Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who only recently returned to international duty, is one of a few players who has only gotten better with age. Anthony Lopopolo writes.
June 7, 2012
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden
You cannot take the ghetto out of the boy, says Zlatan Ibrahimović, the dynamic AC Milan striker. But over the years, you can, apparently, take the ghetto of his game. He was brought up on the streets. Those he played with in Rosengård, the ghetto of the immigrants in a small quarter of Sweden, could not imagine playing on a field. Ibrahimović did. He was the type of player who could adapt. Once money and fortune and fame became prospects of a burgeoning youth at Malmö, Ibrahimović could not deny a chance at a footballing career.
He wanted a better life, for his mother, Croatian, and his family. For all the talk about his ego, Ibrahimović at his core is a family man. He wanted a Lamborghini when he began to enthrall spectators with his flicks and tricks as a 19-year-old prodigy. He wanted to become the most expensive Swedish player. But he invariably wanted to do it his way.
When Malmö were relegated to Sweden’s second division in 1999 — for the first time in 64 years — Ibrahimović was their beacon of hope. He singlehandedly decided games that proved crucial to the team’s immediate promotion back to the Allsvenskan in 2000. He could pivot like a ballerina, stopping on command like someone on blades. But effeminate he was not. He could bulldoze through defenders and muscle them off the ball. His teammates at Malmö knew Ibrahimović could change a game in an instant. Even if selfish, they had to respect his talent. Still, even as a kid in the squad, Ibrahimović drew envy out of them. Ibrahimović starred in local newspapers, TV coverage and interview requests. The senior players, who Ibrahimović called a quieter and more reserved group, seemingly grew jealous, usurped in attention by a teenager who hadn’t, they could believe, paid his dues.
In a Swedish documentary, The Road Back, that followed the ups and downs of Malmö’s year in the second division, many of Ibrahimović’s teammates resented him. After a dramatic tie in which Malmö blew the lead — and a chance to secure their promotion before season’s end — midfielder Hasse Mattisson openly, with Ibrahimović in view, criticized him: “Zlatan is not a problem. But he does have a cocky attitude. We have to except that to some extent. But at the same time he has to start to realize that he must be part of the team.
“He’s not the star yet — even if he thinks he is, which I understand since the media and fans hype him up a lot. If he juggles the ball at the corner flag, all of a sudden he’s the next coming of Maradona. We the other players can juggle the ball by the corner flag, too.”
Niclas Kindvall had a more sympathetic understanding of Ibrahimović. One of Ibrahimović’s closer teammates, one who truly studied him as he rose through the ranks of Sweden, Kindvall, you could tell, had a personal appreciation for the young kid’s position in a team full of seniors, in a team torn by relegation, in a team fueled by competition not only between them and their opponents, but each other: “He is very selfish. A lot of the time we’re free and Zlatan doesn’t see us. A simple pass and we would have a big scoring chance. But his selfishness also enables him to create dangerous chances to score. Sometimes it fails, but when he succeeds anything can happen.
“But it’s different now. We need to keep together. Some things need to be toned down. Certain people might still be mad at Zlatan — while at the same time the younger players might be mad at the older ones, who they feel are in their way.”
Ibrahimović wasn’t blind or deaf. He understood, as well, the great difficult he caused. In reflection, he was aware about his selfishness on the field. Even today, there may not be a bigger player fans hope to see crash and burn than Zlatan Ibrahimović. He commands more criticism for his supposed inability to perform on the grandest of stages than praise for his decisive goals and statistical leadership. Over the past 12 years, since he left Malmö for Ajax Amsterdam in 2001, his personality has not changed. But his style has. For someone who took “the street to the field,” as he once said, the play that defined him as a youngster — the theatrical feints and excessive dribbling — no longer does. Ibrahimović was never a worker bee, never defined as a normal Swedish product. Flair was the name of his game.
