England’s rehabilitation of talismanic Ibrahimovic

So, Zlatan… it seems safe enough, at this stage, to conclude that he has good feet for a big man.

But can we go any further? After close to a decade of debate, during which most of the great and the good have had their say about which of their camps he ought to belong, it appears Wednesday night shifted some positions.

But should it have? The sceptics’ portrayal of Ibrahimovic as an arrogant flat-track bully, who won’t show on the biggest nights, ought not to have been fatally undermined by a goal at the dog end of a friendly, under the unwatchful eyes of gauche auditionees like Ryan Shawcross and Carl Jenkinson.

But that isn’t exactly how things work in the tangled undergrowth of footballing logic. A goal against England, in any circumstances, can change much. Four can change everything.

Another Swede; Tomas Brolin — of ‘Brolin, Dahlin, Brolin, brilliant!’ renown — dined well on such exploits. And as Rene Higuita discovered, after his goalline buck-leap in 1995, the English — as stiff as ourselves, in the main — will never forget an impressive show of acrobatics, unless, of course, it takes place during an acrobatics competition.

So Zlatan is alright now, in most quarters, those Champions League disappointments forgotten and forgiven at the gift of Joe Hart’s 50p forehead.

We can’t entirely confirm his rehabilitation until we’ve heard from Garth Crooks, but there was an unofficial pardon on Twitter from Football Focus presenter Dan Walker — BBC’s footballing Tubridy. “I think I am going to have to finally admit that Ibrahimovic is a lot better than I thought he was.”

Good news for us, ahead of the trip in March. After that validation, Zlatan, you imagine, will apply the lid to a life’s work.

We busied ourselves, then, over the last few days, with lists and reminisces and comparisons and other important business. Was it the best goal? The best performance? The best overhead kick even?

Futile work really. Sure, the crowning goal had everything; the athleticism of Nadia Comaneci carrying a 10-stone handicap, the technique of Pele against the Nazis and the audacity of Evel Knievel at the verge of Snake River Canyon. And it was a moment of competitive ingenuity perhaps as outlandish as Finchy sealing pub quiz victory by throwing Tim’s shoe over the Wernham Hogg building. With a similar arc.

But the people who keep moist blankets on hand for times like this would inevitably be right on this one — the best goal or the best performance could never come in a match staged to open a field.

Anyway, to insult this goal with inclusion in a list is to imprison it.

This was a reminder that football, despite how limited the possibilities sometimes appear when Ireland are playing it, will forever be a sport without parameters. For the instant a ball hung in the Stockholm night, what happened next was conceivable only in one man’s mind.

Did anyone call it? “Go on, Zlatan. Bicycle it.”

By the time you flicked over to ITV to catch the replay, having got the text, or seen the hullabaloo on Twitter, the seal had been broken. A moment had been ever-so-slightly tarnished by exposure to possibility.

You had missed the gasp. It was already just a goal in a friendly with Joe Hart hopelessly off his line.

What Wednesday night did give us was a more meaningful yardstick for evaluating these kinds of things than cheap titles like best and greatest; the ability to draw a gush of genuine enthusiasm from Roy Keane.

Another box ticked by Zlatan. “It was a pleasure to be here to witness a goal like that. This is what makes football the greatest game in the world.”

And one of the true beauties of the great game is its absolute inability to pigeonhole someone like Ibrahimovic. There might be a million things about Zlatan that Roy Keane would find intolerable. Two million differences between them. Zlatan collects watches, for one, so presumably there is a Rolex or two in his drawer.

But the ultimate team player knows the ultimate individualist has won titles for his teams everywhere he has turned. There are times Zlatan has done everything, times he could have done more, times he does nothing. At Barcelona he succeeded and failed almost at the same time.

He has been good. He has been great. What happened in the Friends Arena wasn’t for the debate, it was to enjoy.

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