Imperious Zlatan Needs a Champions League Title To Complete His Legacy


PSG's 1-0 win at APOEL on Tuesday was lost in a filthy sea of Champions League goals. 

While the Barbarians of Bayern reenacted Germany's battering of Brazil against Roma, Chelsea and Shakhtar were pouring them in with utter disregard for the fast-fingered folk who dedicate their lives creating Gifs and Vines of every goal ever scored. 

PSG's solitary contribution came from Edinson Cavani, who hooked home a late winner and pulled out his "controversial" sniper celebration to enhance his attention-grabbing glory.

We all clicked on the Vine, but if we're honest, we didn't really care (ok, PSG fans cared a little). We didn't care because the main reason PSG are interesting in the Champions League is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Zlatan wasn't playing.

Before the comments flow, of course PSG have other players. Some of them are almost as good as their transfer fees suggest they might be, but without Zlatan it's hard to fathom an identity for the French champions. PSG are Zlatan. Without him, they're just a collection of very well-paid footballers.

That's not a slight on PSG; it's a tribute to Zlatan's status among the most compelling players of his generation. At this point in his evolution, Zlatan would define any team on the planet he played for. His aura demands it. Zlatan demands it. 

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There was a point somewhere along his European odyssey where Zlatan brought into the image that had been constructed of him. Maybe it was calling his book "I am Zlatan", or making to "Zlatan" a verb ("zlatanera" really is a verb in Sweden, inspired by Zlatan).

Whatever it was, the Zlatan we know today is a knowing Zlatan. The cult of Zlatan has spawned nearly 20 million likes on Facebook, two million Twitter followers and close to 1.5 followers on Instagram. Whatever Zlatan does or says, people want to know about it and fast.

The cult of Zlatan will live on long past his retirement. Entire brands will be built on it, and we might even get to smell a real fragrance called "Eau de Zlatan" one day (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnrsjfYBSAY). 

But let's talk about football for a moment. Just how good is Zlatan really? And would his iconic status have been possible if he'd been a quiet, unassuming player, who just happened to score all the same goals and win all the same trophies?

To address the first question, we have to first ask where Zlatan ranks among his contemporaries. Is he inside the top five players of his generation? Probably not (think Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta, Xavi and Neuer for starters). The top 10? I say yes, but there's an argument he doesn't make it. The top 10 of all-time? Not even close.

But he gets goals everywhere he goes, and he wins league titles for fun, and he's the scorer of some of greatest golazos the game has ever seen, say the pro-Zlatan is great lobby. Even now, there's not a team aside from Barcelona who wouldn't love to sign him.

But he hasn't won the Champions League, reply the anti-Zlatan is great lobby. And stalemate ensues.

Zlatan denies winning the Champions League has become an obsession, but he must know the impact it would have on his legacy. Much as we try to judge rationally, when all else fades, the trophy counts remain. 

Whatever happens from here, Zlatan will go down as a unique gift of a footballer, who captivated us at every turn. But to go down as a genuine great, as cliched as it sounds, he really does need to take PSG to European glory this season or next.

Some players have an excuse - some never played in teams good enough to win the Champions League. But Zlatan has had his chance and failed to grasp it. He'll get his chance again this season, and for as long as his elastic body can keep up with his maverick football brain.

Time is running out. Zlatan would retire rich and happy without winning the Champions League, but the only way he can retire fully satisfied is by lifting the one trophy that continues to elude him

My question about an unassuming Zlatan is easy to answer, because the very things that make Zlatan an eccentric, outspoken outlander on planet football have absolutely informed the way he plays the game. Take away his personality, and you take away the electricity that fires his football.

The two can work together. They can drive Zlatan to new heights and perhaps even reward him with the Champions League title his talent demands be captured.

It's time for Zlatan the footballer to show Zlatan the cult how it's done. 

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