But as he travelled from club to club, growing bigger in stature, from Juventus to Barcelona to AC Milan, he added other dimensions to his game. He passed the ball more. He conducted play from a deeper position on the field. His game, once dictatorial, became more inclusive. In the 2010-11 Serie A, Ibrahimović finished third in assists with 11. This season, he has gotten 14 of them for club and country — his highest total in a single season. His other statistics did not suffer: Ibrahimović scored 28 goals in 32 Serie A games to lead the league — also the highest total in a single season. “He has lost some of the abilities that made him a crowd pleaser,” Kindvall tells Simon Kuper in his book, Soccer Men. “He used to do some incredible trick almost every game. I miss those things. But he has gained so much.”
Ibrahimović scored and assisted goals with ease in Sweden’s European Championships warm-ups against Iceland and Croatia. He did the same before this career year of his, scoring in pre-season games with AC Milan in the Audi Cup in August. You get the feeling he could dominate his games with Sweden in Group D in the Euro — with England, France and Ukraine — and possibly lead the tournament in goals.
His international career, however, has not matched that of his club. But “the people love me,” he tells Kuper. In the 2002 World Cup, fans in Sweden voted Ibrahimović, who did not even play, as the man of the match in three separate games. For such a revered member of Swedish society — a god-like figure in the way, perhaps, Xerxes of the Persian Empire was — he is only the sixth highest scorer in the country’s history. At 30, he doesn’t have much time left to reach the throne of that statistic.
But statistics may not be important to him, now. After losing the Italian championship with AC Milan this season — the first year since winning the league crown with Ajax in 2004 that Ibrahimović failed to win a major trophy — he could have an appetite for something more.
He has dealt with pressure before, but as Sweden’s captain, Ibrahimović still has critics to answer. Now, his teammates don’t have a problem with him. But the media, the very outlet that ranked him so highly at the beginning of his career, are not convinced he is a big-game player. Early in his stay with Ajax, he would often lock himself in his apartment, Kuper writes, after a bad game. “You want to sink through the ground when 50,000 people whistle at you,” Ibrahimović tells Kuper. He is not immortal. He is not immune to feelings of depression. His arrogance, for so long a definition of his career, is not an inherent trait. It has always been a mechanism of defence, a careful choice, to shield himself from criticism, from people who could otherwise “easily put me down.”
Ibrahimović promised himself he would not change. “Things will be different,” he said after signing for Ajax, “but I won’t change.” He hasn’t, but his game has — and for the better.
Luka Modrić, Croatia
All the greats of the world exalt him. Zindine Zidane and Paul Scoles, players who’ve navigated every inch of midfield, partake in the roundtable acclaim of Luka Modrić. His worth — upwards of $40 million, depending on which team you ask — is not so much understood as it is known; his price is accepted as a fact, not so much an argument. Clubs covet Modrić like a neighbour’s wife. He is, now that his club Tottenham Hotspur remain out of the Champions League next season, the hottest commodity in the world of football. But all that’s defined Modrić, so far, have been declarations and testimonials. “It certainly makes life easier for me playing alongside someone like Luka,” teammate Scott Parker said upon his arrival at Tottenham from West Ham.
But what does Modrić make easier? Statistics don’t tell his story, as Musa Okwonga of ESPNFC writes: “Modrić is an unusual footballer. … a star who doesn’t seem to shine. For the first few minutes that you watch Modrić in action, it’s difficult to work out exactly what he does. He gets the ball and gives it to someone else who promptly runs off and does something much more exciting with it. Then he runs — but not very fast. And look — now look at him. He’s standing still. And he’s raising his arms in triumph.
“You see, he’s very rarely the player who tallies. He is also very rarely the player who provides the assist. But if you count one pass further back — if you look at the person that supplies that provider — then you’ll find him almost every time. … He’s just watching quietly in the background, having drawn up the attack coordinates.”
