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Arsenal vs. AC Milan: Zlatan Ibrahimovic—Star, Egoist, Opportunist

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Arsenal vs. AC Milan: Zlatan Ibrahimovic—Star, Egoist, Opportunist
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Star.

Back in December when the draws for the last 16 of the 2011-12 Champions League campaign were made and Arsenal drew AC Milan or vice versa, former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, a staunch AC Milan fan and erstwhile coach, was convinced AC Milan would knock Arsenal out and progress to the quarterfinal.

As to why he believed this would be so, he offered the following:

I think Milan are superior to Arsenal. Massimiliano Allegri has great champions, and Arsenal don’t have anyone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pato [Alexandre] or Robinho.

They do have Robin Van Persie, that is true, but we also have Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva. 

Ancelotti qualified his statement by conceding that he was a "Milanista through and through, so when I am cheering on my team, I find it difficult to be rational." He was also mindful of not forgetting that "Arsenal knocked us out of the Champions League in 2008," or that:

"Arsenal are a side who always try to play their football and move the ball around, [which] is the philosophy of the club."

To counter Arsenal's cohesive and collective approach to the game, he offered the following advice to Massimiliano Allegri.

"In order to reach the quarter-finals, Milan have to ensure their greater individual technique makes the difference."

Indeed, individual quality made the difference when the two sides met on February 15 and Milan triumphed by four goals.

Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Carlo Ancelotti knows a thing or two about stars like Ibrahimovic.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng all had massive games, with each contributing to the scoreline. 

Tactics, of course—including tinkering with the playing surface—were part of the reason Milan triumphed. But it'd be a huge mistake not to realize that the individualism of Milan was a fundamental factor to their success in that game.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic - US Citta di <a href=

Zlatan Ibrahimovic enjoys being a star at AC Milan. Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images.

 

Star

Suddenly, Ibrahimovic answered his critics, who accuse him of disappearing in big games. Here, he delivered and showed that he is one of Europe's great stars—a fact Ibrahimovic himself is well aware of.

He is a star. He knows it; we know it.

Speaking after the Milan victory—a story that has been resurrected ahead of the second round at the Emirates—Ibrahimovic recounted his encounter with Wenger early in his career when the Arsenal manager had sought to sign him.

He spoke with apparent glee and with the air of an egoist:

Arsene gave me the famous red and white jersey - the number nine shirt with Ibrahimovic on it and I was so pleased I even posed for a picture wearing it.

It was a fantastic moment for me. Arsenal had a great team then and here was an Arsenal shirt made just for me.

So then I waited for him to convince me that I should join Arsenal. But he didn't even try.

He never actually made me a serious offer, it was more, 'I want to see how good you are, what kind of player you are. Have a trial'.

I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'No way, Zlatan doesn't do auditions'.

I thought 'You either know me or you don't and if you don't know me you can't really want me'.

Ibrahimovic began his account humbly enough by acknowledging the status of Arsenal. "The famous red and white jersey," he said, which would seem to indicate that a player, just starting out in his career, would jump at the opportunity to show a top  club what he can do with a view of getting signed.

Clive Mason/Getty Images
Arsene Wenger appeared to Ibrahimovic to know little about stars.

But no. "No way, Zlatan doesn't do auditions."

The cheeky "You either know me or you don't and if you don't know me you can't really want me" reveals young Ibrahimovic's level of conceit even early in his career.

The Ibrahimovic of today can mock the notion of an audition, but the pre-Ajax Ibrahimovic?

That he must have possessed an astonishing ego is a conclusion one cannot help but draw. 

 

Egoist

Now every player who is worth his salt has an ego, and not a few have their demons.

In fact, it seems to be a rule of thumb that the more gifted a  player is, the more demons of affliction would torment him. I'm sure the reader can come up with a few names.

So when I cite the following, it isn't to condemn Ibrahimovic per se, but to add perspective to the idea that Ibrahimovic is an egoist.

Here is Graham Hunter writing for ESPN Soccer.

[If I] asked you to guess which footballer recently revealed that he has been a bicycle thief, loves people who drive through red lights, threatened to punch his manager in the face, is still bitching about a teammate (Freddie Ljungberg) seven years after taking offense at him, and went to a hotel to indulge himself with his PlayStation instead of being with his wife at the hospital while his baby son had a painful operation, you would have guessed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, wouldn't you?

Ego and demons, of course, are involved in equal proportion in the above, but the central issue of Hunter's article revolves around Ibrahimovic's recent autobiography in which he rants, bitches and complains about former teammates and managers in equal measure.

Pep Guardiola, especially, is at the receiving end of many of Ibrahimovic's complaints. He bristles, for example, at Guardiola's audacity to tell him to work harder.

