Friday 24 November 2017

Ibra the star of his own show

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won nine league championships in three different countries, including a La Liga title during his unhappy year-long stay at Barcelona
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won nine league championships in three different countries, including a La Liga title during his unhappy year-long stay at Barcelona

Philip O'Connor

AS the players of Inter Milan celebrated another Serie A title, they queued up to thank manager Roberto Mancini for leading them to success.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as ever, had his own idea about where adulation should be directed. "You're welcome," he said, extending his hand in the direction of the taken aback victorious coach.

It is just one of the numerous anecdotes which sum up the unique arrogance of the man who Ireland have to stop tomorrow night. He told many of them himself in his entertaining autobiography, which did little to change the perception of his character.

Unfortunately, the tome has not been fully translated into English, but it paints a picture of a man with an extremely high self-regard, a showman who struggled to cope with being just another cog in the wheel at Barcelona. In his mind, Ibra works best when Ibra is the star of the show.

So when Pep Guardiola built his team around Lionel Messi, the increasingly irate Swede requested a meeting. "You bought a Ferrari and drive it like a Fiat," he raged.

Around the world, the debate about football's best player involves two names, Messi and Ronaldo. In Sweden, it is usually a three-way discussion. It has taken them time to love their captain like he does himself but, in this nation of nine million people, he is now viewed in that category.

Born to a Bosnian father and a Serbian mother in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, his parents separated and he was brought up mostly by his strict father.

Remembered at local schools as a trouble-maker, he almost gave up on football as a teenager when asked to curb his flamboyant individual instincts. It was to prove a problem that wouldn't go away.

Humiliate

When he started out as a coltish youth at Malmo FF, many disliked his arrogance, his insistence on dribbling at every opportunity, his desire to humiliate defenders with flicks, tricks and back-heels that made him look good but contributed little to the group.

He was accused of being 'un-Swedish', something that sounds mild enough now but was considered an insult at the time.

His selfish swagger went against a century of Swedish football history and culture, the idea that the game was a collective effort where individuals sacrificed themselves for the team and not the other way around.

In fairness, it was a culture that served the Swedes well – they were runners- up in the World Cup on home soil in 1958, and took third place at the same tournament in the USA in 1994.

Despite being at a financial disadvantage, their club sides fared consistently well in Europe, IFK Gothenburg twice winning the UEFA Cup, with Malmo losing the European Cup final to Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in 1979.

But by the time Ibra appeared on the scene in 1999, the Swedish game was in decline, and his mix of brashness and brilliance would go on to divide the footballing public – first at home in Sweden, then globally. His ambitions were greater than just holding his own at Malmo FF.

A big-money move to Ajax in 2001 saw him clash with virtually everybody at his new club, prompting coach Co Adriaanse to subsequently state that "he has something wrong in his head".

"He has everything– the physique, the technique, the imagination, the speed – but it's the head that is most important of all," Adriaanse said years later, adding that all he did was ask Zlatan to work more for the team.

Head problems notwithstanding, title joy with the Amsterdam side started a remarkable run of league victories in Holland, which extended through his time at Juventus, Inter and AC Milan – even during an unhappy sojourn at Barcelona, he picked up a La Liga medal.

In total, he has won nine league championships in three different countries (although two of those with Juventus have been revoked due to the calciopoli scandal), with another at Paris Saint-Germain likely to come his way before the summer.

But despite all this success, there is a grain of truth in Adriaanse's assessment of his mentality, as his time at Barcelona shows.

On the record as saying that he wanted to win "that damn Champions League" more than anything else, Ibra joined the Spanish giants in a deal worth a staggering €69.5m in 2009.

Despite a good start and plenty of goals, what should have been the final chapter in a glorious career turned into a nightmare, and again it was Ibra's temperament that caused problems.

Bought as the missing link in the Barcelona attack, he was to provide power up front, a technical wizard capable of playing the part of a battering ram when tiki-taka was floundering against more physical sides.

Instead, his relationship with Guardiola – whom he now scathingly refers to as "the philosopher" – quickly deteriorated. So used to being the big fish in the small pond, Zlatan couldn't bring himself to follow the strict rules and codes of conduct at his new club.

He insisted on driving flash cars against the wishes of the hierarchy, an attempt to make a statement.

"It was no one's business what car I drive," he said. "I drove my Ferrari Enzo to work and it caused a scene. I thought this was ridiculous."

Perhaps at Barcelona more than anywhere else, no player is bigger than the club. Such behavior was never going to be tolerated. Zlatan was shipped back to Italy – a year later Barca lifted the Champions League trophy without him.

AC Milan's financial woes saw him shipped off again in the summer of 2012; strangely, he chose not to go to Manchester City or Chelsea but instead joined the burgeoning project under way at Paris Saint-Germain, together with ex-Milan team-mate Thiago Silva.

At the age of 31 there is no way he would have gone there if he didn't think he could win the Champions League, but once again Barcelona stand in his way as the two sides are due to meet in the quarter-finals.

Much is made of his mentality, and how best to rattle him on the park – "kick him early and often and he'll disappear out of the game" is a line that has been drummed up in Irish circles this week.

This simplistic idea ignores the fact that much of his career has been spent in Italy, where the underhand tactics of defenders extends to a lot more than just kicking, and yet he has still been successful.

Now captain and the elder statesman of the Swedish team, a status he assumed after a brief international retirement, it is his penchant for criticising his fellow players that is perhaps his biggest weakness.

Forget his arm around the shoulder of Tobias Sana after a glaring miss against Germany, Ibra is just as likely to give his team-mates the sharp side of his tongue when they don't meet his expectations.

Bojan Djordjic is a former team-mate of Ibra at junior level and a good friend of John O'Shea, with whom he played at Manchester United. "Ibra may be Swedish, but he has Balkan blood. There's no getting away from it," he said.

Ibrahimovic has pilloried midfielder Kim Kallstrom in the past, on and off the field, and one player who was involved in their 3-0 friendly defeat to Ireland in March 2006 says that all he remembered of the game was the abuse Ibra heaped on his team-mates before leaving the field injured after half an hour.

Tomorrow, Ireland have to pressurise the less heralded Swedes and starve the supply line to the star man. His younger team-mates hold Ibra in such high esteem that criticism from him hits their confidence hard.

Of course, Ibra would deny that his penchant for rollickings is a failing.

He says that it drives him on to perform better, recalling how his unhappiness at Barca drove him to silence. "I barely yelled at my team-mates any more," he said. "I became quiet and that's lethal, believe me. I have to be angry to play well. I have to scream and shout."

He always sees things his own way. Ireland's chances in Stockholm revolve around stopping him from having it.

Irish Independent

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