Golden Goal: Stories of Soccer Legends

Golden Goal #4: Zlatan

Brandon Kelley
Host

The name “Zlatan” is as famous as it is infamous in the soccer world. Its mere mention is met with reverence, or an eye roll, or both. That’s because Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the best players to play the game in the last twenty years, and he’s also one of its most egomaniacal. Zlatan’s brand frequently borders on self-parody, if not downright diving into it. Where even the most sincere soccer narcissists market themselves in sensible ways, with clothing lines and internet streams, Zlatan’s branding plunges into the absurd on a regular basis, referring to himself as animals like lions, and even claiming Godhood.

“Before you go out on the field, do you have in your head, ‘I am going to score in my first game?’” ...”I mean, I had a vision before I come, I said when I come, I know there is some earth quakes in Los Angeles, but...this one was me stepping in Los Angeles”

Zlatan’s act is adored by some, and hated by many, many others. But most people let it slide, for one very important reason: Zlatan can pull off the impossible. And no night sums up the absurd nature and talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic more than November 14th, 2012. On a chilly night in Stockholm, with his back to goal, 30 yards out, Zlatan had one thought that no one else would have: shoot it.

I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a walking lesson in coming to expect the unexpected. He’s a 6’5” forward in a sport full of average-sized people, where some of the greatest players who have ever played the game have also been some of the smallest, like Lionel Messi for example. And don’t be mistaken, Zlatan absolutely has the muscle and the tenacity to play like a target forward, towering over defenders to win headers and smash goals into the back of the net. But he’s also incredibly coordinated and graceful, possessing an uncanny technicality on the ball and ability to adjust and contort his body uncommon for a man his size and shape. He’s just as likely to try to dribble past you or score a mind-breaking goal from distance as he is to get scrappy in the box.

That tendency to surprise extends to his behavior off the field as well. While Zlatan is probably the best player Sweden has ever produced, don’t expect to see a prototypical pleasant Scandinavian. Zlatan is... well, he’s a bit of a terror. He has a tendency to stir up trouble and raise hackles everywhere he goes. That includes AC Milan, where while he was teammates with Oguchi Onyewu, decided to try to fight him during a training session when he felt the American was being a little too rough. Onyewu responded by grabbing him by the throat. The two had to be separated by the rest of the coaches and squad present, which wasn’t an easy task, considering they were easily two of the biggest guys on the team. Zlatan’s reputation precedes him, and it’s one that’s well-earned: in his entire career, the longest Zlatan has remained at a club without leaving is four seasons. That’s almost unheard of for one of the best players in the world. Usually, when teams know they have a world class talent on their hands, they do everything within their power to make them stay, and those players become inextricably linked with that club. Messi at Barcelona. Pele at Santos. Wayne Rooney at Manchester United. Teams are built around these players.

If you want me to be the bad guy, I’ll be the bad guy. If you want me to be the good guy, I’ll be the good guy. But I have no problem being both. Sometimes it’s better to be the bad guy, because then you know really what the person thinks about you. Because when they say they like you, but when they say they hate you, you know they really hate you. But I make haters become my fans, that’s my problem.

No one in their right mind tries to build a team around Zlatan. At least, not for very long. But that’s never stopped Zlatan from being successful nearly every step of the way, either. At the nine clubs where he has spent his 21 year career, he has failed to win a trophy at only two of them: Malmo, at the very beginning of his career, and the LA Galaxy, whom he very recently left for a return to AC Milan. Zlatan is soccer’s premier mercenary. He’s not a stable or foundational presence, but he gets results.

Still, there are plenty of players in the world who can be just as successful and get similar results, players that would probably be much cheaper than the premium contracts Zlatan has signed in his day. Why do clubs keep bringing him in? Why put up with his rampant narcissism and the endless press conferences that turn into Zlatan branding exercises? Why risk your team chemistry with a player who is well-known to rub his teammates the wrong way? Why Zlatan?

Well, it’s simple, really. With stunning regularity, Zlatan seems to be able to do the impossible. And one goal against England in 2012 perfectly demonstrated everything there is to know about Zlatan perfectly.

Despite any home-field advantage for Sweden, England were still likely regarded as favorites entering the match, having just beaten Sweden in the European championships a few months before. And as the game wore on, it certainly looked like that narrative was playing itself out once again. After Zlatan opened the scoring off a rebounded shot, England answered with two goals of their own to close out the first half. Things got interesting in the 77th minute, when Zlatan again scored, this time timing a run behind the English defense perfectly, controlling a pass with his chest, and then rocketing home a volley. And if that was interesting, it was downright intriguing when, seven minutes later, Zlatan scored again, this time from a free kick thirty yards from goal.  

...The possibility of a  Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat trick....well-hit, that’s in!...the headline act on opening night is inevitably Zlatan Ibrahimovic...

With Sweden in the lead and Zlatan already on a hat trick, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this game featured everything Zlatan had to offer. There was an ugly, scrappy goal off of a rebound. There was a beautiful goal full of fluid technique. There was an audacious attempt from long distance that somehow found the back of the net. But Zlatan was saving the best for last.

In the 91st minute, with England looking for an equalizer, Sweden cleared the ball back to the English defensive half, where Zlatan gave chase, alongside two English defenders. The ball was at an awkward distance for English goalkeeper Joe Hart, who decided early that he would run out to claim the ball. Upon coming out of his net, however, he realized that although he would reach the ball first, he’d get there outside of his box, unable to use his hands without committing a handball. So, with his defense and Zlatan bearing down on him, Joe Hart elected to head the ball away.  

It wasn’t a particularly good clearance from Hart, but it seemed to get the ball out of the danger zone, thirty yards away from goal and bouncing high into the air. Zlatan got to the ball first, but there were no Swedish attackers around him, and in theory, Hart should have had plenty of time to get back into his goal. And that’s when Zlatan did the one thing no one expected him to do: he shot it.

Rising up into the air, his lanky frame twisting and contorting into an overhead bicycle kick that violently twisted sideways on contact with the ball, Zlatan went for goal, completely blind, from a terrible angle. He hung in the air as time seemed to slow, the ball looping high off his foot, dipping down through the cold night air, over Joe Hart’s head, over the outstretched feet of the English defense, and into the goal.

...Didn’t quite get that—oh, look at that!...That is absolutely astonishing...you won’t see a better goal than that this season. He’s got all 4. England rather embarrassing this second half...you can’t coach that kind of brilliance.  

There aren’t many people in the world who would’ve even thought about trying a bicycle kick from that distance, and the ones who would think of it almost assuredly wouldn’t try it. It’s the highest risk possible in that situation, one where you almost assuredly end up losing the ball. To even attempt it is belief in one’s own abilities to an extremely rarely seen degree. Scoring from that spot, in that way, should be impossible. He didn’t even check to see if any defenders were covering for the goalkeeper! He was closer to the sideline than he was to the actual goal!

I think it was a nice goal. I enjoyed it very much, even if it was a friendly game. It was a...it was a nice goal. I scored a couple of nice goals in my career, but in the national team, I don’t think I’ve scored 4 goals before, maybe in 1 or 2 games, but against a good opponent like England, no.

And that’s exactly why teams keep buying him, and those teams keep on winning, and then it all falls apart and he finds a new club, the cycle beginning anew. The talent, the arrogance, the improvisation, and the magic. That’s what makes Zlatan Zlatan. England just had to find out the hard way.