Zlatan Ibrahimović and his stoutly, bomber jacket-wearing agent Mino Raiola left Barcelona through a crowd of journalists and photographers, confirming that the ginormous Swedish striker was off to AC Milan. Hours before, Zlatan had told the same reporters that he was renewing his contract with Barça. He was joking, of course. He wanted to stay about as much as the Catalan club wanted him to take over from goalkeeper José Pinto as Víctor Valdés’ understudy.
A varied mixture of soccer talent, arrogance and public relations have allowed Ibrahimović to establish himself as one of the world’s most instantly-recognizable players. He’s also a winner: Between 2004 and 2011, he won eight consecutive league titles; over the course of his career he’s got his hands on 11 championships in four different countries and has scored over 300 goals.
However, as he made his way through that crowd of journalists in the summer of 2010, one impression was that he was doing so as a loser. “Good riddance Ibra” was one of the newspaper headlines when he was flogged to Italy, replaced by Valencia’s David Villa — who Barça had wanted to sign originally, instead of Ibrahimović, 12 months previously.
That’s the narrative which resurfaces each time he returns to the city, be that with Milan or, more recently, Paris Saint-Germain. Tuesday night’s UEFA Champions League clash between Barça and PSG at Camp Nou will be his seventh match against his former employers since he left, his fourth in the Catalan capital. During those meetings, he’s scored three goals.
He may need to score three more Tuesday if the French champions are to progress beyond the quarterfinals of Europe’s high brow competition. Suspended for the first leg of the team’s two-legged playoff, Ibrahimović must have been watching through his fingers as Barcelona’s current striker, Luis Suárez, twice nutmegged PSG defender David Luiz on route to two goals. Barça’s eventual 3-1 win left the Parisians’ European dream lurking over the edge of a cliff. It’s going to take all of Zlatan’s might to stop it tumbling over the edge.
But it’s not a question of redemption. Reports of Ibrahimović’s time kicking a ball around on Arístides Maillol being a complete disaster are generally exaggerated. He scored five goals in his first five league games, 11 in his first 13 and ended the season having bagged 21 goals in all competitions, including the winner in the Clásico and two against Arsenal. He also created 13 for others.
What does not tend to be exaggerated is that his relationship with then-head coach Josep Guardiola was a mess, likely the reason reason he only scored five times in his final 16 La Liga showings. “Guardiola sacrificed me,” Zlatan wrote in his autobiography about the decision to move Lionel Messi into a more central role. “One of my mates said to me ‘it’s as if Barcelona has bought a Ferrari and is driving it like a Fiat.’ I though that was a good way of looking at it.”
Another claim by the hit man in his book is that he told Guardiola he “didn’t have any balls” after one game. Pep said nothing in response.
It’s widely reported that the duo spoke just twice in Zlatan’s final six months at the club. The problem was between player and coach, though, not between player and club – even if PSG’s marquee player has gone on to describe Messi, Xavi and Co. as obedient school children.
To see how he really feels, you only need notice the way Ibrahimović embraces each of his ex-teammates when he has finished trying to beat them on the pitch. He named Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta in a side featuring the best players he has ever played with. He also clearly had a close relationship with Gerard Piqué, as one photo of them romantically embracing revealed. It’s best not to ask him about that moment, though. “Come to my house and you’ll see if I’m gay — and bring your sister,” he snapped to one daring female reporter.
Nearly five years later, many local journalists in Barcelona profess to having a soft spot for Zlatan. He seems to have suffered from a mere clash of styles and personalities. His role as a player is remarkably different to the roles played by Samuel Eto’o, David Villa and Suárez, who stacked together are about the same height as him. That should be taken into consideration when glancing back at his time in Spain.
Barça took a hit on Ibrahimović, sending Eto’o and a suitcase stuffed with 45 million euros to Inter Milan for his services while only recovering 24 million euros of that when they sold him to the San Siro’s other tenants (a total that covered just over half of the Villa deal). It worked out best for everyone: Villa was a hit in blaugrana; Zlatan in rossoneri.
So let’s not make Ibrahimović’s latest return to Barcelona about abreaction. Instead, let’s make it about his failure to succeed in the Champions League.
His year at Camp Nou was preceded and succeeded by European success; he left Inter the season before José Mourinho guided that club to the holy grail; and he joined Ajax, Juventus and Milan too many years after any of them had Europe’s crown resting on their heads. In Paris, he’s never been further than the the current round – the last eight.
It will take a rabbit twice the size of Zlatan from a hat to pull it off, but if Ibrahimović’s PR machine is anything to go by, he could be capable of that. So at 33, with his career dangerously close to winding down, can he summon an enormous performance in a competition that has regularly let him down?