If there’s one thing pure and scrupulous left in European soccer, it’s UEFA’s qualifying draw. No individual of firm competence would have paired Sweden with Portugal. Europe’s two greatest soccer stars (and egos), Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, will meet in a two-legged playoff. One will miss out on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Both are in extraordinary form at present. Ronaldo has 33 goals and seven assists in 26 starts for Real Madrid and Portugal this season. Ibrahimovic has 22 goals and six assists in 23 starts for Sweden and PSG. Both scored hat-tricks for their respective clubs last weekend. It will be a lesser tournament without either man. The wrangle for soccer fans is who they would rather see.
Ibra made his opinion known. Referring to himself in the third person, he asserted “the World Cup needs Zlatan.”
“I think that the World Cup needs Zlatan more than Ronaldo. The excitement I can bring to the game and the goals I can score – nobody can rival me for that. I believe the fans would want to see me there above anybody.”
Normally, we’re not ones for third-person bombast. But we agree with him here.
Both Ibra and Ronaldo are in a similar spot. Each is the clear alpha on a middling team. Ljungberg and Larsson aren’t walking out that door for Sweden. Neither are Figo and the rest of the “golden generation” for Portugal. It’s conceivable both countries would have missed even the playoff without their respective stars. The difference is the neutral enjoyment factor. Sweden in the World Cup is a lark. Portugal is an absolute burden.
We’ve been here before with Portugal and Ronaldo. This team is not a World Cup winning team. They have defenders. They have defensive midfielders. They have no striker (sorry, Helder Postiga). Most of the supporting cast is in indifferent form. They are dour. They are defensive. Everything falls on Ronaldo.
One can feel the onus of expectation weighing on him. Every touch is an existential crisis. His torment emanates. It’s soccer brought to you by Gregor Samsa. Ronaldo knows his legacy needs that World Cup triumph. This team just is not good enough to get him there. It’s not fun to watch. It’s not fun to root for. It’s not fun to root against.
The Zlatan expereince is joyful and melancholy-free. He knows, for better or worse, who he is. He knows who he’s playing with. For Sweden, he generally just goes out there, gives a shit and tries hard. Maybe he has that one dominant tournament run we’ve not seen from him. If not, he’s still a font of ridiculous goals and equally ridiculous quotes.
It’s a shame either player will miss out. As impartial observers, we hope to see the Zlatan in 2014.