I'm a guy of 92kg. I haven't got the physique of someone who can work back and then sprint up front again throughout a match! If this is what you want, then you've got a Ferrari and you are using it like a Fiat! I'd rather be on the bench than play.

...or that neither he nor any other Barcelona player should bring their flashy cars to training.

Guardiola told me that everyone kept their 'feet on the ground' at Barca. I wasn't to arrive at training in a Ferrari or a Porsche. Who was he to tell me what I could drive?

He then goes on to offer what Hunter considers and ironic statement.

I always drive like a madman -- I got up to 325 kmph [202 mph], leaving the police behind once. I've done so many silly things I daren't think about now. 

Not satisfied with scoring these punches, he veers off on another Barcelona rant:

When I arrived at Barcelona I was following a dream, but I now realize sometimes it's better to be content with what you have rather than follow a dream which nearly kills you. When I arrived, I was forced to kiss the badge on the shirt even though I didn't want to. They made me do it. They kept [telling me] 'Kiss it, kiss it ... Usually I like to be my own man but I was just so emotional about playing for the great Barcelona. However, I found that they wanted me to be like [Lionel] Messi, Xavi or [Andres] Iniesta who sat there like schoolboys who obeyed every command without question. I am a guy who likes those who drive through red lights.

Grazia Neri/Getty Images
Sacchi like Wenger seems to know little about stars, which is why he promotes teamwork.

But note another irony: It is Ibrahimovic enthusing like a wide-eyed child at the time he joined Barcelona.

Barca produces football which the world will love to play in 2015 and 2020 -- they show the future. You used to hear the argument that, yes, this football is technical but is it concrete enough, is it winning football? I know that some people even thought, 'You won't get anywhere playing this pretty football.'

But Barca showed the opposite. My aim here is to become better than I already am -- to become the complete footballer. I want to keep collecting trophies. I'll improve both what I'm good at and what I'm less good at. The secret to that is to train hard every day and to learn new things. However, I don't think it's easy to come here and have success from day one. You have to adapt very well and learn the system. I saw many great players come here, but they didn't all connect with what's demanded here.

At the time, Ibrahimovic had no problem with adapting.

No.

He was ready to do what it took to fit into the Barcelona system. But, as his book shows, his ego did not allow him to do so.

In the light of this, therefore, the reader must parse the Wenger-Arsenal comment and regard it for what it is: arrant individualism or acerbic egoism.

Prior to signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola had dined with Arrigo Sacchi, who, as Ben Hayward explains in an excellent editorial for Goal.com pioneered "the press" (although this is not really accurate) with the great AC Milan side of the late 1980s.

Sacchi adviced Guardiola not to sign Ibrahimovic.

"Ibrahimovic is a fantastic player," Sachi said. "But he is too much of an individualist in what is a team game. I advised Guardiola against signing him."

Guardiola didn't heed this advice and paid for it.

Ibrahimovic would later threaten to punch Guardiola in the face at a press conference if not allowed to leave Barcelona for AC Milan.

Readers would recall that it was Samuel Eto'o who was sent packing from Barcelona to make room for the Swede. Hayward wrote the following in the Goal.com editorial:

Eto'o had been seen as a disruptive influence by the Catalan club and Guardiola had spoken of a lack of 'feeling' with the Cameroonian forward. So Barca and their fans hoped they would find the 'feeling' with Ibrahimovic as 60,000 supporters turned up at Camp Nou to welcome their new hero on the day of his presentation.

For all intents and purposes, Ibrahimovic's sole season at the Camp Nou was a success in terms of goal harvest, as the following table—reproduced from the Hayward article—shows.

But team football is not all about goals, not with teams such as Barcelona or Arsenal, which—as an aside, I must observe—might have been the reason Arsene Wenger decided against signing Ibrahimovic.

Hayward notes:

Barca, though, were looking less slick than in the previous campaign, their passing game slowed down by the static Swede, who failed to press as Eto'o had done so effectively and appeared to be waiting until his team-mates gave him the ball. Although technically gifted, there was a clumsy element to his game at times, and Barca fans began to see him as a selfish individualist who was unsuited to their side's 'tiki-taka' style.

The individualism that Wenger apparently detected and Sachi warned Guardiola about had surfaced.

Hayward continues:

Sacchi would eventually be proved correct, but it was the Champions League quarter-final against Arsenal which really defined the future for Ibrahimovic. In the first leg in north London, the Catalans produced what many described as the 'best 45 minutes of football' they had ever witnessed; a first-half masterclass which saw Barca pepper the locals' goal but, bizarrely, fail to score as the woodwork and Manuel Almunia's brilliance kept them at bay. Ibrahimovic himself had missed chances, but scored two fine strikes after the break as Guardiola's side deservedly took control, only to concede two late goals and somehow end up with a draw.

