach growled" and outright hero, carrying a new bed for his son all the way home from IKEA, "mile after mile" because he couldn't afford the delivery charge.


Zlatan says that he does not like "being around uptight people" but, in a group environment that identifies him so unambiguously as his team-mates' (and manager's) superior, it is hard to escape a suspicion that the spawning of such a species is inevitable.

He has lived a life that nobody either with or against him tonight can rationally relate to. When Milan signed him from Barcelona, he landed at Linate airport to find eight black Audis lined up in wait and a whole street cordoned off to ensure a suitably extravagant welcome.

"It was like Obama was coming," he recalls. Which is pretty much the level at which Zlatan Ibrahimovic palpably views himself now, Manchester United preparing to pay him quarter of a million pounds a week next season despite him turning 35 in October.

No matter who Martin O'Neill assigns to shadow Ibrahimovic this evening, the Swedish captain will expect to run through them like a bull through a picket fence.

So this old, vain footballer with hair-trigger temper gets pitted against a star-less team with its own peculiar alchemy.

A nation holds its breath and willingly takes those odds.

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