Euro 2016: For the love of all things Zlatan
When the Blågult’s skipper scored his second goal of the night at the Parken Stadion back in November of last year, the entire Scandinavian nation of Sweden celebrated wildly. With a 4-1 lead on aggregate and a mere 15 minutes or so left to play, the Swedish team were literally playing the “catch me if you can” game, with one foot planted firmly over the finish line.
And it was that one foot that proved to be a foot too many for Denmark to cross. In spite of a spirited comeback from the Red and Whites, Sweden qualified for UEFA Euro 2016, bringing with them to France a true blue and yellow love for the beautiful game and one Mr. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Or should it be the other way around? Was it only Zlatan Ibrahimovic who qualified for the Euros, allowing a Swedish football team to end up in the land of Pastries and Turtlenecks?
There is certainly a case to be argued here, as Zlatan scored three of the four Swedish goals over the two legs of Euro qualifying playoffs against the Danes. The fans weren’t bothered by the minute details, though. There were two pictures here, interlinked, but each individually as profound as the other. First was the imminent prospect of qualification for the Euros 2016, and second was the ever looming threat of Ibra calling it quits on his international career if Sweden failed to secure qualification. And then, of course, Zlatan being Zlatan following it up with some snide remark or the other!
As Sweden and the Republic of Ireland lined up at the Stade de France on this Monday the 13th, Ibra’s was a picture of pure focus. Sweden’s opponents weren’t here to pay homage to the big Swede. With Wes Hoolahan suddenly levelling up into the leprechaun inside the Swedish penalty half to put the Irish ahead, Ibra and company needed something special to turn the match around.
As luck would have it, ghosts of the past returned to haunt present-day Ireland with Ciaran Clark turning in a low whipped Zlatan cross to send the Beau Jeu bundling into his own net. For the Irish, their misery at this Paris arena piled on while for the Swedes, it was time to breathe a collective sigh of relief, a sentiment that was echoed by millions of fans around the world. Sweden had earned a draw.
Let’s face it – having been drawn in Group E, Sweden needs to overcome massive odds in order to qualify for the quarters. With Italy and Belgium yet to come, a defeat against the Irish would have been nothing short of calamitous for the Swedes. If the Azzurri's victory over Belgium was anything to go by Italy has come here to play, and the best of Belgium is yet to be seen.
There is an overwhelming feeling among the followers of world football that this edition of the Euros will be the last time we see one of the most gifted footballers of his generation play a major tournament on the international stage. If Sweden fail to qualify from their group, for Zlatan, burdened with the task of carrying a less than ordinary team forward for more than a decade, this may prove to be one international failure too many. On the other hand, if Sweden does progress to the latter stages of the tournament, this may be just the impetus required to prolong a not so successful international career.
After all, representing your country is the biggest honour for any professional, and it is never easy to wash your hands off it. The next edition of the World Cup is just about two years away and for Ligue 1’s top goalscorer of the 2016 season, a place on a plane to Russia may not be the most ludicrous thing imaginable!
Ibrahimovic has always been the type of player who can turn things around in the blink of an eye. Be it the two away goals for Barcelona against Arsenal, or the stepping up when it matters during the Euro qualifying playoff against Denmark, or the four of a kind against the Three Lions at the Friends Stadium in November of 2012, if there is one thing this man possesses in his armoury, it is a penchant for the spectacular. And it is this very quality that has endeared Zlatan to fans worldwide and made him one of the most revered names in footballing circles in recent times. As a fan, you’re always going to get your money’s worth while watching Zlatan play; there’s never going to be a dull moment as long as this character is around.
Always one to speak his mind, Zlatan has had his fair share of controversies. From feuds with team-mates to ugly red cards to breakdowns in relationships with managers, Ibra has been known to be brash, outspoken and someone who frankly couldn’t care less about public opinion. What he does care about though is giving the fans the best possible entertainment, which he delivers even today at the ripe young age of 34.
Whatever be the case, there are at least two more matches of Zlatan in a Swedish shirt to look forward to. A hundred and eighty more minutes of expecting the unexpected. For the sake of Zlatan and for the sake of football, let’s hope the Swedes deliver and/or their opponents falter. It would be a pity to see a modern great of the game retiring from the international game without fulfilling his true potential.
It wouldn’t be the absolute goodbye from football for Zlatan, but for the beautiful game, it would be like taking a tiny bit of its sheen away. The induction of new and young blood on the world stage – the likes of Neymar, De Bruyne, Coman, Mahrez etc. – holds great promise for the game. But for the love of all things Zlatan, the game without him would be nothing to watch.