Zlatan! The Master Of Sublime And Ridiculous..

After Zlatan lost the duel with his nemesis, the World Cup will be without a monstrous ego (with a sprinkling of insecurity). We'll be saved some of the tiring nonsense...

Last Updated: 21/11/13 at 08:42 Post Comment

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Cancel the dancing girls. Pour the caipirinhas down the sink. Reattach the hairs. Did that make sense? Whatever. Take any other stereotypes that might spring to mind and do whatever you have to do to cancel them; introductions are difficult and, given the state of this one, we're anxious to be out of it as quickly as possible. A World Cup without Zlatan Ibrahimovic? It hardly seems worth the trouble.

On Tuesday night, the mighty Swede grappled with his nemesis-of-the-moment, Cristiano Ronaldo, in a game of football that was dressed up as a clash between two implacable, world-shaking individuals. Darth vs. Obi-Wan. Reagan vs. Gorbachev. Fischer vs. Spassky. Alien vs. Predator. Cameron vs. Miliband. Perhaps not that one. For once, though, the game ended up matching the build-up, as Ibrahimovic scored twice and Ronaldo scored thrice. There are few greater pleasures in life than watching a lead swing back and forth, but when it's a metaphorical arm-wrestle as well, well. Lucky old us. It would, perhaps, be churlish to note that unless something radically strange happens in Brazil next year, very few of the games will be as exciting as this one was.

There is nothing new about great players missing out on the world's shiniest tax avoidance scheme: George Best, George Weah, and George Elokobi, to name but three called George. It's a shame, of course, though in the case of Ibrahimovic it is perhaps a slightly ambiguous shame. Because Zlatan-the-footballer is excellent and entertaining in a number of ways. And Zlatan-the-person is interesting, if something of an acquired taste. But Zlatan-the-centre-of-a-giant-swirling-vortex-of-tired-jokes-manufactured-quotes-and-banterous-nonsense is, frankly, a bit tiring.

We don't need to dwell on the last point, except to remind ourselves that when a restaurant names a burger after a famous footballer, they are doing so not because their soul and their art demands that they pay homage to a singular individual in the only way they know how, but because they're hoping that the world's press will be so desperate for something - anything - to drag in the clicks that they'll happily hand over what should be prime advertising space for precisely nothing. Good job nobody fell for that, eh?

Beyond ALMIGHTY ZLATAN's weird cultural status - basically, a footballing remix of that Chuck Norris joke that was funny in 2005 - there is the undeniable fact that he is, to a lot of people, a bit of a dick. But in the view of this profile writer, he benefits, as a character in the great ongoing soap opera that fills the aching hole in all our lives, from having had that weird season at Barcelona. Monstrous egoism is often assumed to be inherently repellent, and on its own it usually is. Yet give that self-regard a tiny counterpoint of insecurity, and it can flourish into something fascinating. And how did Ibrahimovic sum up the collapsed relationship between himself and his manager-that-must-not-be-named? "He is the philosopher who has broken my dream." No arguing with poetry like that.

None of that really matters, of course. What matters is the football. And while there are quicker players, smarter players, subtler players, and even a few just straight-up better players, there are very few - perhaps none - with such a peculiar and charismatic way of addressing the ball. A lot of players play with an overwhelming physicality, but no others take that strength and ally it to a freedom of movement and of imagination that would be insolent if weren't so damn charming. A shift of posture here, a redistribution of weight there, and suddenly his physique is twisting and stretching in weird and rubbery ways, and his foot is somewhere unnatural, tilted at an uncanny angle, and the ball's in the net and it's happened again. David Foster Wallace once wrote that sport as practiced by the best was "human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body"; Ibrahimovic, in those Zlatan!-moments that mark his fullest expression, looks as though he's not just reconciled but highly and vastly amused.

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That's what the World Cup will be missing, in the final balance. A lot of crap jokes, a couple of interesting profile pieces, and the possibility that football's finest practitioner of physical comedy will make everybody laugh. Not in the usual sense - ho ho ho, he fell over - but in the other, better, stranger sense. Ha ha ha, did you SEE that? When compared to Ronaldo he probably doesn't have the ability to devastate a game or maybe even a tournament; he also doesn't have quite the quality of supporting cast that this Portugal side can offer. But think back to that fourth goal against England, and the argument that inevitably trailed in its wake. It wasn't the greatest goal ever scored, for all kinds of reasons. It just might, however, have been the most ridiculous. And it was entirely of a kind with its maker.

Andi Thomas - you can follow him on Twitter, you know, and you can read more of his work at SBNation

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