“Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Probably the most overrated player on the planet.”
That was the verdict of Martin O’Neill back in 2006, speaking on the BBC. “The overrated, overpaid Ibrahimovic,” opined Henry Winter, writing in the Telegraph four years later.
These were not dissenting voices. Until fairly recently, the line on Ibrahimovic from English football’s mainstream was so common as to have passed into cliché, and it invariably centred around that O-word.
And not only was Ibrahimovic not rated in England, he wasn’t liked either. Most of the judgements on his overhyped abilities were delivered with a certain revelling tone that belied how his demeanour caused inordinate offence to the time-honoured sensibilities of the British football establishment.
Like some of English football’s foreign hate figures – think Eric Cantona or Cristiano Ronaldo – Ibrahimovic was an unapologetic showman. He was also a sulky stroller who regarded hard running with the level of contempt reserved for the latest Transformers film, or Katie Hopkins.
1999-2001 Malmo (47 apps, 18 goals)
2001-04 Ajax (110 apps, 48 goals)
2004-06 Juventus (92 apps, 26 goals)
2006-09 Inter (117 apps, 66 goals)
2009-11 Barcelona (46 apps, 22 goals)
2010-11 Milan, loan (41 apps, 21 goals)
2011-12, Milan (44 apps, 35 goals)
2012-16 PSG (180 apps, 156 goals)
To a nation conditioned by the mud-and-thunder heroism of Terry Butcher and Bryan Robson, the striker’s laissez-faire languidness passed from merely annoying to outrightly offensive, his godlike physique a further affront to the British doctrine of having to earn your masculinity.
Loaded onto this were his showings against English opposition, which, for a prolonged spell, were bizarrely dire. For four seasons on the trot between 2005 and 2009, Ibrahimovic’s clubs were drawn against English sides in the Champions League knockout rounds. The striker started all eight fixtures, scoring a grand total of zero goals and seeing his team eliminated each time.
In light of these games, Ibrahimovic – winner of seven league medals by 2009 – was seen in England as a title-winning player in the same way TOWIE is a BAFTA-winning TV show: technically, maybe, but in no way meaningfully.
All the same, those eight games meant the notion that he was some sort of charlatan hadn’t quite sprung from nowhere. And yet the emphatic way these few fixtures were allowed to overwrite the Swede’s annual medal-hoovering act across Holland, Italy and Spain spoke to the worst of the British football press’s cheery insularity and wilful ignorance.
(The Sun’s Shaun Custis perhaps demonstrated this best in a 2011 appearance on Sky’s Sunday Supplement programme, when he interjected in a discussion about Italian football with: “You watch Serie A, do you? I didn’t think people did that anymore. Genuinely, I didn’t.”)
So as the Swede prepares for a career encore in Blighty, the enraptured tones struck by England’s media marks a far cry from the bitter condemnations that were being broadcast a decade ago. The starry-eyed adulation his imminent arrival has prompted among fans leaves no doubt that English football in 2016 has fully bought into the cult of Zlatan.
Something has changed – but what exactly?
First and foremost, of course, was his four-goal showing against the national team back in 2012 – the sort of imperious, swaggering performance worthy of reviving a reputation in any context, let alone the self-absorbed psyche of English football.
As the man himself has said since: “The English media will only consider you a great player once you score against their side. Now I am a good player since I scored against them." (His brace against Arsenal for Barcelona in 2010 can also be counted here.)
And yet Ibrahimovic’s neat, tidy and customarily self-congratulatory explanation is only partly right.
In fact, English football has become slowly besotted with Zlatan not because he has won us over, exactly, but because English football itself has undergone a change. Over the last half-decade or so, those old instincts – the triumphalism, the self-absorption, the unashamed obliviousness to all that’s foreign – have quietly passed from the mainstream to the fringes.
Wide, wide web
The driving force behind this change has been the emergence of the internet as a central mode through which much of the world watches and discusses football. It’s a move that has created clickbait, trolls and free labour.
It has also somewhat democratised the consumption of football. The wondergoals of a Serie A superstar, for instance, are no longer the preserves of Saturday morning die-hards or second-hand anecdotes, but are beamed across the world the instant they happen to be guzzled up keenly by millions, free of charge.
And as it turns out, English fans are quite intrigued about what goes on abroad. The written media has begun to reflect that, with correspondents from across Europe ushered into the mainstream and their weekly dispatches often drawing a bigger readership than most domestic match reports.
On TV, James Richardson’s worldly broadcasts have now moved from the hangover slots to the prime time, with BT Sport’s European Football Show having quickly become as much a part of many fans’ weekends as Match of the Day (and, with its comprehensive coverage of Ligue 1, one of the main ways England has become more closely acquainted with Ibrahimovic’s brutalist magnificence).
The digital sea-change has been enormous, and it is ongoing. It has meant overseas football has shed nearly all of the mystique and fascination that was once its very appeal. But it means English football has lost much of its unpleasant parochialism, too.
No hiding places
That small-townish myopia does still lurk in some corners of England’s football press, of course, but now those opinions are much scarcer and they tend not to go unchallenged, or at the very least unmocked. And these days the tide of scorn flows largely from the clued-up Europhiles towards the Little Englanders, rather than vice versa.
Reductive myths, like a trophy-hoarding goal machine being one of the planet’s most overrated players, do not pass uncritically into the public conscience but are met on the digital battlefield by an army of dedicated belligerents the second they’re aired, and face death by a thousand sneers.
A move with pros and cons, then. But all in all, one which has resulted, indirectly, in England falling head over heels for Zlatan. And as much as Ibrahimovic – a joyously antagonistic character who has stoked and savoured his beef with the English press – would like to think otherwise, his role in the process has been a largely passive one.
His scissor-kicking splendour four years ago can’t be ignored, and it certainly offers a narrative around English football’s conversion to Ibra-ism that is as compelling as it is convenient. But in truth, that evening was probably more catalyst than cause.
Lesson (almost) over
Find out how Zlatan's mob are stacking up with our guide
The reality is that his newly revered status in England is a reflection of the entry-level cosmopolitanism that has, belatedly, come to inflect British football.
In that sense, his impending arrival at United – as much as it might smack of a superclub’s dumb fixation with celebrity – is also a reminder of some of the national game’s more progressive recent developments.
Ibrahimovic has made a career from dishing out home truths wherever he goes, and, having suffered from British parochialism in the past, will doubtless be doubly excited to teach English football a thing or two. The problem for him, though, is that much of the learning has already been done.
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