FOCUS: The dream team
ATTACK: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Ajax Amsterdam and Sweden)
Born 22 years ago in Malmo, Sweden, of Yugoslav refugee parents, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s story is one of rags to riches. Growing up with his father after his parents divorced shortly after his birth, the future might have looked bleak had it not been for football. The slums of his childhood encouraged a life of crime and young Zlatan was soon known as a troublemaker, a trait he has never quite relinquished. Fortunately, he stuck to football and, aged 20, he became Sweden’s most expensive export ever when Ajax Amsterdam paid Malmo nine million French Francs for his services, beating the likes of Arsenal, AS Roma and AS Monaco in the race to sign him.
Initially, Ibrahimovic had problems at both club and national level. In Amsterdam, his vigorous use of elbows got him a reputation as a ‘dirty’ player, resulting in long periods on the substitute’s bench. With time, he established himself in the first team, which has all but won this year’s title and coach Ronald Koeman considers him to be one of the best strikers in the world.
Sweden’s co-managers, Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg, were unsure as to what to do with the maverick super-talent for a long time. Whereas his ‘unSwedishness’ – not conforming to the stereotypical phlegmatic reserve usually associated with Scandinavians – stood him in good stead, his extrovert personality did not. His impersonation of a policeman in Malmo’s red light district, ‘arresting’ an unsuspecting social worker, added to his cult status, but did not sit well with those in authority. Nor did he ingratiate himself with comments about Liverpool and Finland defender Sami Hyypia, or Norway striker John Carew. On Hyypia – “First I turned left, then right – he followed. I turned right again and he went to the hotdog stand”. He then dismissed Carew’s ability on the ball as something he, Ibrahimovic, could do with an orange. Then, during a qualifying game against San Marino, he snatched the ball from intended penalty-taker Kim Kallstrom and converted it himself. A public apology followed and the legend grew.
Given Sweden’s striking problems, with Celtic’s Henrik Larsson dithering in semi-retirement and Aston Villa’s Marcus Allback out injured, the lanky and unpredictable striker, who is almost impossible to separate from the ball, has become a firm fixture up front since scoring the decisive goal against England in a recent friendly. Capped on 20 occasions for his country, he has still only one full game under his belt. He scored his seven goals after coming off the substitute’s bench. His father still travels from Malmo to Amsterdam every weekend. Euro 2004 will provide the big stage that the young showman craves and drive up the price the chasing Juventus and Barcelona are prepared to pay.
The grand new Stadium of the Algarve continues to stand empty, waiting to stage its three Euro 2004 games and little else. The hallowed turf, which represents an investment of close to 50 million euros, has seen an inaugural kick-about between Third Division sides Farense and Louletano, February’s friendly international between Portugal and England and the women’s football Algarve Cup Final.
An U21 international between Portugal and Morocco, which was scheduled for this week, has been abandoned for technical reasons. And a plea to stage the final of the Algarve Cup between Guia and Faro/Benfica at the new ground on Saturday, May 8, has been turned down by the Parque das Cidades administration. Apparently, the turf needs to be preserved for the European Championship matches now only six weeks away, thus robbing players involved in the Algarve’s most important regional competition of the unique opportunity to perform on the big stage. It appears that the Stadium of the Algarve is not to be used by those living in the Algarve!
More than 2,200 journalists and press photographers have received accreditation for the Euro 2004 Championship (including us here at The Resident). They will be joined by almost 4,000 radio and television reporters, bringing the total news coverage personnel up to 6,200. Portugal leads the way, with 280 media representatives followed by Germany with 231 and England with 193 newshounds. During the group phase, the England-France clash has attracted most interest, with 940 journalists and 357 photographers planning to pile into Benfica’s Stadium of Light on June 13.
A QUESTION OF FOOTBAL
Last Week: Which non-European country’s top clubs compete in the UEFA Cup and the Champions League?
This Week: How many football pitches would fit into the whole of Monaco?
Answer Next Week.