Ibra, Best and a Boxing Day bonanza

His Zlatanic majesty

The 2008-09 UEFA Champions League draw was a bit of a peach. Not only does it offer Rafa Benitez and Claudio Ranieri the chance to stroll down Memory Lane, it pits Ferguson against Mourinho or, more importantly, Ibrahimovic against Ronaldo.

Inter’s boss – now known as SuperMou to denizens of the Italian football media – has suggested that the Swede is better than the artist formally known as CR7.

From a technical perspective, he may have a point. Ibrahimovic has been in astonishing form this season in Serie A, setting up goals with flicked passes and scoring with strikes that would have impressed Hamish Hotshot.

Cynics insist that Ibra is just a very gifted YouTube player. That's unfair but it’s easy to see why the charge is being made.

A player of his gifts should be able, more often, to take a game by the scruff of the neck and control it, in the way that the likes of Best, Cruyff – and even Cristiano Ronaldo – have all done.

"Think you can do better?" 

In big games in Europe, Ibra has sometimes seemed distracted or oppressed by the pressure; it’s almost as if his picture of the game has been distorted. And his goal tally – nine in 39 Champions League matches – isn’t worthy of a player with his gifts.

Now, against United, would be the perfect stage for him to prove to Europe that he can, as all the true greats have done, dominate a game when it matters.

Best on Best

Rereading Gordon Burns’ Best And Edwards, I am startled by how good it is.

Burns doesn’t quite succeed in bringing the great Duncan Edwards into focus – maybe, given his tragically short career and the power of his myth, that just isn’t possible unless you’re prepared to take the kind of risks David Peace took in his brilliant novel about Cloughie, The Damned Utd – but Burns brings fresh insight into the more protracted tragedy of George Best’s decline and fall.

The irony at the heart of Best’s tragedy is that through sheer talent, looks and charisma, he had conquered the world by he time he was in his early twenties. And then discovered that the only person he really wanted to spend anytime with was himself.

After all, who else – apart from, say, Elvis and The Beatles – could understand the strange laws that governed his existence? The women – even the Miss Worlds – seem a distraction, a useful time killer.

In Burns’ narrative, Best seems only finally to achieve a kind of peace when he semi-retires to a pub in Chelsea where he is protected by the regulars and landlord and settles into a regular, alcoholic routine.

"Yes, Zlatan, I do" 

I interviewed Best once, for FourFourTwo, back in the mid-1990s. And it struck me then, although this required no special insight, that he was different to most of the other celebrities you interview.

He didn’t set out to light up, or dominate the room. He just sat, rather quietly, on the sofa, telling a few lovely anecdotes as one of his old matches flickered on the TV set.

Only when his younger self ghosted past the Southampton defence in black and white did he show much emotion, jumping from the sofa and saying “God I was f***ing quick” and pointing at the screen as if I might not believe him and had to be confronted with the evidence.

After I interviewed him, everyone I knew asked me two questions. Did he turn up? And, was he drunk? To which I answered yes and no – although it was rumoured that after I left he went on a bender.

I did notice that, as the interview progressed, the little mini-bottles of champagne were increasingly in demand and Best, despite the frantic urgings of his PR man, was stubbornly refusing to eat any sandwiches.

Afterwards, I struggled to connect the young Best, whose talent still shines on YouTube, with the man I met. Burns’s book has probably given me more insight into Best than anything else I have ever read – even more than Eamon Dunphy’s sublime A Strange Kind Of Glory.

And finally…

As my contribution to the festive spirit, I thought it would be worth recording the results from Division One (Premier League in newspeak) on December 26 1963. This works best if you imagine James Alexander Gordon reading them as you read them.

Blackpool 1 Chelsea 5Burnley 6 Manchester United 1Fulham 10 Ipswich Town 1Leicester City 2 Everton 0Liverpool 6 Stoke City 1Nottingham Forest 3 Sheffield United 3West Bromwich Albion 4 Tottenham Hotspur 4Sheffield Wednesday 3 Bolton Wanderers 0Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Aston Villa 3West Ham United 2 Blackburn Rovers 8

Here’s hoping for another 66-goal fest on Boxing Day.


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