How many times do you see the name “Zlatan” misspelled? Or “Ibrahimović,” for that matter? Not many, which is little mind boggling, when you think about it. American education standards are becoming a joke, yet every FIFA-playing 15-year-old that’s trolling you online knows how to spell a five-syllable Slavic surname. It’s both sad and amazing, as well as a testament to how popular “Ibra” has become. The man imposed his name upon the lexicon.
Along the way, the Swedish international has also imposed himself among the small but vocal group of detractors that used to define his image. It was only a few years ago – a time when people whose adherence to a series of old-school values refused to empathize with a thoroughly modern player. Was he humble, self-effacing or willing in any way to understate his talent? Never. Not even close. He was honest, confident and daring, but without the ability to play by others’ rules, those qualities morphed. Arrogant, selfish and reckless was what we were told. Worse: We were told those traits diminished his talent.
Thankfully, it was all bullshit. Time and common sense eventually won out. There was only so long convention could ignore a player who has won league titles with every team he’s been on. And no matter how much the game’s self-appointed custodians revered their rules — no matter how much Fleet Street, a rabid Italian press, or his short-lived adversaries in Spain wanted to spin the numbers — Ibrahimović was an irresistible talent, particularly to those who mattered most. The respect he’d won (often begrudgingly) within the game won out.
As this summer’s #DareToZlatan campaign showed, we’re now living in Zlatan’s world. Suddenly, and unpredictably, he may be the most popular player on the planet. Is he necessarily the best? No, nor does he have the commercial might behind him that others enjoy. Still, Ibra’s reminded us there’s a meaning beyond endorsements, followers, or goals. There’s a part of the sport that’s about the art of a perfectly trapped ball, the execution of a pass nobody would bother to try, the prestige of a bicycle kick that has already become immortal:
Long before moving to Paris Saint-Germain, Ibrahimović was a human highlight reel …
… but in Ligue 1 — a strong league, but one that’s well below his talent level — Zlatan has become the greatest show on earth. In a physical circuit, he’s never short of chances to display his strength and balance. But surrounded by talents like Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, he has the room to do what he loves most: Drift away from the line, move toward the ball, and dominate the game like a mutant Riquelme.
He’s brought art back into the game, and while that may require him to eschew the surgical precision of players like Ronaldo and Messi, he wouldn’t have it any other way. We already have those types of talents, and he doesn’t want to join them. There is only one Ibra, just like he planned it.
It’s absolutely insane that his talent was ever debated, but if it wasn’t for that tension, Zlatan’s rise would be less remarkable. At this moment, one where Ibrahimović is almost universally respected (if not outright admired), he’s led us past the stodgy discussions that clouded that discourse. Having emerged as an icon of his own creation, Zlatan’s destroyed the old school. He’s moved the bar. He’s paved the the way for players like Daniel Sturridge, Mario Balotelli, and everybody else asked to embrace stardom. Zlatan is the dean of soccer’s new school.
And there’s nothing more intriguing than tearing down the establishment. Not 56 goals over the last two seasons. Not 10 league titles. Not a career that would make him a first ballot YouTube Hall of Famer.
When he retires, Mino Raiola’s press release shouldn’t tout his numbers. It should merely say, “We changed the game for you. You’re welcome.”
The Fake numbers
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