From 2004 to 2011, Zlatan Ibrahimovic played for five soccer teams in three different countries. His team — in order, he was on Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, and AC Milan — won its league championship every year. Five teams over eight years, all championships. This fact might suggest that 1) Zlatan is really good and 2) Zlatan is adept at learning how to fit in wherever he goes. Number one is true, but number two is emphatically not.
In some ways, Zlatan is the prototypical modern soccer player — big, athletic, strong; skilled, smart, and calculating — but that’s where it ends. If the best modern players are all part of a system, pieces that move and click and make their teams function as efficiently as possible — some, like Messi, more vital than others but still part of an 11-man machine — Zlatan is as old-school as they come. When Zlatan gets the ball, whatever flow or rhythm the game had gets reset to his whim. He played one year at Barcelona — the system of all systems — but was sold after a falling out with then-manager Pep Guardiola for these exact reasons. As Zlatan told Guardiola, “You bought a Ferrari but drive it like a Fiat.”
Some Zlatan facts: he was born in Sweden to a Croatian father and a Bosnian mother. He was bought by Ajax of Amsterdam at age 19, where he came up with Dutch star Rafael Van Der Vaart, who Zlatan purposely injured in a friendly between Sweden and Holland in 2004. He’s kicked enough people in the head while not playing in soccer games to make a multi-minute YouTube video. (He’s a black belt in taekwondo.) He wrote an autobiography, I, Zlatan, which is basically just a long tirade against FC Barcelona (“Guardiola was staring at me…I thought ‘there is my enemy, scratching his bald head!’. I yelled to him: ‘You have no balls!’”) He’s the most expensive soccer player ever. He injured three teammates in his first day of practice with his new team, Paris Saint-Germain of the French league. He routinely refers to himself in the third person because of course he does.
Which brings us to that goal. That fucking goal!
The context: he’d already scored three goals to England’s zero, and it was injury time of a meaningless friendly. Joe Hart, England’s goalie and one of the best in world at the position, misplayed a ball with his head, which was only “misplayed” in the sense that Zlatan was nearby. In a matter of seconds — before the soft header had come down — Zlatan turned his entire 6’5’’, 210-pound body, took five steps in the opposite direction, launched upward feet first, and then, totally upside down, gravity and basic human perception gone to complete shit — remember, he’s 40-some yards from goal right now — whacked the ball with his foot at the perfect angle and with more than enough power to parabola-launch it precisely into the net.
No one else in the world would think to do a 40-yard bicycle kick. Hart’s clearance would’ve been fine against Brazil or Spain or Germany or any other phenomenal team in the goddamn world, but this was against Sweden, and Zlatan plays for Sweden. It wasn’t possible until he did it. Zlatan is playing a different game — or inventing a new one — when he’s on the field, and therefore so is everyone he’s playing against. Look at some of his other famous goals: on this Ajax smash-slalom, normal defensive tackling stops working. (The first guy gets flipped up like a child.) After this heel flick against Italy, you now have to be ready even if a guy’s back is to goal and the ball’s three feet to his side, four feet off the ground.
With the recent rise of ball-playing, pass-and-move soccer — which, don’t get me wrong, is a great thing for the sport and anyone who watches it — there’s so much value placed on doing the simple things right, and making the most five-yard passes, and playing within the boundaries of the game as well as anyone could ever imagine to. But who can repress the naturally-human desire to do something special — play a note out of rhythm or off-key that ends up sounding even better than what’s on the sheet? This is what makes Zlatan so especially great right now. He plays a game that only really vaguely resembles what soccer has become. He’s a folk hero, like our own college basketball stars who whizz onto the scene but fade away because their games can only work in certain conditions and if enough people are willing to accommodate them. Except his game keeps working. Zlatan’s only condition: Earth. The sport will go back to what it was or what it is whenever Zlatan retires, which makes it all the more great that he’s here right now.
When Ibrahimovic moved to PSG this summer for $25 million, his agent Mino Raiola, who, unsurprisingly, is also a madman, said something typically attention-grabbing: “With the arrival of Ibra, Paris now has another reason to be considered a city filled with beauty. Now I think the people in Paris will have something else to see besides the Mona Lisa.”
Grandiose, sure. But the thing is, he’s right.