FIFA World Cup Qualifiers: Cometh the hour, cometh the man – The stage is set for Zlatan

Author : Parth Shah

Portugal v Sweden - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier: Play-off First Leg

A footballer’s worth

How do you measure a footballer’s worth? Is it all about the statistics, or is there something more to an athlete who has spent his entire career playing with that same, round object? If we look past the numbers and figures, what else can be used to decide the “greatness” of a player? Titles, medals or individual honours? Team honours, perhaps?

If it’s medals and titles that are the only criteria for judging a footballer, then Zlatan Ibrahimovic can rest safe in the knowledge that he will be crowned one of the greatest to have played the game. A quick glance at the statistics tells the story of a footballer who has been there and done that, year after year, team after team.

His collection of individual honours is just as impressive as his fleet of cars. Not that he cares about public adulation and what the average football fan thinks of him, but Zlatan will be remembered all the same.

(At this point, the critic in you will quickly point out the one major trophy missing from Zlatan’s cabinet – the UEFA Champions League – although Ibrahimovic has featured in the knockout stages 10 times. This one glaring omission is enough for the critic to downgrade Zlatan’s status from a supreme footballer to one who is good, but not great.)

Born to win

There’s a popular saying in Italy – When the season starts (in August), every team has a chance to win. In May, Zlatan’s team wins the Scudetto.

Okay, maybe that’s a made-up quote, but the point stands. Except on two occasions (in the 2002-03 and 2011-12 season), Ibrahimovic has won the league title every season from 2001 to 2013 – a staggering 10 titles in 12 years. And in almost all of these title wins, it was Zlatan who played the biggest part, leading from the front and chalking up goal after goal, win after win.

His 280 goals and 107 assists in 549 games will no doubt attest to his omnipresence, consistency and performances.

Like a greedy child who is not satisfied with this flashy toys and simply wants more, Zlatan has conquered four different countries with six different clubs in his never-ending quest of winning everything all the time.

An unquenchable thirst for winning is not the most appropriate phrase, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.

A case of “What if?”

Sweden is well known for its glass, IKEA and its propensity for liquor consumption. Unfortunately, football is not one of the things Sweden is known for. No doubt the country has produced great footballers (Henrik Larsson, Fredrik Ljungberg and Gunnar Nordahl spring to mind immediately), but not great teams.

The above-mentioned individuals too faced the same problems that Zlatan is at the moment; of being in the wrong place at the peak of their powers. An average FIFA ranking of 19 suggests that Sweden is neither a push-over nor a world-beater. Comfortably above-average would be a good approximation of the Swedish national team.

In this respect, Zlatan joins a long list of decorated footballers to have been born in the wrong country. Men whose talent dwarfed that of their teammates to such an extent that they stood out like sore thumbs. Men who carry the burden of their less-talented teammates, all the while knowing that the team lacks what is needed to succeed at the biggest stage in football.

Perhaps all this is not enough to dissuade a footballer from giving their best for the country, but it does raise that inevitable question – what if? What if Zlatan was French, Spanish, Brazilian or German? For sure, things would have been very different.

Dealing with expectations

Paris Saint-Germain Training Session

Eight Guldbollen (Swedish Golden Ball award) wins, two Swedish Male Athlete of the Year and one Radiosportens Jerringpris award (voted by Sweden’s radio audience) – Zlatan is arguably Sweden’s most loved athlete, and consequently the one individual that the country has the greatest expectations from.

Only a few days ago, the Swedish Postal Service announced that they would be printing Zlatan stamps, in honour of Sweden’s favourite son. An astounding achievement, considering Zlatan is still a few years away from hanging up his boots.

It cannot be easy dealing with this kind of unique pressure, but Ibrahimovic is yet to buckle under it. On the contrary, the Swede admits the extra pressure helps him overcome anxiety and nerves ahead of a match.

The biggest game of his career

It’s near impossible to predict what must be going on in the mind of this 32-year-old Swede, self-confessed madman, but one can imagine he must be seething from the 1-0 loss to Portugal a couple of nights back. No footballer likes to lose, and none more so than Zlatan, a high performance athlete and a serial winner.

But if there’s anything that we have learnt over the last few years, it’s that writing off individuals like Zlatan is a folly that is second to none. You pit all the things that he has done in football against what he must achieve, and you feel that Zlatan will somehow find a way through. Like he did when growing up in the ghetto of Rosengard.

At 32, time is running short for Zlatan on the international level. Sure, there’s Euro 2016 to look forward to, but the 2018 World Cup is perhaps a stretch. No, in all likehood, this is Zlatan’s last World Cup. If he makes it that is.

Forget the scoreline, forget the battle between Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo . The return leg against Portugal, in front of his fans, will be quite comfortably Zlatan’s biggest match. And if history has taught us anything, it will be Zlatan’s Sweden who will be boarding the plane to Brazil.

Zlatan is Sweden, Sweden is Zlatan.  And you would have to be a brave man to bet against him when the Swede takes on Ronaldo’s Portugal on Tuesday night.

The hunger to win, to put his country in front of him, that unshaking belief that he truly is the greatest to have graced the game, a boisterous home crowd egging him onto further glory – I simply cannot see beyond a Swedish win with Zlatan scoring a spectacular somersaulting, back-heeled goal.