Thursday, September 24, 2020
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World Cup worse for lack of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ego

At least it gives us four weeks of next summer back.

As Sweden failed to qualify for Brazil 2014, their captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggested — his tongue seemingly nowhere near his cheek — that without him the World Cup will not be worth watching.

Personally I thought the joys of the tournament centred on things like spotting Wigan’s next left-back as he turns out for Ecuador, or giggling at the French as they self-destruct, or testing the resilience of your telly as you hurl things at it when England bore everything to a standstill.

But, no. Apparently the purpose of the World Cup lies solely in following the progress of a giant ego in a top knot (and no, since Denmark have not made it either, that is not a reference to Nicklas Bendtner).

And now Zlatan is not there, frankly what is the point? Not that anyone could fault his effort to get to Brazil.

Spurred on by a giant projection in downtown Stockholm of the kind of image he most admires (it was of him, depicted as Sweden’s messiah) he scored two goals in the play-off against Portugal on Tuesday.

His misfortune was to be confronted by a team containing an even more elevated talent than his. It was Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick that did for him.

Now all that remains is disappointment. Not so much for him, deprived of the opportunity finally to inscribe his name at the top of the game. But for us, deprived of the chance to watch him do so.

And in a sense, he is right: it won’t be the same. This tournament will be missing some stellar talent.

You can put together an eleven that reads: Petr Cech (Czech Republic); David Alaba (Austria), Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic and Neven Subotic (all Serbia); Marek Hamsik (Slovakia), Christian Eriksen (Denmark), Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey (Wales); Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Mirko Vucinic (Montenegro). Not a bad team, that.

But that is the thing about the World Cup: it weeds out and refines to the point when only the very best are invited. Plus Tom Cleverley. None of those notable absentees, however, will be missed as much as Ibrahimovic.

He may be behind Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in ability, but there is something about the scale of his self-worth that makes him compelling viewing.

A thing without boundary or restriction, his ego is unrestrained by any of the usual notions of social nicety. To view it on the same scale as the rest of the footballing world, you need to look through the wrong end of a telescope.

A colleague recently managed to stop him long enough in the mixed zone after a Paris St-Germain game to ask him what he thought of the system the team was playing under the new coach, Laurent Blanc. “4-3-3 very good,” came back the player.

Emboldened by his response, my colleague pressed on, seeking further clarification. “Why is it so good?” he asked. To which query came the unarguable reply: “Because I say so.” There is no one like him in sport.

Roger Federer may well have an ego the size of Lake Geneva, but convention insists he maintain at least the pretence of modesty.

Kevin Pietersen might well believe it is he, rather than the sun, around which the universe circles, but the requirements of his sponsors find him publicly extolling the virtues of team work and the collective. Ibrahimovic acknowledges no such restriction.

When once asked what he had bought his then girlfriend for her birthday, he replied he had bought her nothing. There was no need to buy her anything, he added, as she already had the most valuable gift in the world. She had Zlatan.

Rarely are footballers’ autobiographies exercises in self-deprecation; Ibrahimovic’s, however, took solipsism to another level.

It was titled I Am Zlatan. But this was the thing about his volume: it backed up the title.

It was a terrific read, a romp of a piece, its prose zinging with hilarious self-glorification. In a sense, his football is the same.

If he failed to deliver, then Ibrahimovic would be simply ridiculous, the Alan Partridge of sport.

But time and again — whether it be an utterly improbable chip over Joe Hart or a brace in a vital play-off — he does it. Which is why, in a sense, he is right. The World Cup will not be the same without him. Perhaps we should comfort ourselves in his absence by doing what he will be doing next June: going on holiday.

Not that many of us have access to the kind of away days Zlatan enjoys. In 2012, he bought a 6.4 square-km private island off the Swedish coast. This he filled with antelopes and other African exotica. And every summer he invites his mates to go over and hunt with him.

Of this we can be sure about Zlatan Ibrahimovic: if all else fails, he would make a terrific Bond villain.