Zlatan's left knee holds the key
In the days before Wednesday's do-or-die Group D encounter between Sweden and Russia, the delicate state of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's left knee will cause a holding of the collective breath of an entire Scandinavian nation. Withdrawn at half-time of Saturday's game versus Spain after the joint swelled up, the return of the talismanic striker to Lars Lagerbeck's side is absolutely vital if Sweden are to reach their second straight European Championship quarterfinal.
After largely flattering to deceive with his performances in previous tournaments, Ibrahimovic has started Euro 2008 in the sort of form worthy of plaudits that have, in the past, seen him mentioned as one of leading strikers in the world. A goal out of nothing against defending champions Greece set Sweden on the road to victory in their opening match, while his strike against Spain should have earned his country a point and a share of first place in the group, until their defensive implosion at the hands of David Villa.
Though his potential has long been recognized, the play of Ibrahimovic in recent months has seen the 26-year-old elevate his game to a level it had never previously reached. Until now, two strikes at Euro 2004 had been the sum total of his goals at three international tournaments while his failure to find the net in the knockout rounds of the Champions League had some questioning his ability to strike when it really counted.
Moreover, in Serie A last season, though he had registered 17 goals for Inter by the end of March, Ibrahimovic's failure to score against either Juventus or AC Milan offered further fuel for the fire of his critics. The tide, however, began to turn on a rainy May in Parma. On the final day of the league season, making his first appearance for seven weeks, Ibrahimovic fired a two-goal salvo as a substitute that clinched the Scudetto title.
Any doubters who persisted with their complaints may have been silenced once and for all by his start to the European Championships. In addition to his goals, Ibrahimovic has shown off an all-round game, never was the importance of which more clearly seen than in his absence during the second half against Spain, when Sweden's attack became one-dimensional and failed to pose a sustained threat to a defence it had troubled greatly before the interval.
The son of a Bosnian father and a Croatian mother, Ibrahimovic's grew up in Rosengard, a tough district of Malmo which, in 2004, had an unemployment rate of 65 percent. His professional career began with his hometown club before, in 2001, he signed for Ajax. Three years later, he was on the move again, to Juventus, from where he moved to Inter in 2006 after the Turin club's relegation from Italy's top flight. His Sweden career began in 2001 in a match that was hardly notable for anything else, a goalless draw with the Faroe Islands.
Ibrahimovic's goal of the tournament contender against Greece was his first in national team colours since October 2005, a barren period that was due in no small part to his own stubbornness. In September 2006, after breaking a team curfew by going to a nightclub together with teammates Christian Wilhelmsson and Olof Mellberg, the striker was left out of a qualifier against Liechtenstein as punishment.
While the other perpetrators did not baulk at Lagerbeck's decision to suspend the trio - none of whom drank alcohol on the night in question - Ibrahimovic did object and refused to take part in Sweden's next two qualifiers against Iceland and Spain, returning to the fold only in March 2007. Indeed, although his importance in this tournament to his country has been obvious, Swedish fans may take solace in the fact that a spot for the finals was secured despite their star striker failing to score in qualifying.
The chapter is symptomatic of Ibrahomovic as a whole - a man who has always danced to his own tune. Among the many stories that are part of his legend is the one that saw him once censured by police in Malmo for impersonating a policeman in his home city's red-light district and 'arresting' a kerb-crawler. He once said of his then Ajax teammate, John Carew, 'What (he) does with a football, I can do with an orange.' And then, of course, there's the odd hero-worship stare he was caught directing towards Ronaldo prior to a Milan derby.
An off-the-wall figure he may be, but along with the baggage comes extraordinary talent. At 6'4", Ibrahimovic is not a prototypical striker but, as was emphasized versus Greece and in Euro 2004 when he equalized against Italy with a backheeled chip from six yards, he is capable of the remarkable.
His personality may be prickly at times but there is no doubting Ibrahimovic's desire to learn. Under the tutelage of Fabio Capello, his manager at Juve, he was encouraged to watch videos of Marco van Basten as well as to put some bulk on his long, lean but fragile body. His strike partner in this tournament, Henrik Larsson, a man Ibrahimovic describes as 'such a professional guy' is a further example from whom he has learned much.
Though he still has 36-year-old Larsson by his side, this is Ibrahimovic's time. Beyond this tournament, he must exorcise his Champions League demons by helping Inter banish their own European nightmares. It will be intriguing to see how his personality gels with that of his new club coach, Jose Mourinho.
That, however, is in the long-term. More immediately, it must be hoped that the troublesome knee problem can be nursed through the remainder of Euro 2008 so that we can continue to enjoy the maturing of the enigmatic Ibrahimovic, a unique man whose fascinating character is reflected in the way he plays and whose potential is set to blossom fully on the biggest stages in the footballing world.