THEY are two outstanding footballers, two passionate, gifted men with two enormous egos, but only one of them will perform in next summer’s World Cup finals.
Whether it is Cristiano Ronaldo, the game’s most expensive player, or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, arguably its most thrilling, depends on the outcome of this week’s qualifying play-off between Portugal and Sweden.
The pity is that one of them has to miss out. Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, has called for an end to the play-off system, which reduces the qualification process to a nerve-shredding crapshoot. A battle to the death between two of football’s most formidable strikers is one that should have been reserved for Rio.
The governing body needs its showpiece event to include the cream of the Champions League. It needs the likes of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic to do for Portugal and Sweden what they already do for Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, and not just in a two-legged qualifier, the first 90 minutes of which will be played in Lisbon on Friday.
Still, with so much to lose, so soon, quite a showdown is in store. Ibrahimovic, now 32, is confronted by the prospect of never again playing in the World Cup finals, which would be a shame. He has won league titles with six different clubs – the most recent of which was in France six months ago – and countless individual awards. But the very biggest prizes have eluded him.
His nationality, as well as his personality, are to blame. Sweden have punched above their weight in modern times but they are never going to lift the World Cup. And, when Ibrahimovic, a self-confessed troublemaker, joined the club most likely to win him a European medal, he fell out with them.
Ibrahimovic is an outsider who has always operated on the fringes of greatness. Born of refugees escaping war-torn Bosnia, he is a product of the ghetto, a rebel who does not play by the rules.
“People ask me what I would have become if I hadn’t been a footballer,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Maybe a criminal. I got a kick out of nicking stuff.”
The title of that book – I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic– is instructive. He has such a conceit of himself that you wonder if he even needs the World Cup. After all, he didn’t need Barcelona. When coach Pep Guardiola demanded that he drive to work in an Audi, Zlatan showed up in his Ferrari Enzo and that was the end of that.
He has never played in England. When Arsenal offered him a trial, he declined on the basis that: “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions.” One of many pronouncements delivered in the third person. On one occasion, when he was asked what he had bought his wife for her birthday, he replied: “Nothing, she already has Zlatan.”
He is proud to be petulant, indisciplined and violent, as opponents, even team-mates, will testify. Neither is his libido lacking. When a female reporter asked him to comment on a photograph that showed him hugging Gerard Pique, he said: “Come over to my house with your sister, baby, and I’ll show you who’s gay!”
He says what he likes and does what he wants. Combine a vengeful streak with his inspiration in the final third, and it is little wonder he scores the most outrageous, unpredictable goals. Like his fourth and final one against England last November, when he netted with a bicycle kick from 30 yards. Or the eye-popper against Bastia last month, when he backheeled a cross into the top corner. Less than a week later, he was battering in four against Anderlecht, three in the space of 36 minutes.
Capable though he is of winning matches on his own, Ibrahimovic must have been hoping to avoid Portugal in the play-off. One Swedish newspaper described the draw as a “nightmare”. Portugal, who are 11 places above Sweden in the world rankings, pipped them to a play-off spot four years ago and have qualified for the last two finals via that route. Four times in the last 13 years, they have reached the semi-finals of a major tournament.
Portugal, though, have not been convincing lately. The rap is that they are too reliant on Ronaldo, who refused to deny that his booking in the penultimate match of their qualifying campaign was a deliberate attempt to ensure that he was available for the play-offs. If he doesn’t play well, neither do his country.
In a group that was more straightforward than Sweden’s, Portugal lost in Russia, drew with Northern Ireland and gathered only two points from their matches against Israel. Ronaldo scored just four of their 20 goals in that campaign, three of them a hat-trick against Northern Ireland. It is not a tally that compares favourably with the record-breaking 13 he has scored in the Champions League this year. Playing alongside Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, he is on course to break the 50-goal barrier for a fourth consecutive season.
Of course, we have heard all this before. Just when his critics at Euro 2012 were suggesting that he had never produced his best on the biggest international stages, he almost single-handedly propelled Portugal into the semi-finals. Not content with running amok against Holland, he scored the winner against the Czech Republic.
Were it not for Lionel Messi, Ronaldo would be the undisputed player of his generation. Some think that he eclipses even the Barcelona striker, although Blatter does not agree. The FIFA president got himself into trouble last month when he was invited to compare the two men, who have both been short-listed for the Ballon d’Or. After admitting a preference for Messi as a “good boy” that any mother would be proud of, he made a joke about Ronaldo’s hairdressing expenses.
Real Madrid demanded a retraction. True, Ronaldo is the supreme narcissist, as confident and self-obsessed as Ibrahimovic, only without the malice. But he is no longer the preening, showboating youngster who used to be intent only on embarrassing opponents. Fast, technically brilliant and strong in the air, he is a more complete player than Messi. Where once he was entertaining, now he is devastatingly effective – as is his Swedish counterpart. If only the World Cup finals had room for both of them.
European (Fri 15 Nov/Tuesday 19 Nov)
Greece v Romania
Portugal v Sweden
Ukraine v France
Iceland v Croatia
Inter-Confederation (Wed 13 Nov/Wed 20 Nov)
Mexico v New Zealand
Jordan v Uruguay