Friday, 16 November 2012

English Football Snobs & Their Zlatan Apologies

In the 48 hours since Zlatan Ibrahimovic's remarkable performance against England, no one has summed up the mood of the English press more so than the Daily Mail's Dominic King, who published "An Apology for Zlatan." King, in what he probably considered as honourable honesty in a world of willy-waving, admitted that over the years and as recently as Euro 2012, he simply "didn't get" the Swedish striker, but after his four goals on Wednesday, he finally saw the light.

He's not the only one. Its easy to picture the press box at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, with the clique of British tabloid reporters sat together, all 'not getting' Zlatan, having never seen him do anything of note in what they consider a big game. Then when Andy Carroll climbs to head England into the lead, an exchange of knowing looks and back-slaps - "he's unplayable, him."

It's worth pointing out firstly that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, having won nine domestic league titles in the last ten years with the likes of Ajax, Internazionale, Juventus, Milan and Barcelona, and who recently gave himself a ten out of ten for his international career, probably doesn't give much of a hoot what Dominic King or Andy Townsend think. Or Jamie Redknapp for that matter, who decided that Zlatan finally "announced himself to the world" this week.

But more importantly, what was it about this friendly between Sweden and the second-string of an entirely average England squad, arranged as a curtain-raiser for the new stadium in Stockholm, which makes it the match by which any player can be realised as a true great of the sport? How is this irrelevant practice match which contained as many substitutions per-team as the excellent goals we saw, being talked about on the same plane as the 1958 World Cup Final, when a 17-year old Pele first became a superstar?

Interspersed with exasperations at how teenagers like Raheem Sterling and Wilfred Zaha could even contemplate playing for their country of birth over the mighty England, ITV's Tyldesley and Townsend gave us continual reminders of Zlatan's mediocre scoring record against English teams. It was held up as a justification for their 'enigma' tag, as if scoring goals against English teams live on ITV is the standard to which all footballers around the world should aspire to.

As the son of a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, born and raised in Sweden, I don't quite envisage a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic dribbling a ball through the Rosengard streets with Brian Moore's voice in his head, thinking "one day, when I score, Ron Atkinson might refer to me as Zlatty."

Come the final whistle, the awkward backtracking had begun, yet the resigned speech from Townsend and King's gushing in the Mail the next day were not apologies, regardless of the article headlines, in the sense that they were admitting they'd got it wrong all along. They were knowing nods from football's head office towards this foreign enigma, as if to say "well done son, you've finally done what I've always thought you capable of."

Meanwhile, Zlatan's not arsed. After his second goal, a smartly taken volley, he was more concerned that he'd injured Gary Cahill with his follow-through than with his equaliser. The shirt came off after the fourth goal, and why not, given he'd just scored one of the most extraordinary goals seen on any football pitch? It became a memorable match because of his performance, but this was never meant to be a particularly special game for the striker, despite Townsend's insistence that because of his record on live British television in the past, it turned out to be the night of his reckoning. Zlatan had nothing to prove to anyone, just as when he was asked about being offered a trial by Arsene Wenger some years ago, he responded with "Zlatan doesn't do auditions."

Of course, scoring four goals in a game is rare, but Wednesday was essentially a magnificent footballer having a great time surrounded by average ones, with only Steven Gerrard in his pomp worthy of the same category. Zlatan's fried bigger fish in the past, and contrary to popular belief, in far bigger one-off games too, such as Spain's El Clasico, the Milan derby, and league title deciders. As recently as November 6th, he delivered a Champions League masterclass with something equally as rare as four goals, when he provided four sumptuous assists for Paris St. Germain.

Along with a title collection that trumps many of the sport's undeniable all-time legends, he's closing in on 250 club goals and 100 assists, as well as 40 international goals for an average team, all struck at that 1:2 ratio that strikers are often judged on. He's also no stranger to Youtube moments, with his back-healed-volley in the last minute against Italy at Euro 2004 not far behind Wednesday's acrobatics, not to mention a stunning solo goal for Ajax and an absurd kung-fu pass to Dejan Stankovic when at Inter. He also scored a splendid back-healed winning goal against England in 2004, and two beauties at the Emirates in a Champions League knockout tie two years ago - the awkward anomalies that not many wanted you to hear about before Wednesday's match.

It should be a journalistic criminal offence to spout what the likes of King and Townsend have this week, but in the spirit of free speech and thought, everyone is entitled to an opinion on the qualities of a particular player, no matter how shit and wrong it is.

However, it is quite another issue when those delivering analysis and insight of the world's most popular game to the masses, place them on such a skewed version of the football landscape by constantly positioning England at the top-centre. We claim to have the best league in the world, the best fans and the longest, proudest history. We claim to have invented football and as such we have the final say on its every global movement; what's right and wrong with the game, who the great players are, who is hosting the next World Cup, dual-nationality, goal-line technology and financial fair play - its all based on this idea that English football is the pinnacle, for us and for everyone else looking in. Stan Collymore may not be as naturally-gifted and well-educated a journalist or commentator as those who came through the media ranks, but he absolute nails it when he talks about British football's snobbery.

And so as King and company continue to wriggle and squirm out of the hole they've dug themselves by writing off such a brilliant, unique and entertaining footballer over the years, we can come back to yet another quote from the man himself, when once asked what he'd buy his partner for her birthday:

"Nothing, she already has the Zlatan."

Yes. We do.

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