By Mark Doyle
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was last week asked if Sweden would win their World Cup play-off against Portugal. "Only God knows how it will end." The reporter lamented that it would therefore be difficult for him to get a definitive answer on the matter. "Well, no," the forward replied, "He's standing in front of you now."
Ibrahimovic, of course, is renowned for such displays of arrogance. His incredibly high opinion of himself is why he has always been loved and loathed in equal measure. Indeed, even within his homeland he has long been a divisive character.
Most Swedes have fond memories of the 1994 World Cup, and Ibrahimovic is no different ... except that he is. While his compatriots were revelling in the exploits of Kennet Andersson, Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin in the United States that summer, the then 12-year-old Ibrahimovic was being seduced by the brilliance of Bebeto, Rai and Romario.
When the two countries met in the group stages and the semi-finals, Ibrahimovic only tuned in because Tommy Svensson's side were playing Brazil. "I did not watch Sweden, I never watched Sweden," Ibrahimovic admitted last year. "But I loved Brazil because they were something different."
|IBRAHIMOVIC'S SWEDEN STATS
Born of immigrant parents into a notoriously rough Malmo neighbourhood, Ibrahimovic always felt like an outsider. He never felt particularly Swedish. Consequently, he never acted particularly Swedish, which is why the nation's football fans struggled to embrace a special talent that seemed only too aware of just how special he was.
"The Swedes recognised that he was not like them," explains journalist Svend Bertil Frandsen. "We do not walk around without our chests out, saying, 'Look at me - I'm fantastic.'
"Also, if he feels something is wrong, then he will say it. And he will say it loudly. And that is very unlike the mentality in Scandinavia, where people are generally much more diplomatic."
The striker’s confrontational nature unsurprisingly caused conflicts with the national team. After being sent home by former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback for breaking a curfew before a Euro 2008 qualifier, an enraged Ibrahimovic refused to return to the international fold and stubbornly sat out three further games before eventually ending his self-imposed exile in March 2007.
Two years later, Ibrahimovic effectively turned his back on his country after being left bitterly frustrated by the failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. "It has always been a great honour, but for the time being I won't play for the national team because I am not motivated," he explained in typically matter-of-fact fashion. "There are no important matches or the World Cup and so it's very difficult. It would be expending energy for no reason; a sacrifice for nothing."
As the one truly world-class player within the Swedish squad, Ibrahimovic's apparent betrayal caused controversy. To many fans, it seemed as if he had abandoned them when they needed him most. There was consternation, then, when Ibrahimovic returned a year later and was immediately handed the captain's armband by new coach Erik Hamren.
However, in the intervening years, Zlatan has won over those who had never previously warmed to him. A glut of goals certainly helped – he netted 11 in 2012 alone – as did his claim that he had missed "playing for the fans", but, as Frandsen explains, a new-found sense of maturity proved decisive.
"I think the general opinion about him in Sweden has changed in recent years," he argues. "He is much less controversial today than he used to be. He has a long-term partner, he has children, he is much more relaxed with reporters - he has matured. I think Swedes generally see him as a boy who has finally become a man."
It would, therefore, be no surprise if the fans heed Ibrahimovic's request to create a most unwelcoming environment for Portugal at the Friends Arena on Tuesday night. The supporters know that he is still not the same as them - but at least now he feels like one of them.
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