With Success in England, Zlatan Ibrahimovic Strikes a Blow Against Snobbery

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MANCHESTER, England — Eleven years ago, Martin O’Neill said something he probably regrets.

O’Neill was working as part of the BBC’s team covering the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Bright and articulate, naturally inclined to playing the polemicist, his presence was quite a coup for the network. O’Neill did not go in for platitudes, which made him good television. And having managed at Leicester City and Celtic, his résumé lent him considerable authority.

As the tournament entered the knockout stages, O’Neill was in the studio when attention turned to Germany’s round-of-16 game against Sweden. The conversation, predictably, turned to the threat posed by Sweden’s totemic forward, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and whether he might be the man to eliminate the host nation.

And that was when O’Neill decided to venture his honest opinion.

“Good grief,” he said. “He’s the most overrated player on the planet.”

Some observations do not age well. That one, it is fair to say, turned almost as soon as it was uncorked.

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After all that Ibrahimovic has achieved in less than one season with Manchester United, it seems inconceivable that O’Neill’s view of the player once approached orthodoxy among the devotees of the Premier League.

Ibrahimovic won 13 league championships in 15 seasons — across four countries — after leaving his native Sweden for Ajax of Amsterdam in 2001, scoring not far off 400 goals in the process, but no matter. He remained, to those who only had eyes for English soccer, a curiously and uniquely continental phenomenon.

His poor record against English clubs in the Champions League — or, a far lower bar, on his occasional sallies against the English national team — was always trotted out as the case for the prosecution.

Ibrahimovic scored goals, great avalanches of goals, against lesser teams in lesser leagues, but always for sides on which — as the former Manchester United and England star Paul Scholes once put it — it was “easy” to score.

His travails against English defenses were seen as proof that, across the Channel, he would ultimately amount to little beyond ordinary. By extension, his sustained success in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France simply served as proof of the superiority of the Premier League.

Ibrahimovic might have given the criticism short shrift in public, but in private, he resented it. In his autobiography, “I Am Zlatan,” he described using the haughty dismissal of the English news media as a motivational tool before playing — and scoring, twice — for Barcelona against Arsenal in 2010.

Two years later, as he was deluged with praise after scoring four goals, the final one extraordinary, for Sweden against England in a friendly in Stockholm, he suggested that “that’s the way it is with the English: If you score against them, you’re a good player. If you don’t, you’re not.”

In hindsight, those two games acted as significant staging posts in Ibrahimovic’s relationship with England. After a decade of doubt, a country was suddenly converted.

“Last night, the world woke up to the mighty Zlatan,” the former Liverpool midfielder and omnipresent talking head Jamie Redknapp wrote after the latter match. The world, of course, had been alert to Ibrahimovic’s ability for quite some time because of all those goals and trophies. Only in Britain had eyes, and minds, been closed.

What has happened in the seven months since he disembarked at Manchester United has, then, seemed to be an attempt to make up for lost time, conducted with all the ardor of a late-in-life romance between star-crossed lovers.

Ibrahimovic has reveled in his chance to show the Premier League precisely what it was overlooking: 26 goals in 38 games under Manager José Mourinho, including winning goals in the Community Shield and, on Sunday at Wembley, the E.F.L. Cup, the first major trophy of the season.

At 35, he has played more minutes than many of his far younger teammates. As much as his efficacy in front of the goal, and the characteristic imagination in his play, his undimmed appetite for the battle has impressed.

On match day at Old Trafford, jerseys bearing his name and number dominate the stands. Behind the scenes, he has relished working with Mourinho again, and he has forged a firm friendship with his teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan, often dining with him, and Paul Pogba, in the city.

That trace of English exceptionalism has not been absent from all of the tributes that have flowed in his direction — the former Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard said in December that Ibrahimovic is a “world-class player, and now he is proving it week in, week out” — but that England has fallen, and fallen hard, for its Swedish paramour is beyond doubt.
On Sunday, Gary Neville, a former United captain, described Ibrahimovic as a “beacon” for his old club, both on and off the field. Neville’s brother, Phil, another United alumnus, was equally effusive. Mourinho suggested that United fans might camp outside Ibrahimovic’s house to persuade him to sign on for another year.

All of those things that were once held against Ibrahimovic have now been inverted in his favor. That his shot-to-goal ratio — a measure of how ruthless he is when presented with a chance — is, at 6.8, a little higher than the likes of Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez is not interpreted as inefficiency, but as proof of his ability to be in the right positions at the right time.

His bombast is no longer an object of disapproval and derision, but of admiration. When Ibrahimovic decreed that he would be not a king but a “god” in Manchester, or when he said after the E.F.L. Cup final that he was “expecting” to prove such a hit in England, he is not chastised for his arrogance, but is praised for his confidence. Conceitedness and charisma can be easily confused in the wrong light.

Increasingly, the parallel is being drawn between Ibrahimovic and another swaggering, self-possessed import who held Old Trafford in his thrall.

Most newspapers in England on Monday contained at least one reference to Eric Cantona, the Frenchman who, as much as any individual player, transformed Manchester United into a modern superpower in the 1990s.

It is not hard to see the parallels, of course. Ibrahimovic’s carefully crafted public image could be read as a homage to Cantona, with his upturned collar and gnomic statements, packaged for the Instagram generation. Both came to Manchester with reputations for truculence and self-indulgence, as well as vivid brilliance, and both, once there, proved to be gifted leaders, too, by deed rather than by word.

And both are significant enough to affect English soccer’s psychology and culture more broadly. In the mid-1990s, a glut of imports from Europe and farther afield thronged into England, an invasion bankrolled by television money but inspired, without question, by Cantona. His success convinced a naturally isolationist country and league that foreigners could thrive here. The polyglot paradise the Premier League became is his legacy.

Ibrahimovic could leave a similar bequest. O’Neill recanted his disdain last year, when the draw for Euro 2016 pitted the Ireland team he now coaches against Ibrahimovic’s Sweden.

“Ten years ago, that might have been the case,” he said, a little defensively, when asked if he regretted calling Ibrahimovic overrated. “Lots of things can happen in that time.”

A few months later, with Ibrahimovic — in his career’s twilight — in contention to be anointed player of the year, claiming he is a product of nothing more than bluster and bullying would border on heresy. He has converted the last redoubt of his critics. England has reconsidered him, and in doing so, it might care to reconsider the leagues it once scorned through him.

Ibrahimovic, they said, would never cut it in the Premier League. He could only shine where the lights were not as bright. He has proved that wrong, decisively so. Perhaps those leagues are not quite as inferior as was always assumed, and perhaps the Premier League is not the ultimate test. Perhaps it was not Ibrahimovic who was overrated.

(New York Times)

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