Talented Ibrahimovic has always had a striking presence


The best thing about the peculiar English distrust of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s talents is the riposte that arrived in the Friends Arena, a selection of goals that should be shown to football apprentices from anywhere in the world to demonstrate how variety and imagination is worth its weight in gold. The next best thing, of course, is that he never gave a hoot about what anybody in England thought of him anyhow.

At long last, the clumsy stereotype, generated and casually booted about within those shores to jeer that he is not all he is cracked up to be, has been obliterated. Thank Zlatan for that. Admittedly, the statistics were not on his side – in 90 incandescent minutes on Wednesday night, he scored as many as he had previously managed against English club and national sides over a period of 1,536 minutes. But that particular quirk was a minor blemish on his mostly luminous record.

Ibrahimovic always has been an unusual talent. It is easy to assume that his style is largely off-the-cuff, the work of a maverick. But the way that he has harnessed his ability, the methods he has absorbed to try to make the best of his gifts, suggests that beneath the showman is a man who has learned to also appreciate efficiency.

A sporting education that took place in Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy has added that particular string to his bow. His observation during the week that Steven Gerrard might have benefited from some experiences overseas, some broadening of horizons, was a fascinating one because of what it reflected about himself.

Different influences

In some ways, his virtuosity against England summed up how he is the product of the many different football influences that have made him. Zlatan proudly wears the yellow shirt of Sweden, the country of his birth, but so much of his style is classically Balkan. The audacity, the craving for artistry and crafted skill, the machismo, the singularity, the independent spirit that has made his coaches both love him and tear their hair out – these are not traditional Scandinavian characteristics .

Ibrahimovic’s father is from Bosnia, and his mother from Croatia. They both emigrated, and met in Sweden, but they evidently passed on to their boy plenty of the characteristics from home.

Having been an apprentice with Malmo, his footballing evolution took him to Ajax, one of the great finishing schools. The environment encouraged the 20-year-old to integrate his qualities with his team-mates, to play within the overall pattern of the gameplan.

It was in Amsterdam that his eye-catching performances began to make him a globally recognised name, and his next move to Italy would add further refinement. Playing in Serie A, Ibrahimovic enhanced his movement.

Stick and carrot

Massimiliano Allegri, the Milan coach, explained how “Ibracadabra” needs thoughtful management to keep him at just the right point between content and fired up: “With him, you have to use both the stick and the carrot. Ibra is a strong personality and needs to be relaxed at times, while in other occasions he has to be stimulated, otherwise he falls asleep.”

Carlo Ancelotti is guiding him at the moment with Paris Saint-Germain, and it is to Ibrahimovic’s credit that he is not swanning around the French capital treating the move as a glorified payday. He is in scorching form for PSG and is likely to lead them to the title (in what would be his ninth championship win in 10 seasons with six different clubs).

If you wish to pick holes, the season he spent at the Camp Nou is the closest to a disappointment. It was an experiment that didn’t spark. He still ended up with a Spanish championship medal and a contribution of 16 goals from 29 games.

In October 2009, he retired from the international game. Sweden’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup left him so disillusioned he wanted time out.

Erik Hamren coaxed him out of his funk, promising unswerving love and support, and the captaincy. The only condition was that Ibrahimovic had to be happy to be there. No moaning allowed.

And now that he’s happy with Sweden, Ireland need to watch out even more in March.

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