Zlatan Ibrahimovic has pulled off many impressive tricks over the years, but arguably the best has been to convince some football fans that he ranks among the world’s very best.
While he's undoubtedly been a supremely gifted footballer capable of blending exquisite skill and athleticism to dazzling effect, Ibrahimovic has always remained a far cry from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and many of his contemporaries.
Try telling that to his ardent fans, though. Ever since the release of the Swede’s Alan Partridge-esque autobiography, I Am Zlatan in 2011 (a book whose ghost writer later admitted: "I don’t think I have any real quotes from him"), a cottage industry of supporters have emerged only too happy to worship at the altar of Ibra.
It’s made separating the myth of Zlatan from the reality of Ibrahimovic a frustrating task; much of the online discussion around the Swede is dominated by one-eyed stats and self-aggrandising quotes delivered in the third person.
Though there’s no denying his success as a goalscorer, Ibrahimovic ultimately falls short when held up to the same kind of scrutiny as some of the modern game’s very best. In another era, Ibrahimovic’s exploits in Italy alone might have put him among the game’s greats – but Zlatan is no Diego Maradona or Gabriel Batistuta.
Rather than turn out for a cult outfit like Napoli or Fiorentina, Zlatan played for Italy’s three biggest clubs at a time when each was dominating the league. His rise to prominence also came when Serie A was arguably at its lowest ebb in over two decades, thanks to financial woes and an ensuing match-fixing scandal.
Juventus were dominant in the period prior to Zlatan’s arrival, while he joined Inter at a point when their two biggest rivals had been either demoted or hit with a significant points deduction in the wake of the Calciopoli referee-rigging debacle.
By the time he returned to Italy with Milan in 2010, power had shifted again: the Rossoneri on the up under Massimiliano Allegri, who was fast emerging as Serie A’s best manager. Inter were in the grip of a major post-Jose Mourinho decline.
For all the goals, Scudetti and glut of magical performances for which fans dubbed Zlatan “Ibracadabra”, however, Italian football was a far cry from its ‘90s heyday. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Europe.
Over five consecutive seasons, first with Juventus and later Inter, Zlatan underwhelmed in the Champions League, scoring just nine goals in 41 games across that period. In an era when the Premier League dominated continental competition, it was also telling that Zlatan – the man who once told Arsene Wenger he “doesn’t do auditions” – fluffed his lines against English opposition.
In four of those five Scudetto-winning campaigns, Zlatan’s employers were dumped out of the Champions League by English opposition, losing to Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool (twice) over a period in which the Swede endured 450 minutes of knockout stage football without scoring.
As good a footballer as he was, Ibra's legacy – so much of which rests on the notion of him being a serial winner – was always likely to be found lacking. He never won the Champions League, and couldn't haul Sweden to close to glory at major tournaments: they didn't make it beyond the first knockout game at three tournaments from 2002-06, failed to make it out of the group at Euro 2008 and 2012, and didn't even qualify for World Cups in 2010 and 2014.
Ibrahimovic’s Champions League failings extended to his time with Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, two teams who he also excelled with domestically but underachieving dramatically on the continent. Over six seasons he failed to get any further than a Champions League quarter-final, exiting the competition at the hands of English clubs three times.
It’s not just that Ibrahimovic failed to shine in Europe, either – there’s even evidence to suggest teams often flourished in the absence of his sizeable ego.
After selling Zlatan to Champions League holders Barcelona in 2009 as part of a deal that paved the way for Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito to join, Inter Milan went on to lift Europe's biggest trophy with their new arrivals contributing crucial goals at clutch moments.
Ibrahimovic, by contrast, endured a frustrating time at Barça. Despite winning La Liga and coming away with a solid scoring record, he failed to make a lasting impact so blamed Pep Guardiola’s man-management and the overbearing influence of Lionel Messi on the Catalans' team. It must have rankled the Swede – who left for Milan after one season – that Barcelona returned to Europe's summit with another Champions League final victory over Manchester United.
The phenomenon isn’t just limited to his domestic exploits, either.
Ibrahimovic is Sweden’s all-time top scorer with 62 goals, and once declared that “a World Cup without me is nothing to watch”. But he never actually scored at one in his seven appearances.
More notably, in the wake of his international retirement, Sweden not only qualified for 2018's tournament at the expense of Italy, but reached the quarter-finals in what was their best showing since 1994.
Ibrahimovic’s best Sweden performance undoubtedly came in a 4-2 victory over England in November 2012 – a game in which he scored four times, including an outrageous long-range overhead volley. But even that should come with a disclaimer. Firstly, it was a friendly – Steven Caulker, Leon Osman, Ryan Shawcross, and Carl Jenkinson all featured for England – and secondly, Zlatan’s 91st-minute wondergoal came via some kamikaze Joe Hart goalkeeping.
There would be no repeat when the two met later that year at Euro 2012 either, with England knocking Sweden out in the group stage.
Even his Manchester United exploits have been overblown. Though a return of 28 goals in his first season at Old Trafford showed he could handle the cut and thrust of the Premier League, it’s worth noting that more than a quarter of those goals came in the Europa League and League Cup. His league goals didn’t prevent United from finishing a disappointing sixth.
Winning the Community Shield, EFL Cup and Europa League may technically count as a treble success (if you're Jose Mourinho), but even Zlatan purists would struggle to sell that one among his most impressive feats.
Now over in MLS with LA Galaxy, Ibrahimovic appears to be back to doing what he does best – scoring spectacular goals against inferior opposition in low-pressure games. He’s yet to win a trophy, but Zlatan has won plenty of fans thanks mostly to just being himself.
Ibrahimovic is the perfect football icon for the social media generation, and his over-inflated sense of self-worth, impressive personal statistics and penchant for a soundbite should ensure his cult status remains intact forever. Arguably, his best trick yet.
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