The Cult of Zlatan Ibrahimovic

According to Wikipedia, a cult ‘usually refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre.’  When it comes to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his supposed ‘world-class’ ability, the fervent and somewhat bafflingly ignorant predisposed nature of his supporters begin to take on a similar leave of their senses. Call it semantics if you will, but the term ‘world-class’ is one that is bandied around with far too much ease and regularity, with people often choosing, rather ironically may I add, to ignore the selective meaning of the term itself. With concerns to the curious case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, much like everyone else of a sound mind and in possession of both a measure of common sense and a fully functioning pair of eyes, the jury is most definitely still out.

Ibrahimovic has come into the news again recently after the publication of his controversial autobiography modestly titled ‘I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ which is currently being serialised in the Gazzetta dello Sport. Here are just a couple of snippets which go some way to displaying the tone of the book: “I had done a lot to adapt – the Barca players were like schoolboys, following the coach blindly, whereas I was used to asking ‘why?’ I like guys who run red lights, not pedantic and strict rules.”

On another occassion following a 4-1 win against Villarrael.

“(Pep) was staring at me and I lost it. I thought ‘there is my enemy, scratching his bald head’. I yelled to him: ‘You have no balls!’  And probably worse things than that. You are s****ing yourself because of (then-Internazionale manager Jose Mourinho, whose side beat Barca in the Champions League). You can go to hell!’ I was completely mad. I’m not violent, but if I were Guardiola I would have been frightened.” (Yahoo)

While obviously serving to highlight the astounding and somewhat misplaced level of arrogance that has become Ibrahimovic’s staple throughout his career, his version of events is as large a rewriting of history as the forged Hitler Diaries were. Here lies the crux of the issue – a bitter example of a player being proven to not be as good as he thinks he is on the biggest stage of all, Barcelona Football Club. All we are treated to now is a quite frankly peculiar rewriting of history to suit his needs; a version of events as believable as his world-class status is. A cathartic propaganda effort of sorts.

Ibrahimovic has long been a favourite of the FIFA generation. He is in possession of a sublime first touch and superb technique, but there have always been questions marks over his temperament and with good reason, too. For football fans that place skills above substance, Ibrahimovic is undoubtedly the standard-bearer. It seems that people are simply surprised that such a giant can have such a balletic elegance to his natural game – is he little more than a puffed-up version of the often derisorily used phrase ‘good touch for a big man’?

It’s worth noting, though, that the Swede has won eight straight domestic league titles in three different countries and for four different teams. A remarkable feat it has to be said. There’s obviously something to the man that keeps big sides coming back in for him.

Another stat that has often gone unnoticed, though, is that in his final season at Inter in 2008/9, while Ibrahimovich top scored in Serie A with 25 goals, leading Inter to the title in the process, 12 of the 25 goals were penalties, and the lanky striker failed to score a goal from open play against any of the sides that went onto finish in the top 8 in the league that season. In short, he’s a flat-track bully. He’s Dimitar Berbatov with a better agent.

The criticism often levelled against Ibrahimovich is that he is often found wanting against top class opposition. The fact that he has failed, ever (that’s right, EVER) to score a goal beyond the Champions League 2nd round knockout stage makes a mockery of his fanboys claim to be genuinely world-class striker. His record of 29 goals in 80 European games is pitiful considering the quality of the sides that he’s played in.

What do the years 2009, 2010 and 2011 have in common? They’re the years in which Barcelona and Inter won the Champions League, each time without the presence of Ibrahimovic in the side. Clubs struggling in Europe should simply purchase the player to sell him the year after – according to the stats (and I know you Ibrahimovic lovers out there love a stat) it practically guarantees a Champions League title.

The crusade to label Ibrahimovic world-class is little more than a campaign based entirely around a series of stats and a Wikipedia page. It simply flies in the face of any semblance of common sense. It’s telling that Barcelona won the Champions League either side of him being a regular in their side. It’s also telling that the year after he departed from Inter, they went onto shed the image of an underachieving side in Europe going onto claim their first European trophy for 44 years in the process.

Ibrahimovic has always played in great sides that have failed to live up to their billing – much like the player himself, it has to be said. The fact is that Ibrahimovic was the fortunate recipient, during his time at Inter at least, of playing in an era widely regarded as the nadir of quality in modern Serie A history; a league crippled by the Calciopoli scandal, a scandal so far reaching that it managed to rob the prestigious championship of any modicum of competitiveness with Inters nearest rivals dealt with harshly after the fallout.

Depending on how strict you are, the term ‘world-class’ should apply to the top five or ten players in each position in the world. Off the top of my head, here are ten strikers more worthy of the tag ‘world-class’ than the AC Milan striker – Robin Van Persie, David Villa, Sergio Aguero, Edinson Cavani, Samuel Eto’o, Diego Forlan, Falcao, Neymar,Mario Gomez and Wayne Rooney – I’m sure if you delved a little deeper that you’d be able to find more than that too.

Steven Gerrard looks unlikely to ever win a Premier League title. George Best and Ryan Giggs never represented their country at a World Cup. Ronaldo (you know, the real one, the goofy fella with a penchant for curb-crawling) never won the Champions League. Does this then mean that they ultimately fall short of the world-class mark? Of course it doesn’t. Those that place too much stock in Ibrahimovich’s tally of league titles take note – Phil Neville has six of them for God’s sake.

Prior to signing for AC Milan, Ibrahimovic had just 13 Champions League goals in seven seasons. To put it into context, in roughly the same period of time, Ruud Van Nistelrooy managed to bag 50 goals on his way to becoming the tournament’s 2nd highest ever scorer in what was a deeply average side by Man Utd’s standards. Now that, is world-class striker.

Ibrahimovich will always have his fans. The sort of people that have their own names inscribed on the back of their replica kits, the sort of people that use words such as ‘sick’ and ‘bruv’ and cheer at the sight of a pointless step-over, but when it comes down to it, could he do it on a wet Wednesday night at the Britannia? I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1

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