Cristiano and Zlatan will meet tonight in Lisboa’s Estadio da Luz for the first leg of their mano a mano contest to claim a place for their nation in Brazil 2014. From what I can gather from media coverage of the build-up, Ibra and Ron will face each other in a series of individual challenges to test their goal-scoring, tekkers, strutting, and chest-puffing prowess. The rest of the Portuguese and Swedish squads will sit on the side-lines hollering encouragement, reacting with exaggerating displays of awe and disbelief, and brandishing cards with marks out of 10 after each round. Kind of like a fusion of the annual NBA Slam Dunk Contest and the final of Strictly Come Dancing.
I haven’t lived in the British Isles for a while now, but I believe that the football pundits of the land have finally conceded that maybe, just maybe, Ibrahimavic is a decent footballer after all. In direct opposition to the opinion of the rest of the footballing world, the little Englanders that frequent the studios of the BBC, ITV and Sky Sports had for years ignored all evidence to the contrary and continued to peddle the line that “he doesn’t do it when it matters”. That can be read of course as, “he doesn’t do it against English teams in the early rounds of the Champs League”. The antipathy towards Zlatan appears to originate from a lacklustre display in a 2006 European tie against Arsenal. Minds were made up back then and the famed British island mentality did the rest.
To his credit, the big Swede tried everything to win over his Anglo-Saxon doubters. He knocked in 38 Champions League goals (Rooney has 29 and Van Persie just 22 by the way), and 280 in total while winning 9 league titles in 10 seasons with 6 different teams in 4 separate countries. Many of those goals were important and a similar number were stupidly good. Yet when, exactly a year and a day ago, Zlatan warmed up for a friendly against the might of the three lions, true admirers were still difficult to find in the English press pack.
You can imagine the scene in the home dressing room in the Solna Arena that night as a despondent Ibra, confidence almost shot, close to tears, sought advice from his coach:
“Why don’t these British guys like me boss?”
“Don’t you worry Zlatan son. Let your football do the talking. Score against them and they’ll have to appreciate your talent”
“I don’t know boss, I’ve scored against their teams before and they still say mean things”
“OK then, this time score twice against them. Or a hat-trick even – can you imagine it!”
“I guess I could do that. Or maybe I should score 4 just to be sure. And for the final one I’ll execute an acrobatic overhead kick from more than 30 yards out that no other player on the planet could pull off. What do you think boss?”
“Sure, why not big man. Hansen and Dixon will still query the positioning of the left back, but let’s give it a go anyway.”