6 March ~ The ideological chasm separating England from Europe has narrowed over the last 20 years. Most English sides have moved beyond Charles Reep's flawed long-ball game and are more open to new approaches. Yet, a glaring blind spot remains: Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The parochialism of English football manifests itself most strikingly when Ibrahimovic's name crops up. His supposed failure to succeed in the Champions League against English teams, apparently the sole barometer for a non-Premier League player's worth, is cited as evidence of his mediocrity. His success in Serie A is underappreciated and he is pilloried for underperforming at major international tournaments.
As his new autobiography makes plain, Ibrahimovic does not care what other people say. He possesses an almost inhuman level of arrogance. In December he said: "I don't need a Golden Ball to demonstrate that I am number one." When asked to alter his game at Barcelona to accommodate Lionel Messi, Ibrahimovic remarked: "It's like they bought a Ferrari and drive it like a Fiat."
The striker's vast skillset – a potent mix of audacious flicks and outstanding power – makes up for his conceit. The most precise and intricate aspects of football are his playthings. The Swedish writer Bjorn Ranelid likened his movements to "jazz improvisations on the pitch".
Ibrahimovic, a brash showman and flamboyant entertainer, supposedly embodies the antitheses of old-fashioned English values. But his style is more English than many realise. At 6ft 5in and with such aerial prowess, Ibrahimovic could easily have led the line for a First Division side in the 1980s. Milan were criticised for playing too many long balls to him last season. His broad and muscular build, if not his technique, is stereotypical of an English target-man.
Ibrahimovic's adversaries in the press, the old-fashioned journalists bothered by imaginary yellow cards and players wearing gloves, tend to depict him as a superficial showman, a player too flashy and petulant to succeed against tough Premier League opposition. The conceited Ibrahimovic is a victim of England's enduring arrogance.
Commentators in England too often ignore success achieved outside the Premier League, which is a shame, as Ibrahimovic's statistics are staggering. He has played in title-winning teams for the past eight seasons (although two of these, with Juventus, were revoked). He has been voted Serie A's player of the year in three of the last four seasons – he missed out in 2010 as he was at Barcelona, who made him the second most expensive player in history when they bought him from Inter for £38.5 million. He is the captain of Sweden and has already scored 23 goals in 29 appearances this season.
Given how far English football has come in the last 20 years, it is disappointing that Ibrahimovic attracts so much derision. Journalists on the Sunday Supplement claimed recently that "nobody watches Serie A", the competition that has largely defined Ibrahimovic's career. In the Telegraph, the striker was described as "overrated and overpaid". At the 2006 World Cup, Martin O'Neill, one of British football's more astute personalities, declared him "the most overrated player on the planet".
That Premier League loyalists refuse to acknowledge his talents says more about them than it does about him. In a year in which Premier League clubs have struggled against Italian opposition, criticism of Ibrahimovic is particularly embarrassing. He was Milan's best player in their 4-0 demolition of Arsenal in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 match last month. He dismantled the Arsenal defence repeatedly, before finishing off the tie with the fourth goal
Ibrahimovic rated his performance as his best for the club. As Arsenal welcome Milan to the Emirates for the return fixture tonight, Ibrahimovic will have the opportunity to silence a few more doubters. David Yaffe-Bellany