Zlatan: An Ibranigma

My first memories of Zlatan are from Korea/Japan 2002. He came on as a late substitute in the 2nd round match vs the memorable underdogs of the tournament: Senegal. I thought he could pass for Henrik Larsson’s taller & leaner long-haired twin.

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The next time I got to watch him was in the 2002-03 UEFA Champions league quarterfinals vs AC Milan. The player that most impressed me in that game was one Andy Van Der Meyde. A classic Ajax inverted winger, he was wrecking Milan’s right flank. Both the goals that Ajax scored were from the pandemonium created by his crosses. First was turned in by the elegant Finn Jari Litmanen. The second was headed down by the 196 cm Swedish beanpole and bundled over by Everton’s Steven Pienaar.

Later highlights include the bust up with Van Der Vaart,  the Kung-fu kick goal to eliminate Italy in Portugal, the move to Juventus, then to Inter after Calciopoli, Eto’o-Ibra swap, his garrulous relationship with “philosopher” Guardiola, return to the Rossonero half of San Siro, and the current stint in the City of Love. From the 2002 to 2016, Zlatan has failed to win the league just twice: 2002-03 with Ajax & 2011-12 with Milan. His success in the league is diametrically opposite to his failures in Europe.

He is repeatedly criticized, quite bitterly in England, for failing to inspire his teams during European nights especially during the knockout rounds. A much inferior Liverpool kept a star studded Juventus quiet in Delle Alpi when just a single goal would have sent La Vecchia Signora through to the next round. It was the same against the Gooners the following year when Fabregas & Henry dumped Juve out again. The song remained the same even in at Giuseppe Meazza (the name preferred by Inter to call San Siro). He moved to Camp Nou to win the most elusive of prizes but in a cruel twist of fate, Los Culés were dumped by his former club with their only notable addition being Sam Eto’o.

The excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking tried to rationalize his European struggles a few weeks back. As mentioned in the linked article, that Zlatan struggles in big matches is a big load of bollocks. He’s scored in every big derby (El Clasico, Milan derby etc) he’s been involved in. In the stretch run of the 2007-08 Serie A, he scored goal after goal on half a leg to lead Inter to their 2nd title of 5 (1 awarded) in a row. Cox reasons that European football, especially of the knockout kind, is played on the counter. and the 6’5″ nearly 100 kilo Zlatan simply isn’t the type of player who breezes in to finish a smooth counterattack. Therefore, his 38 goals in 79 group stage matches, an excellent return, drops to just 10 in 40 in knockout stages.

My question is simply this: Why should Zlatan’s European failures come into consideration for his greatness? The last player that I can think of who won so many leagues being a fulcrum of the side is Real Madrid’s Paco Gento. Why is Zlatan labelled a choker whereas Thierry Henry and Eric Cantona are all time greats? Henry’s record (50 goals, 38 in group stages, 12 in knockouts) is just as good (or bad) as Zlatan (48, 38, 10). Barring that one odd season when he led Arsenal to the final, Henry’s European career is replete with choke jobs similar to Zlatan. Cantona doesn’t even come close to Ibracadabra. UEFA had a maximum 3 foreigner rule in the 90s where countries of the British Isles were considered separate. Fergie didn’t trust Cantona enough to even play him in Europe, picking Giggs, Irwin & Schmeichel over him.

I would even consider Zidane in the same boat. After winning the Scudetto in his 1st two seasons with Juve, Zizou massively underachieved relative to the heavily loaded sides he played in. His achievements in Europe weren’t so spectacular either. People remember his fantastic goal in Hampden Park but forget that in the previous season he couldn’t inspire Juve to qualify from a group that contained Panathinaikos, Hamburg and SuperDepor. They also forget that after the high of Hampden, Real Madrid kept regressing in Europe.

These blots never stopped the Zidane/Henry/Cantona from being loved or celebrated. Why disparage the big Slav-Swede? He gets another chance tonight to help Les Parisiens reach the semifinals in Mancunia. All 4 Champions league ties on the knife’s edge but PSG are the side in arguably the worst position. A dose of Ibracadabra tonight can go some way in redressing the choker label. Win or lose he’ll continue to be an enigma, better yet an Ibranigma, as the man would, surely, prefer to call it.

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