The World Cup play-offs require a certain type of sang froid—ironically, a quality plainly missing from France’s performance in them so far—as players stand upon the brink of realising a dream, or a nightmare. If one expects Sweden to look to Zlatan Ibrahimovic for inspiration as they attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Portugal, it is not necessarily assumed that his leadership takes any other form but the provision of brilliance.
Who will go through?
Yet something has changed since Ibrahimovic moved to Paris Saint-Germain, a surprising twist of fate given the French nation’s love of a bona fide rebel. France has celebrated him, even creating a verb in his honour (‘zlataner’—to blitz or pulverise) and marvelling at his idiosyncrasies as much as his outrageous skill and serial goalscoring.
At 32, he is more than a gifted bully wreaking havoc in a modest Ligue 1 playground. He is more even than a technical leader to PSG, and to the league competition as a whole. He has grown into the role of pastoral leader in his own unusual way, talking ever since his early months at the club about his need to share his experience with his teammates (by UEFA.com).
Teammates Thiago Silva and Lucas Moura have often recounted Ibrahimovic’s array of expletives on the training fields of the Camp des Loges after passes towards him are misplaced in practice (with amusement by Silva, and with trepidation by Lucas).
His long list of confrontations with colleagues and opponents are well-known—with Rafael van der Vaart, Jonathan Zebina and Pep Guardiola among them—but his frustrations tend to be put into the pursuit of excellence in Paris. He knows that he is a senior player who needs to guide the rest—and to make them winners.
Nowadays, the kung-fu kicks tend to be strictly limited to breathtaking goals like this effort against Marseille (via LFP.fr), even if the still-aching chest of St Etienne goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier after one clumsy challenge last autumn that led to Ibrahimovic being sent off might disagree.
Ibrahimovic will never be snow white, but he is genuinely misunderstood, much like Cristiano Ronaldo, his direct opponent in this perceived battle of the demigods in Lisbon and now Stockholm. He is known as the ultimate braggart, but much of that comes from his very knowing, self-constructed media image, that many fail to grasp as being tongue-in-cheek.
His grinning comment to a journalist on the eve of the first leg that they were talking to “God” is a case in point (Bleacher Report story here). Tapping into the legend of Zlatan and propelled by social media, the idea that this was delivered by some cackling megalomaniac was halfway around the world before the truth had pulled its trousers on.
Ibrahimovic knows how it works. Having told a L’Equipe journalist soon after his arrival in France that he was happy for him to “write what you like,” he provided a sober commentary on the billing of the play-off as Cristiano versus Zlatan.
“I think that the idea’s to create a tension around this game,” he said in Thursday’s press conference in Lisbon. “It’s great for the fans, because they have something to read about.”
Ibrahimovic may keep the myth alive, but he has grown from the maverick teenager from the tough Malmo suburb of Rosengard. A compulsive winner, he is quite comparable to Roy Keane in his rejection of excuses and heavy demands on all his teammates.
With Sweden—where the quality drop-off between him and his peers is far more pronounced than that in Paris, of course—this willingness to lead is even more desirable. Portugal may have better players overall but while Ibrahimovic is hungry, Sweden have a chance of being led to Brazil.