To some, he is a player of such prurient and superfluous luxury that Rolls-Royce in collaboration with Louis Vuitton could not come up with anything more wasteful. To others, he is not only the best player of his generation, but one of the best of any generation, his Swedish nationality being the only obstacle between him and footballing immortality.
The case for the prosecution would appear to be a slim one. As the February 2011 issue of World Soccer reminds us, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won a league title in each of the last seven seasons with a total of three different clubs in Italy and Spain – a statistic which is hardly the stuff of coincidence, and contradicts his critics’ complaint about a supposed lack of consistency. And as for his aesthetic accomplishments, Ibrahimovic has scored goals of such balletic brilliance and technical accomplishment that even the likes of Cruyff, Maradona and Zidane would struggle to replicate their beauty: the surreal, spiralling dribbled goal for Ajax against NAC Breda; the gravity-defying jab for Inter against Torino; a winning volley for Barcelona against Real Madrid evincing mental control on a grand scale.
So why does Ibrahimovic divide opinion so sharply? One reason could be his psychological make-up. A sensitive and troubled individual from a broken family who grew up in the closest thing Sweden has to a slum – the uber-modernist development of Rosengaard in Malmo – ‘Ibra’ still shows traces of the vulnerability that made him, according to a teacher at an Ibrahimovic alma mater, unsafe to leave alone in a furnished room. This can manifest itself in a perceived arrogance and defensiveness, which is in reality much more likely to part of the mask that is often mandatory for those raised in less privileged conditions to adopt.
At the time of writing, Ibrahimovic had almost single-handedly propelled his current club, AC Milan, to first place in Serie A and the knockout stages of the European Champions League, but it seems that it is his destiny to be the cause of what is arguably contemporary football’s greatest schism: to Ibra or not to Ibra?