The goatee. The ponytail. The attitude. The stature. Even his name — Zlatan — reinforces the myth around the man. People see him as more of a Nord warrior than a centre-forward, all the while forgetting that the latter has a tougher life.
It’s easy to perceive Zlatan Ibrahimovic as an extra-human; he’s 34 now and hasn’t shown signs of aging (he is currently enjoying one of his best seasons ever and has scored 39 goals in the season, 40 if you count his goal for Sweden in friendlies), he talks about himself in third person, he also interviews himself before Champions League games. He says things like “Zlatan doesn’t do try-outs” and “practice starts when Zlatan says it starts”. In a world where Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” prophecy is a reality, Ibrahimovic has enjoyed a decade of distinction, so much so that his aura is bigger than his list of accomplishments.
But he wasn't quite himself on Tuesday night in Manchester in the return leg of the Champions League match against Manchester City. He wasn't doing cartwheels in the night sky, neither was he executing ridiculous 30-yard-bicycle kicks. There weren't any karate kicks into goal, no scorching volleys that tear a hole into the net, and no towering, thumping headers that make you wonder what's his neck exercise routine. Ibrahimovic was invisible. Maybe it's the city that's making players forget how to play football, considering how the two Mancunian teams have fared in the league this season.
It was an off day for the Swede as PSG crashed out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, again. And as Manchester City waltzed into the semi-finals for the first time in their 122 year-history, people conveniently forgot Ibrahimovic's history and started picking on him. Manchester City fans called him a "s**t Andy Carroll", which is just ridiculous since we all know Andy Carroll is s**t Andy Carroll. Even ESPN football journalist Miguel Delaney, who usually has many measured things to say, called Ibrahimovic "underwhelming and "below real elite".
"Zlatan very much the symbol of this PSG. So expensive, so much glamour but, in slightly underwhelming way, only ever racking up easy titles," Delaney said on Twitter. "Don't think he's 'a bottler'' or anything like that. He's had some massive moments. But always felt a bit below real elite."
Now watch this.
Does the word "underwhelming" spring to your mind?
Now many, like Delaney, would argue that this once-in-a-millennium kind of a freak goal was one of those Ibrahimovic's "massive moments". But the fact is, he's been having far too many of these 'massive moments' for a decade now, for various clubs and his country. If you don't agree, just YouTube 'Zlatan goals' and you'll be treated to 15 minutes of outrageous goal-scoring madness.
Many say he doesn't turn up during big games, that his goals and his titles have been easy pickings. Many brought it up again last night after the City loss. But many also forgot that just a few weeks ago, it was Ibrahimovic who scored the opener against Chelsea in the round of 16 first leg in Paris. And it was the same man who again set up a goal for Adrien Rabiot and then scored the winner himself in the second leg at Stamford Bridge to take PSG to quarter-finals. Was that not a big game?
Ibrahimovic's exploits over the years have made us expect the same out of him in every game he plays. Just a week ago, when he missed a penalty against City in the first leg of the quarter-finals in Paris, the initial reaction was "how can Zlatan miss a penalty? It can't be!" We conveniently forget he's human after all. It's the curse of being Zlatan Ibrahimovic that even after winning eight league titles in a row, and scoring tons of goals in the most entertaining ways possible, he is not yet considered real elite.
So when would he be real elite? When he sticks with one club like Lionel Messi? He has played for Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and PSG; all big European clubs, and he's won titles with all of them. Ibrahimovic is football's greatest mercenary. He is not loyal. He has never been far from controversy, and humility is not his best quality. His agent even threatened legal action against Juventus to disengage the centre-forward from his contract when the Bianconeri were relegated to Serie B following the Calciopoli scandal. Perhaps Ibrahimovic's hired assassin nature irks the romantics of football.
And it thus becomes very easy to dismiss his league wins as 'easy'. People say he always goes to top clubs, who are well perched to win the league. Well, yes, he does. But to go at top clubs and deliver above and beyond their expectations every season is not an easy task. How many great football players could replicate goal-scoring success in different leagues, with different clubs, all with different playing styles?
On 13 March, Ibrahimovic scored four goals in 9-0 drubbing of Ligue 1 side Troyes to seal PSG's fourth consecutive league title, his 13th in 15 seasons (if one counts the two Scudetti Juventus were stripped of following the match-fixing scandal). He also brought up his 100 goals in Ligue 1 with that hat-trick. He later said he'd be leaving PSG at the end of the season and that he would only stay if the club replaced the Eiffel tower with his statue.
Rumours say Ibrahimovic will cross the English channel and finally arrive at the Premier League — the one league yet to have the 'Zlatan Experience'. He has been linked to Manchester United, especially since Jose Mourinho, who enjoys a great relationship with the striker, looks to be the man most likely replace the hapless Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford. I for one, can't wait to see Ibrahimovic put 'premier' back in the Premier League — his ego, aura, and illeism included. And if I were PSG, I'd start working on that statue right about now.