Ibra's performances had been inconsistent and enigmatic, however, and he was sidelined for the second leg. By that time, Guardiola had been utilising Messi in the middle, the place where the Argentine could do the most damage. That was always Pep's plan, but with Ibrahimovic in the side, it was almost impossible. The Swede was out for the return leg against Arsenal and in his absence, Messi sensationally hit all four goals in a 4-1 win to advance to the semi-finals.

In the next round against Inter Milan, a strange thing happened. According to Hayward, "Ibra had been even quieter than most and stats showed he had covered even less ground in that game than goalkeeper Victor Valdes. It was a damning statistic."

This was the proverbial stroke that broke the camel's back.

After this, there was no place for Ibrahimovic in a Barcelona team that achieves its goals through teamwork. 

This periscope is an indication that Ibrahimovic is unlikely to have functioned well in an Arsenal team. Thus, although he means his Arsenal statement to sound like an indictment of Wenger and of his judgment as manager, the statement says more about Ibrahimovic than it does Wenger.

And there you have your star and egoist.

 

Opportunist

Ibrahimovic the opportunist surfaces in the following quote.

I have made a lot of moves in my life — I take it as a challenge, an adventure.

And I have won eight titles in eight years with different clubs in different countries.

But if you stay in one place all your life it is easy to play football.

You are at home, you are in the comfort zone.

But if you move to five different places it is a real test. If you succeed that's when you become a real champion, that's when you get more respect.

With this piece of wisdom in mind, he advises Robin van Persie against staying on at Arsenal.

Angel Martinez/Getty Images
Pep Guardiola has no place in Ibrahimovic's good books.

Football is all about winning. If you don't win you want to go. I don't know Robin personally but I remember him from Holland and what a talent he was — now he is complete.

I don't know what he is thinking but I know what I would do.

What he'd do, of course, is leave. And leave is what he has done throughout his career. According to him, that's what has made him a champion, what has earned him respect.

On the surface it all sounds alright, even nice and wise. But let's examine the idea, just a little.

First, let's ask. When Ibrahimovic says that Robin van Persie is now complete, how does he think this came about? With whose help did Van Persie achieve this completeness? With the loyalty of what team did his transformation come about?

Second, on the issue of titles, one implication of Ibrahimovic's eight titles narrative seems to highlight him as the bedrock of these achievements.

In other words, Ibrahimovic gave these teams their titles or that without Ibrahimovic these teams wouldn't have won their titles. But, surely, this is not true.

While there's no doubt that Ibrahimovic contributed to the success of these team, it is a different thing than saying that without him these teams wouldn't have won their titles.

While space and time will not permit me to investigate this, a quick look at the latter two teams—Barcelona and AC Milan—mitigates this argument.

But even if Ibrahimovic acted as a catalyst to the success of the teams with which he has won his titles, it is safe to say that without a team of faithful players in place, there wouldn't be a substance to catalyze.

In other words, Ibrahimovic simply has been a journeyman who has jumped ship time after time to reap the reward of other's sweat.

Teams take time to cohere.

Great teams take more than a year to build. The great AC Milan team of the late '80s or the great Ajax team of the '90s and now the Barcelona team of the present all took (or have taken) years to build. 

They revolve around core players who had (or have) to be around for more than fleeting moments, such that without them no "flash-in-a-plan" player would make any difference.

Moreover, Ibrahimovic cannot be classified among players who have single-handedly carried their teams on their shoulders on the way to a trophy or success like Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, José Luis Chilavert, Zinedine Zidane or Robin van Persie—who is currently doing so for Arsenal.

What Ibrahimovic has done is be an opportunist, moving around like a mercenary to reap the benefit of other players' commitment. In his case, "me me me" acquires a deeper meaning.

His advice to Robin van Persie cannot but be dismissed by anyone who understands what it means to be loyal, persevering and faithful. 

A real champion is he who succeeds in the face of difficulty not one who goes to places of least resistance. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic - AC Milan v Arsenal FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16

Ibrahimovic advises Robin van Persie—seen here in the Swede's shadow—to jump ship at Arsenal. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images.

I'd respect Ibrahimovic's claim to notoriety if  he had really done what Carlos Tevez did for Manchester City in the 2010-11 season, where Tevez single-handedly dragged the team to an FA Cup victory.

What the study of Ibrahimovic's life shows, however, is a football star who is a strident egoist and an opportunist.

We do, of course, enjoy his football, but that does not mean he is a model of some of humanity's finer virtues, such as humility, cooperation, submission and loyalty.

He, thus, is hardly qualified to instruct Robin van Persie or, for that matter, Arsene Wenger on what true champions are or on how or how not to sign egoistic players.

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