There Will Never Be Another Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is perhaps as gifted as any footballer to have played the game. His outlandish goal for against England last night was further proof, but we knew it long ago.
Zlatan knew it better than most. A strutting ode to self-belief—some know it as arrogance—the pony-tailed assassin has picked up trophies wherever he's been and made himself a cult hero to millions.
He's also lost his way, made his share of rather public mistakes and enemies. And in those darker times he's underachieved on a natural talent as generous as that given to any player in his generation.
There's no doubting Zlatan's genius. And there's no doubting it's flawed.
But how flawed can a player be who's picked up nine titles in three countries, adapted his game to score freely all over Europe and made himself a national institution?
Ibrahimovic's demons—whatever they may be—certainly haven't cost him as much as those that blighted the careers of George Best and Diego Maradona, to name but a couple.
Best used to tell a famous story of a bellboy bringing champagne to his hotel room. He found the Manchester United legend holed up with a former Miss World, surrounded by thousands of pounds in bank notes.
"George, where did it all go wrong?" the bellboy asked.
The same story could be retold with Zlatan as Best, and with his nine league title medals and millions in earnings as the topless model.
And let's not forget Ibrahimovic is still just 31, staring down another title with PSG in France and on course for the Champions League knockout stages—the one competition in which his record cannot keep up to his ego.
There's still time for him to put that right. Zlatan time is not over.
When it is, he will be remembered most for his moments of other-worldliness—for the virtuoso solo goal he scored for Ajax, for his backheel at Euro 2004 and for the overhead kick that humiliated Joe Hart in the Friends Arena.
Zlatanites are ferociously devoted. Some will recall he was better than Messi and bigger than God. Others will name their firstborn son after him. Many will do both.
Will Zlatan go down as one of the game's greats?
As a football fan, I will miss him. As a football writer, I will miss him terribly, because without Zlatan my world will be a drearier and less interesting place.
He is to this generation what Eric Cantona and Zinedine Zidane were to the last—an enigmatic figure who stands apart from the ordinary and lives by his own rules. And he'll be an entertainer until the end.
If world football put a rock band together, Zlatan would be the lead singer.
He's not perfect, but he's ours. And football should celebrate every last red card, ridiculous quote and fantastical golazo until the day comes when Zlatan hangs up his giant ego and makes a new career doing something pretentious—and probably being rather good at it.
"I am Zlatan" he called his biography. A lot of people would like to be able to say that today.
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