Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t just a footballer. He’s more than that. The hulking Swede is a walking, talking brand. Few public figures in the world are as magnetic as him, whether he’s drawing people in with amusingly arrogant sound bites or exploits previously unseen on a football pitch. This is the reason that a nouveau-riche superpower such as a Paris Saint-Germain came forward to make Ibrahimovic their talismanic centerpiece in 2012. The former Milan forward is larger than life, exactly what a club needs to be fashionable both in between and outside the lines.
But where does the separation between Zlatan the footballer and Zlatan the man lie? Ibrahimovic’s general flair often seems to transcend the boundary that exists for most between athlete and human being. One moment he’s performing bicycle kicks that make England supporters embarrassed to have jeeringly compared him to Andy Carroll. The next he’s advising Mario Balotelli to set fireworks off at kebab stands rather than in the bathroom of his own home.
For all his personality, it’s really the Ibrahimovic that pulls on a PSG or Sweden shirt for 90 minutes that matters most. Yes, Zlatan is more than a footballer – but above all he is a footballer. He is judged in the same way as his peers: for his standing in the world game. The greatness of Zlatan is relative to his competitors. In the contemporary football landscape, there’s no shortage of challengers for the top spots.
There happen to be these two gentlemen named Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo hanging around these days. They have something of a stranglehold on the football scene. The debate about who is the world’s top player at the moment revolves around them. A somewhat boring narrative it may be, but it’s certainly not misguided. No other player is capable of exerting the same influence as Messi and Ronaldo on their day.
Look no further than last season’s numbers. In La Liga, Ronaldo averaged 1.1 goals per 90 minutes played, Messi 1.01 goals by the same measure. These were the leading two marks across Europe’s top five leagues by some distance for players with 30 or more appearances. Ibrahimovic came in fourth at 0.85 goals per 90 minutes in France’s Ligue 1, with Luis Suarez finishing one rung above in his inspirational final campaign at Liverpool.
This season, Ronaldo is leading the charge again with an incredible 1.82 average. The figure is born from the Portuguese scoring 20 times in 11 domestic appearances. Meanwhile, Messi only just broke La Liga’s all-time goals record of 251 set by Telmo Zarra in 1955 by netting a hat-trick at the weekend to sit on 253. For all the brilliance that exists elsewhere, there are no two players any club in the world would rather have.
Surely, Ibrahimovic can’t top the pair, sitting on five Ligue 1 goals so far this term in an injury-restricted campaign. Just considering forwards, it has to be said that the Swede would must behind Suarez as well. For Ibrahimovic’s nine league titles during his time in Italy, Spain and France, he has played with some prodigious supporting casts. Suarez had high-caliber players around him at Liverpool, but not at the same level as those Ibrahimovic has counted on consistently. The Uruguayan took that Liverpool side to within an inch of the Premier League title last term, falling just short. Without him after his summer move to Barcelona, the Reds have looked shockingly ordinary this season. Suarez is yet to truly leave his mark at Barcelona following his notorious biting ban from the World Cup, yet without a doubt has shown he has more value as a singular force than Ibrahimovic at this point in time.
This places Ibrahimovic out of the top three players in the world without even considering other forwards. The likes of Diego Costa and Sergio Aguero are strikers that deserve to be in this conversation. Whether they push Zlatan out of the top five entirely on their own is debatable – but there are players in other parts of the pitch that definitively do.
Cue the procession of Germans. First up is Philipp Lahm. The 31-year-old has made the transition from full-back to defensive midfielder and is the heart and soul of both Bayern Munich and his national side. As captain of both, he’s been an essential element in two of the globe’s most successful teams in recent times. The same goes for Thomas Muller, who has developed into one of the most complete footballers around. Muller’s hand in eight goals total for Die Mannschaft in the summer’s victorious run at the World Cup – which Ibrahimovic failed to guide his Sweden to – speaks for itself. And then there’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, whose borderline deranged genius between the pipes has made him a legitimate contender for the latest edition of the Ballon d’Or against all odds.
Ibrahimovic may be distinctive, unquestionably talented and generate headlines with utmost regularity, but it’s not enough to crack the top five players on the world stage. Perhaps it’s an ode to the abundance of quality in the modern game that a player worth £150 million in combined transfer fees is left on the outside looking in on such a list. What’s certain is that Ibrahimovic will carry on with his self-avowed ‘Zlatan style’ no matter where he stands among the pack. He’s a unique individual through and through – it’s just a natural part of his allure. Zlatan may not stand at the pinnacle of the beautiful game, but he’s certainly done all he can to capture the imagination of those with an eye on it.