ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) – Zlatan Ibrahimovic is fidgeting in his seat. Malmö director of sport Hasse Borg is doing the talking. He is in Arsène Wenger's office at Arsenal's London Colney training ground. Ibrahimovic is 18 years old and knows that what happens over the course of the next few minutes might decide his future.
"I felt like a little kid when I stepped foot in his office," he wrote in his autobiography. Earlier in the day, while driving in and parking the car, he'd seen Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp going about their business. Maybe one day very soon he might be playing alongside them at Highbury.
It wasn't to be. Wenger said, "You can do a trial with us. You can make an attempt. A test." But while Ibrahimovic keenly asked for a pair of boots so he could get on with it right away, his mentor, Borg, refused. He was looking out for his protege. A trial, he argued, undervalued Ibrahimovic. This kid was better than that. "We are sorry, Mr. Wenger, but we are not interested," Borg replied.
Ibrahimovic thought it was the right decision, although he was entitled to feel disappointed. He knew all about Arsenal and had a healthy respect for Wenger's meticulousness and what he had achieved in England. "I shuddered when I met his gaze. It was as if he [was] trying to look inside me and find out who I really was. You know that he's the kind of coach who takes the psychological profile of his players into great consideration. 'Are you emotionally stable?' and such ..."
Wenger, of course, isn't the first to ask that question of Ibrahimovic. Nor has it ever been convincingly answered. Still, a sense of what if remains. "I've always regretted not signing him," Wenger admitted in 2006 when Arsenal were drawn with Juventus in the Champions League. He wasn't made to, however, on that occasion, as his side won 2-0 on aggregate and went on to reach the final.
But the feeling resurfaced again two years ago. Barcelona rolled up at the Emirates and, for the first 20 minutes, subjected Arsenal to the most intense pressure they've probably ever experienced under Wenger. Chances weren't taken, however, and Ibrahimovic, after blazing a close-range effort over the bar, hitting the side-netting and launching a 40-yard free-kick into Row Z, was doing little to prove his many critics in England wrong.
"As always happened in England," he wrote. "I had the fans and the journalists against me and there was a lot of talk in the build-up. 'He never scores goals against English teams,' etc etc. On the eve of the match, I held a press conference and, despite everything, tried to be, more or less myself. 'Wait and see,' I said more or less. 'We'll talk again after the game'."
Except Ibrahimovic fully expected to be taken off at half-time. By now his relationship with Pep Guardiola had soured. But he stayed on and scored twice to put Barcelona 2-0 up. Angling a run into the inside right channel, Ibrahimovic was spotted by Gerard Pique, chased down his long ball, had a quick glance at Arsenal `keeper Manuel Almunia and saw that he was off his line. He produced a perfectly weighted lob into the back of the net. Then as the hour-mark approached, Ibrahimovic made the exact same run, this time onto a Xavi through-ball, and smashed it in high at the near post.
"I was fantastic. But what did Guardiola do? Did he applaud? No, he substituted me. What a great move! From that moment on the team collapsed and Arsenal made it 2-2 in the final minutes." It's not strictly true. Arsenal had already pulled one back before Ibrahimovic was replaced and he later revealed that he had picked up a bad groin injury, so it was in his interest to be replaced.
Polemic aside, he did at least get a monkey off his back, yet for how long? As anonymous as a big name player can be against Tottenham last season, the Milan striker was again sneered at by sections of the English media.
Ever since Martin O'Neill opined as a pundit for the BBC during the 2006 World Cup that Ibrahimovic is "the most overrated player on the planet" this has been the received wisdom in England, an absolute truth. They are incredulous that five clubs have spent $216 million in transfer fees on Ibrahimovic even though, if one counts the two revoked from Juventus after Calciopoli, he has won eight consecutive league championships in three different countries.
Eyes are rolled on reading that he regards himself as the best player in the world. It's arrogant, they say. What they neglect to mention is Ibrahimovic's disclaimer, his justification that if he didn't think like that then what would be the point of getting out of bed in the morning. Shouldn't he aspire to be the best?
