Why the Marriage of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Barcelona Ended in Painful Divorce
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of the world's press to witness and celebrate one of football's greatest ever transfers. We are here to give our blessings and wishes of good faith to the holy matrimony of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Barcelona.
Do you, Zlatan, choose to marry Barcelona on this day?
I, Zlatan, take you, Barcelona, to be my lawfully wedded football club, my constant wage-payer, my faithful partner and my love from this day forward. In the presence of God, Pep Guardiola and Joan Laporta, I offer you my solemn vow to try a little bit on the pitch, in laziness and in health, in good times and bad, and when Lionel Messi doesn't pass me the ball. I promise to love you unconditionally as long as I am scoring goals, to let you honour and respect me, to laugh at you crying at me, and to cherish you for my five-year contract.
What tokens of love and respect do you offer each other?
If anyone can show just cause as to why this couple cannot be legally joined in marriage, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.
At this point, someone should have stood up.
The Honeymoon Period
Despite a unification involving one of the world's greatest strikers and one of the world's greatest clubs, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's July 2009 snuggle with Barcelona was doomed from the outset. It's a strange tale that ended in bitter arguments, jealousy and regret.
It all started so well for the big Swede. A crowd of 60,000 rapturous fans greeted his arrival at the Camp Nou (via The National). His presence alongside individuals such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Thierry Henry and Carles Puyol suggested the Barcelona era of dominance was going to continue in spectacular style. Headlining the trophy haul would be two generation-defining acts in the shape of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a certain Lionel Messi.
Wait a minute. How will Zlatan—a man whose first name is as singularly recognisable as his last—share the limelight with world football's greatest asset? At the time of the former Inter player's arrival, Messi had just scooped his first of four Ballon d'Or awards. How in Zlatan's name could the new signing compete with that?
Things got off to a great start. In his first competitive game for Barcelona, Ibrahimovic assisted Messi in a goal that would help Barcelona seal the Spanish Super Cup. Hugs were given and deeper feelings slumped under the weight of immediate success.
Ibrahimovic's next performance saw Barcelona win the UEFA Super Cup, but already, many press outlets questioned his ability to outshine Messi in Catalonia (via The Daily Mail). Ibrahimovic responded to criticism by becoming the first Barcelona signing to net in his first four La Liga matches.
Even amongst irritating injuries and constant pressure from journalists, he had a positive impact on Barcelona's 2009-10 title-winning campaign. Ibrahimovic netted 16 goals in 30 games. But once his successful strikes started to wane, real problems arose.
Pep Guardiola is not a man who involves slackers in his starting 11. Ibrahimovic is an all-or-nothing type of player. He is the man who can score magnificant winners in El Clasico or get sent off for attacking players off the ball. Since his Barcelona days, we've seen this multiple times, summed up by his outrageous bicycle kick against England and near murder of Stephane Ruffier for PSG.
Most notably for Guardiola, Ibrahimovic is the kind of player who doesn't work hard enough for the team. At a time where Barcelona's most legendary squad entered terrific form, room for a disruptive individual quickly dissolved. Like Samuel Eto'o before him, Ibrahimovic fell victim to a narcissism that held his greatness higher than the hard work of his peers.
I Am Zlatan
We all know what followed. Ibrahimovic left Barcelona in a huff and Guardiola immortalised himself as one of the club's greatest ever managers. A rift between the two was easy to pass over until Ibrahimovic released his hilariously named "I Am Zlatan" autobiography in 2011.
Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet ran the book's opening chapter, revealing huge problems between the pair—most of which centred around Messi (as translated by Football Italia).
"It was a childhood dream [to join Barcelona] and I was walking on air. It started well but then Messi started to talk.
He wanted to play in the middle, not on the wing, so the system changed from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1. I was sacrificed and no longer had the freedom on the pitch I need to succeed.
So I asked for a meeting with Guardiola - for a discussion, not an argument. I said I was being used in the wrong way and that they shouldn't have bought me if they wanted another type of player.
I told him what a friend had said to me - 'you bought a Ferrari but drive it like a Fiat'. The chat seemed to go well but then Guardiola started to freeze me out."
This frozen relationship saw Ibrahimovic return to Italy as a failed Camp Nou star. In the wake of his exit, the forward threatened to beat up Guardiola if his move to Milan didn't come to fruition (via ESPN). Despite this claim, it was Ibrahimovic who felt bullied by the former Barcelona manager (via The Daily Mail).
A New Love
While the silly quotes and ridiculous claims never cease, Ibrahimovic was never suited to a career with the current La Liga leaders. The influential Swede needs to be the star man in any team he represents and has to play down the middle if success is to follow.
This is by no means a bad thing. Ibrahimovic is most effective when he receives total support from the players around him. His physical presence and natural finishing ability, combined with a lovingly self-centred personality, means he must always be the centre of an evolving project (quite literally).
As we are seeing in his current spell at Paris Saint-Germain, Ibrahimovic thrives when the onus is on him. Players such as Lucas Moura and Ezequiel Lavezzi have been signed to complement a playing style that makes no quarrels about having Joey Barton's favourite "big-nosed" striker as the bringer of glory. Hell, their work rate even allows Ibrahimovic to trudge around in the opposition's half.
At Barcelona, Ibrahimovic was given no room to hide. The same will be true on April 2 and 10, when he is set to meet his old suitors in a mouth-watering Champions League quarterfinal tie. UEFA recently reduced the striker's red card against Valencia to ensure a two-legged date with Barcelona is on the cards (via BBC Sport).
Will Ibrahimovic and Barcelona's divorce rear itself during this encounter? Can he finally overshadow Messi with a performance that makes the Camp Nou wonder what could have been? What do PSG need to topple the threat of their opponents?
As the big man would say, "Nothing, they have Zlatan."
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