A goal for the ages

©Getty Images – AFP

©Getty Images – AFP

On November 14th 2012, England travelled to Stockholm to play Sweden in a meaningless friendly following the summer’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Except, it wasn’t meaningless for the Swedes. This match was to be the first played in the adorably named Friends Arena – a new, 50,000-seater national stadium and the largest in the Nordic countries.

I wasn’t among the travelling fans in Stockholm that night. Instead I was in my then flat in Clapham, watching the game on telly with a few mates, a bowl of crisps and a couple of bottles of beer – the manner in which, if you ask me, every England friendly should be enjoyed/endured. Despite the unremarkable surroundings, it was a match we’d all remember for a long time to come.

 

Fittingly, it was Sweden’s captain and talisman who scored the very first goal to grace the Friends Arena, stabbing the ball home after a deflection off callow England debutant Steven Caulker. It was the first of four for the most talented player on the pitch, and arguably the most maverickly gifted striker in the modern game: Zlatan Ibrahimović.

Zlatan made it two to level the scores after Danny Welbeck and (that man again) Steven Caulker had dragged an England side assembled largely from spare parts into the lead. Ibra’s second was a belter – the ball dropping over his shoulder, controlled on his chest and lashed past Joe Hart full on the volley. His hat-trick goal – scored via a grass-cutter free kick from more than 30 yards – was arguably even better. But both goals are now all but forgotten in the wake of Zlatan’s fourth.

 

You’ll have seen the goal by now – YouTube was quite frankly invented for goals like this one. But just to refresh your memory: it’s the 90th minute. The ball is punted forwards from midfield, and Ibrahimović engages in an unwinnable footrace against Ryan Shawcross and Leighton Baines. Joe Hart, charging off his line to head the ball clear, fails to connect cleanly and merely bundles it back over the striker’s head. He’s 30 yards out, his back’s to goal and the ball is dropping out of the sky like a doodlebug, but Ibra takes four quick strides and corkscrews his body into an impossible bicycle kick – sending the ball over Hart’s head and the massed England defenders for his fourth of the night. 

To me, this is the greatest goal ever scored on a full-size football pitch. It’s perfect largely due to the sheer Zlatan-ness of the strike. He’s quite possibly the only human being on the planet who could have scored that goal: the situation required a cocksure, 6’5” Swedish taekwondo expert. Messi would have kicked air simply trying to reach that dropping ball. Ronaldo – scorer of great goals though he is – isn’t about to produce a bicycle kick from 30 yards. If you or I tried a similar thing in the park with our mates, we’d likely end up with a slipped disc or broken collarbone while sending the ball ballooning off into the ionosphere. It could only be Zlatan.

©Getty Images Sport Classic – Michael Regan

©Getty Images Sport Classic – Michael Regan

In Issue 1 of Glory, James Hassell asks what it must be like for supporters of the Faroe Islands – never expecting a win, cheered at the prospect of limiting opponents to three goals or fewer. But I’d argue that, for fans of teams like Sweden and England, it’s actually even worse. Our expectations are higher than our teams can ever realistically achieve, so disappointment becomes the default position. Even when our expectations are low – as in the build-up to England’s appearance at the 2014 World Cup – we somehow contrive to fail to meet them. (That one was particularly painful if – like me – you’re of mixed English and Italian heritage. Both teams finished below Costa Rica and Uruguay in the very same group.) For fans such as these, an Ibrahimović wonder goal in the ceremonial curtain raiser at your new national stadium is about as good as it gets.

I’m deeply envious of the Swedes who attended that game. They got to witness their country’s greatest talent deliver on a truly memorable night, single-handedly demolishing a more fancied side and scoring one of the sport’s most iconic goals in the process. England, meanwhile, handed debuts to the likes of Leon Osman, Carl Jenkinson, Steven Caulker and Ryan Shawcross – whose defining contribution to the night’s action was sliding desperately over the line in a doomed attempt to keep out Zlatan’s storied strike. So far, this appearance ranks among the high points of their prospective international careers…

Sweden are a team of fair-to-middling professional footballers, their workmanlike qualities gilded by the brilliance of one star player. But what a player. For teams with little to cheer, stars like Ibra give us something to shout about.

– Louis Rossi