Zlatan: the anti-Messi
The English football media’s sudden new-found appreciation of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is quite refreshing. For years, the Swedish giant has been denounced as lazy, inconsistent, a bottler on the big occasions or just a bully, something that largely seems to have appeared courtesy of a few average performances against English teams. After his four goals against England in Stockholm last night, he is finally getting the long-overdue praise he deserves from the hacks that have for so long poured scorn on his clearly evident abilities.
But the reason why Zlatan is an enormously important figure in football in the year 2012 isn’t just because he is one of the best players on the planet – and what a talented planet it is right now. He’s competing against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, Robin van Persie and most of the Barcelona team for the mantle of Best Footballer Who Isn’t Lionel Messi. I’d like to think that once he has retired, he will be placed in the category of all-time great – he’s arguably the most naturally-gifted player out there. No one has more flair or better ball control than Zlatan. If you were picking a World XI right now, you’d have to include Messi, Ronaldo and Zlatan as or amongst your primary attackers.
Nor is it because of his considerable success, that batch of league winner’s medals from the Eredivise, Serie A, La Liga and probably soon Ligue 1 that most players in Europe would dream of. Nor is it because successive European giants have recognised this talent and showered him with riches – he is, depending on your source, either the second-highest or outright highest paid footballer in the world, and has accumulated the greatest total of transfer fee spend in football history.
No, he is important because of what he stands for. He is the anti-Messi. He encapsulates everything that his former team mate isn’t about. Lionel Messi is the tricky little winger/attacking midfielder. He is a nice guy. He is a model professional. He is a team player who fits into the system Barcelona play. He makes the right decisions on the football pitch almost every single time. He is a relentless robotic wizard. He is, there is no doubt, the best player in the world – and I don’t say that lightly as someone who usually sits in the Bernabeu camp on El Clasico nights.
Zlatan is the opposite in every way. He is a 6 foot 5 striker with enormous physical presence and enormous tattoos. He looks like something out of a horror movie. He is a rebel, a total bastard who has accumulated 11 red cards in his career, usually for inexplicably kicking people. He makes mistakes. He goes missing in the odd game. He will never be the pin-up boy of all that is good about football in the way Messi is. But most importantly of all, he is the ultimate individual in football – sides become and have become built around him and his considerable talents, including an Inter side that would win the Champions League after he left and a PSG side that has had a gazillion petrodollars spent on it.
Richard Whittall made a fantastic point today in this article – Zlatan doesn’t fit systems. And that’s why it’s refreshing. In an age where teams are just trying to clone Barcelona’s style (and missing the point) and the media is looking for “the new Xavi”, Zlatan’s brilliant individual performance last night is a timely reminder that ultimately it’s individual genius that we all want to see, and it’s individual genius that can and usually does win football matches, even within a system-based team like Barcelona.
The problem with English football fans today is that they are too cynical. If a team comes along playing a system and succeeds, they say “bah, systems aren’t really all that great – we don’t need them” – we’ve seen this with numerous attempts to knock down teams as diverse as Barcelona and Stoke. But if a great individual comes along, does loads of magical things and is generally brilliant, they say “bah, he’s lazy, inconsistent and doesn’t contribute to the team – we don’t need him” – we’ve seen this with Berbatov and various others as well as Zlatan. Instead of subjecting them to ludicrous unprovable doubt-based tests like “would he cut it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke?” or “why hasn’t he won anything at international level?”, English fans need to learn to appreciate brilliance for what it is. It looks as if they are finally starting to.