Now that isn't to say Ibrahimovic isn't cocky. He has a very high opinion of himself. But other, notable football men outside of England have a high opinion of him too. "I know comparing Marco van Basten to Ibrahimovic is like comparing Picasso to Rothko," Fabio Capello told La Repubblica , "but I believe that because of his power and technique Zlatan will become stronger...What van Basten and Ibra have in common is their elegance. We're talking about giants who are like poetry in motion."
If that sounds over the top then it might come as a surprise to discover that van Basten endorses it. "Yes, there are similarities," he explained to La Gazzetta dello Sport . "We like playing well and scoring goals, sure. I too enjoyed myself with good assists. He is more powerful, but he looks for short passes, one-twos. He is a great player. To give your best, you have to find the right team. I found mine. That Milan side were a real joy: A team of friends and champions. He is finding his own: This Milan have technique and timing and will keep getting better."
Of course, beyond playing styles and career paths at Ajax and Milan, the difference between van Basten and Ibrahimovic is simple: three Ballon d'Or awards and three European Cups. There's no contest on that front. Scrutiny of Ibrahimovic's record in the Champions League knockout stages is legitimate, but to say he isn't a big game player isn't completely accurate either.
It depends on how you define one. Is scoring in a last 16 Champions League knockout tie bigger, say, than scoring title-clinching goals on a dramatic final day of the season, as Ibrahimovic did for Inter against Parma in 2008? I wouldn't say so. And doesn't finding the winner in two of the world's biggest derbies, the Madonnina and the Clásico, count for something?
Ibrahimovic does have his faults. His temperament is suspect, as his actions last week showed when he was sent off for slapping Napoli defender Salvatore Aronica and banned for three-matches. Three days later, he raised his hand to Juventus goalkeeper Marco Storari in the Coppa Italia. His actions weren't seen by the match officials, but were by the cameras. As of yet, he has gone unpunished for that incident.
Still, to consider Ibrahimovic anything other than a great player in light of everything he has achieved is disrespectful. Maybe it's not on the scale of questioning whether Lionel Messi can do it on a cold and wet night at Stoke, or picking holes in Cristiano Ronaldo's incredible playing career because he has only scored five goals in 15 games against Barcelona, but he certainly deserves more credit.
His Wednesday performance against Arsenal is unlikely to change such an entrenched and unyielding opinion of him in England. He has his work cut out, not least because Milan go into the game under difficult circumstances. Saturday's come-from-behind win at Udinese was their first in four matches. Performances of late have been conditioned by a horrific injury crisis. No fewer than 10 players were unavailable at the weekend.
Fingers are also being pointed at coach Max Allegri for allowing Andrea Pirlo to leave in the summer. Milan desperately lack inspiration in the middle of the pitch. Ibrahimovic is both their chief creator and finisher. There's a reason why Juventus coach Antonio Conte likened him to Gulliver. Only a giant can carry a team on his back like Ibrahimovic does at Milan. Tie him down and the team falls too.
That's why, rather than Sacchi's Milan, Allegri's side has been described as more akin to the Napoli of Diego Maradona. The orchestra won the European Cup. The virtuoso, to whom everyone looked, couldn't do it all on his own, at least not in the continent's most prestigious club competition. Napoli went out in the first round to Real Madrid in 1987 and in the second round to Spartak Moscow in 1990.
This isn't to compare Ibrahimovic and Maradona as players, but to draw parallels with the circumstances in which they find or found themselves and the situations that they create. Their reputation as match-winners can become an albatross around their necks because teams come to rely on them too heavily. It's not their fault. It's actually a flattering statement of their ability to resolve matches singlehandedly.
Allegri has tried to make Milan more unpredictable this season and for a time it was working. But injuries have thrown a spanner in the works. In need of magic, there's only one man he can go to. And that's Ibracadabra.