Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 February 2018

The Couch: Ibrahimovic knows it's time for that old Zlatan Fever

Tommy Conlon

Two teams were playing but it was billed as a showdown between two of the most magnificent egos in global sport.

This World Cup play-off would merely provide the backdrop for these special birds of paradise in all their technicolour plumage.

Portugal versus Sweden was essentially Cristiano versus Zlatan, two international divas with operatic self-regard and the talent to match. Two council house boys who were so brilliant with a ball that they were gripped from an early age by nothing less than a sense of manifest destiny. In their own heads it wasn't so much possible that they might become rich and famous, but logical and inevitable.

And, of course, they were right all along. In time they would become the top two most expensive players in history. They would accumulate extraordinary wealth. They would score goals of spectacular skill and imagination. The greatest arenas would become their own personal catwalks.

Naturally it's been a bit of a struggle to remain an ordinary Joe. Naturally they refer to themselves in the third person, as if somewhere along the way they got a bit mixed up between their actual names and their brand names which, confusingly, are one and the same in both cases.

"I love being Cristiano Ronaldo," Cristiano Ronaldo has said. "There's only one Zlatan," says Zlatan, quite frequently. "There are days when it's not easy being Cristiano," says Cristiano. When Ibrahimovic was having a hard time at Barcelona, he could really only sum up his troubles in one way. "Zlatan was no longer Zlatan," he explained.

The reason he was no longer Zlatan was because they wanted humility and modesty from their players, even their superstars. This perplexed him. Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez were "like schoolboys". Whereas Zlatan, although he didn't quite put it like this, was a peacock. An alpha peacock who liked nothing better than to fan his splendid feathers from the Parnassian heights of his six foot five frame.

At Barca, they inflicted upon him an intolerable cruelty. They took away his cars. It was like taking away the robes of ermine from a medieval cardinal. To do this to a man, who had measured out his life in wheels, was unconscionable. As a kid in Sweden his prized possession was a BMX bike. When he signed for Malmo FC he drove a Toyota Celica. As he moved on to Ajax, Juventus and Inter Milan he moved on to a Mercedes SL, a Porsche Cayenne, a Porsche Turbo, a red Ferrari and ultimately a Ferrari Enzo. The factory had only ever made 399 Enzos. And Zlatan had one of them.

And now Pep Guardiola is telling him to ditch the fancy rides and drive a club Audi instead. He pours out his agony in his autobiography, which comes with a suitably imperious title: I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It is a book so comically self-centred that one can only fondly admire his unabashed narcissism.

He is anxious to remind us that despite these humiliations, he remained the consummate professional. "I was still awesome on the pitch," he says, lest we doubted. "I carried on being brilliant." But, poignantly, "it wasn't the same old 'Ibracadabra' any more." Guardiola just didn't understand him. However, Zlatan had the perfect riposte: "If you're not an 'ordinary guy', you shouldn't have to become one." Indeed.

In fairness to Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic by comparison makes him look as modest and unobtrusive as Denis Irwin. And in reality, Ronaldo's all-round talent and astronomical goalscoring achievements have placed him on a different plane to the Swede. He remains an incorrigible prima donna but he has backed it up with prodigious performance statistics.

Ibrahimovic's mood swings and transient loyalties have made for an erratic career. But at 32 he appears finally to have found a level of maturity and consistency on the pitch. He has scored 30 goals in 40 games for Paris Saint-Germain in the 2013 calendar year. For Sweden, he had notched 11 in the ten games before the play-off.

But Ronaldo is practically off the charts: 56 in 46 games for Real Madrid in 2013, six for Portugal in his previous seven. On Friday, in Lisbon, he made it seven in eight.

A player who averages more than a goal a game clearly has an uncanny instinct for being in the right place at the right time. But the caveat that hangs over him is his behaviour in games of maximum pressure and expectation. His tendency to disappear is well chronicled.

Once again on Friday night he was showing that uncanny ability to not be where the ball is, when he's needed most. Ronaldo was having a marginal impact; his frustration was visibly rising too. But in the 82nd minute he pounced. And he had to scrap for it too, muscling past the defender as he stooped to meet the incoming cross. There was heart and soul in that goal rather than style and finesse.

At the other end, Ibrahimovic was an isolated figure, cut adrift from his blue-collar team-mates. They ran themselves into the ground to keep the tie alive for this Tuesday's second leg in Stockholm.

At the halfway mark therefore it's Ronaldo 1, Ibrahimovic 0. It is time for the great man to step up and produce one of his Ibracadabra specials. It is time, as he likes to say himself, for "that old Zlatan Fever".

thecouch@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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