'I need Xavi & Iniesta to pass the ball to me, but they only see Leo' - The truth behind the Messi-Ibrahimovic rivalry at Barcelona

The pair never gelled on or off the pitch at Camp Nou, with the Argentine winning the battle to start in the centre of the Catalans' attack, and they will meet again on Wednesday
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Barcelona president Sandro Rosell described his signing and subsequent sale for a significant loss as "the worst piece of business in the history of the club" - but Blaugrana fans were buzzing as Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unveiled before 55,00 frenzied fans at Camp Nou at the end of July 2009. The world's most exciting striker had just joined the world's most exciting team and the Swede was about to form a tasty tandem with the world's most exciting young talent: Lionel Messi.

Ibrahimovic joined from Inter in a €66 million deal which saw Samuel Eto'o travel in the opposite direction, after Pep Guardiola had alluded to a lack of 'feeling' with the Cameroonian; the end had come late in the 2008-09 season, when the African went against tactical instructions by cutting inside, subsequently scoring and then celebrating defiantly in front of his bewildered boss. He also ignored his coach in the dressing room after another game.

Indirectly, it had all been about Messi. The Argentine's switch from the right to the centre had upset Eto'o and Guardiola failed to convince the striker of his tactical plan. An argument in training further cooled relations and in the summer, he was gone.

Looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, the writing was also on the wall from the start for Ibrahimovic. Barcelona's stunning 6-2 win at Real Madrid in May of 2009 had come with Messi in the middle and Eto'o on the right. And it made Guardiola think much more seriously about moving the Argentine inside on a permanent basis.

To begin with, however, it was Ibrahimovic in the centre and Messi on the right, and the Swede started well enough, with five goals in his first five games. He also returned from injury to hit the winner in the Clasico at home to Real Madrid.


But the enigmatic Swede still failed to convince everyone. Ibrahimovic appeared unclear of his role, and was providing little in the way of intelligent movement. "I need Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta to pass to me, but it's as if they can only see Messi - and I'm twice the size of him," the frustrated forward told Guardiola and then sporting director Txiki Begiristain, as described in his book I am Zlatan.

On the pitch, Zlatan appeared less and less interested. Off it, his relationship with Guardiola deteriorated and he claimed the team were not using him properly. "The Ferrari that Barcelona had bought was being driven like a Fiat," he explained in his autobiography.

He also hit out at the conformist attitude of his team-mates, including Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. "They were like schoolboys, following the coach blindly," he would write afterwards.

Problems with Messi had begun earlier on in the season. In a league game against Mallorca, Zlatan won a penalty and wanted to take it himself as a reward for what was proving a fine performance. But Messi grabbed the ball and fired home. Ibrahimovic, left without his goal, was furious and shouted towards his bench: "That penalty was mine!"

Meanwhile, Messi had sent a text message to Guardiola on the team bus after another game. It read: "I can see I am no longer important, so ..." The Argentine was unhappy at ceding the central role to Ibrahimovic and Pep had a decision to make.

Ibra and Messi were never close off the pitch and, although reports of a feud were far-fetched, the pair were rivals from the very beginning. Zlatan was more friendly with Thierry Henry and Gerard Pique, and grew distant from the rest of his team-mates, particularly as the season wore on.

Injury eventually saw him sidelined for the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Arsenal at Camp Nou and in his absence, Messi scored four. Restored for the semi-final against former side Inter, his was a dire display. In 63 miserable minutes the Swede toiled, covered less ground than Victor Valdes, and never looked like scoring.

He was replaced by Bojan that day and, in the summer, by David Villa. Even then, he attempted to salvage his Camp Nou career. "I'll work harder; I'll play for Messi, like all the others do," he told Guardiola.

But Messi did not want to play with him - and the striker's move to AC Milan proved the best solution for everyone in the end.

Today, Ibrahimovic describes Messi as "the best player in the world" and claims he is privileged to have played for the finest team on the planet, Barca. The pair's previous frosty relationship stems from their incompatibility at the Catalan club, about which legendary coach Arrigo Sacchi had warned Guardiola prior to the Swede's signing, but no personal problems remain.

So when Sweden meet Argentina on Wednesday, Ibra and Messi will resume their rivalry - but this time only for one night.

Follow Ben Hayward on