Modrić invents plays with the vision of Andrea Pirlo. He reads the field like a maze, finding routes before he makes a pass. His play may not be flashy, but it’s substantive. Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s manager, underlined Modrić’s fitness and stamina as some of the main cardinal virtues of his game. He is prudent with the ball, temperate on the field, enduring on his feet and classy all around. You can’t really say something bad about Modrić. In a role Carlo Ancelotti originally carved for Pirlo back in Milan in 2004, Modrić has quietly plotted imperceptible attacks to the untrained eye from his withdrawn base in midfield. Scholes, United’s midfielder, has always been impressed with him — at times, embarrassed by him, too. Modrić is a riddle no one really bothers to solve — not those new and old to the game. Instead, they praise him.
Coach Slaven Bilić enjoys playing the Spurs star deep in midfield — so much so that Modrić, despite his commendable fitness, has reportedly undergone a regime to handle the running. Without injured striker Ivica Olić, who was ruled out of Euro 2012 in a friendly last week, without injured defender and former Tottenham teammate Verdan Ćorluka, who could miss the Czech Republic’s opening game Friday against Russia, Modrić will have it all to do for his country in the European Championships. Possessing a great pair of eyes, the 26-year-old must find a way to conduct an orchestra now without a few of its main instruments.
Petr Čech, Czech Republic
Petr Čech could be, at the moment, the greatest goalkeeper in the world. He made several diving saves in open play, dead-ball situations and on penalties to keep Chelsea alive in their hunt for a surprising appearance in the Champions League final. He defied Statistics, and the world’s best, Lionel Messi, who hadn’t missed a penalty in the European competition all season, from 12 yards away.
Čech turned away three penalties against Bayern Munich in the final — one in extra time — and with the confidence of a goalkeeper who had done his homework. In the shootout, after he dove in an elegant parabola and parried away Ivica Olić’s shot to keep Chelsea in contention of winning the Champions League, he walked away without a celebration, without a smirk. He starred down Olic, as if delivering a telepathic threat: you can’t beat me.
Since failing to make it out of the group stage at the 2008 European Championships, the Czech Republic have not played in a major tournament. They failed to qualify for the last World Cup. In the past few years, they have beaten a team currently qualified for the Euro just twice — against Ukraine this year and Poland in 2010. They have fallen. Their appearance in this year’s Euro is not so much about wins or losses. It is the next stage of a reclamation project years in the works. Čech, who until this season had not played dominantly in years, can offer reassurances behind an already organized defence that allowed an acceptable eight goals in eight games in Euro qualifying. But he is also part of a group of veterans on the verge of the exits, with the likes of a vacillating Tomáš Rosický, he of Arsenal fame, and a virtually unidentifiable Milan Baroš, the scoring leader at Euro 2004 and owner of 41 goals for his country.
The pillars of the Czech’s former foundations are long gone, including Pavel Nedvëd. From FourFourTwo magazine: “This is a team between generations. Baroš may only be 30, but he seems to have been around forever and often plays like it. Rosicky was in a similar slump until his recent resurgence … But while som players are on their way out, the side that impressed at the U-21 Euros isn’t quite ready, so the Czechs can give the impression of being both stale and naive.”
Čech, at 30, has enough in his bank to bail out the Czechs. In Group A, likely the easiest one of all, they could defy the odds and make it into the knockout round. As Čech knows, his teams may be down for the count, but they always get back up.
Anthony Lopopolo is an Italian-Canadian freelance sportswriter and an unabashed apologist for all things Serie A. He has written for such publications as The National newspaper and the National Post, and has also appeared on Canadian national radio to talk footy. You can follow him on Twitter or send him an email.
|Part 1: Trapattoni, Schweinsteiger, Xavi|Part 2: Ronaldo, Ribéry Pirlo|Part 3: Parker, Huntelaar, Shirokov|Part 4: Ibrahimović, Modrić, Čech|Part 5: Shevchenko, Szczęsny, Eriksen, Papadopoulos, Predictions|