This feature is part of Virtuoso
Occasionally in a footballer’s career you can pinpoint the exact moment the lightbulb went off in the public’s minds. When a fan doubts a player and then, in 90 minutes, they’re changed completely. Lionel Messi has had it, as has Cristiano Ronaldo; they’ve proved any and all doubters wrong by performing on the pitch.
For arguably the 21st century’s most charismatic player, in one game, he left a permanent mark upon an entire country that had, before that day, been filled with people who doubted him. On 14 November 2012, Zlatan Ibrahimović would put in the kind of performance that transformed him from being comparable to any other talented striker to just ‘Zlatan’.
For years, English fans and their country’s media had doubted Ibrahimović, claiming he was perhaps a scorer of great goals but not a great goalscorer, pointing all the while to his poor record against English clubs which, as of 2012, had seen him manage just three goals in 15 games, all coming against Arsenal. That perception was soon to be wildly altered.
This wasn’t even the first time that Sweden had faced off against England in 2012, with the English coming out 3-2 winners earlier in the summer at Euro 2012. Ibrahimović didn’t score on that occasion but this game was to be different.
England boss Roy Hodgson was attempting to bring a couple of youngsters into the squad, in the shape of Steven Caulker and Wilfried Zaha, and the game would mark the first time that a football match would be played in the new Friends Arena. There was an air of positivity around the stadium that night, with many fans expecting an entertaining game with some goals, but also many felt that this could perhaps usher in a new era of Swedish football. With a new stadium to call home, a new set of players after finishing bottom of their Euro 2012 group, there was an palpable sense of optimism.
It only took 19 minutes for Zlatan to open the scoring, when he poked home the very first goal at the Friends Arena. The simple prod past Joe Hart did little to warn anyone watching, from home, across the country in bars, or at the stadium, what awaited them.
The opener woke England up a little and before the half-time break the visitors had been put ahead through goals from Danny Welbeck and debutant Caulker. It was to be the second half, however, that everybody remembers from this game; the half in which Ibrahimović would silence the travelling England contingent who soon wished they’d not spent so much of the game chanting “you’re just a shit Andy Carroll” in the forward’s direction.
Perhaps the most incredible part about this game for Ibrahimović that he managed to score a hat-trick in just 14 minutes. What’s more, all three of these goals were absolutely superb. The Ibrahimović takeover began in the 74th minute, when he controlled a cross with his chest before thumping home a volley from inside the box. In one movement, he took the ball down with his chest, set himself for the finish and mustered enough power to simply caress it past Hart. The England goalie was beaten all ends up, with Zlatan missing not a single step in his stride; knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his chance. He executed it expertly.
His hat-trick goal came just a handful of minutes later and, on another night, would have set the world raving about this strike. But a 30-yard free-kick, pinpoint into the bottom right-hand corner, was still to be upstaged.
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At this point of the evening, it looked as though Ibrahimović had capped off a wonderful evening with a winning goal. In hindsight we can see he had been building up to one extravagant finale all night. Already he had secured a hat-trick against the one nation that had most criticised him in the past, but the magician had one more trick up his sleeve – a trick that would turn the doubters into admirers.
Zlatan took a step back. Realising an advanced Hart would never get a good enough contact onto his header, he never took his eyes off the ball and, in one karate-like movement, Ibrahimović scored one of the most incredible goals we have seen this century. Seeing such a tall yet agile figure lift his leg up so high, to score a tremendous volley from such a tight angle, was simply breathtaking.
In one moment, you could hear the air taken out of the Friends Arena by the gasps of the supporters. People watched on, jaws dropping, as Ibrahimović became Zlatan. For those who had doubted him for so long, it was as though they were finally watching a myth come to life, almost like they didn’t believe he was real until this moment.
In his own words: “As always in England all the media were against me. There was all that talk: he doesn’t score against English teams. That’s the way it is with the English. If you score against them you’re a good player, if you don’t score against them you’re not a good player.” On that night Zlatan proved he was more than just a good player. It was this night upon which Zlatan became a hero, and the night when England learnt that, if you doubt him, he will punish you but only in ways that will convert you.
By Tom Scholes @_TomScholes
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp