Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger recently set a few tongues wagging when he recently stated that Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is “right now, better than Messi and Ronaldo” following his impressive showing against Belgian outfit Anderlecht in the Champions League. The Gunners tactician has long been an admirer of the big Swede, notably trying—and failing—to sign him before Ibrahimovic made his move to the Eredivise with Ajax.
With the 23-man shortlist for the 2013 edition of the Ballon d’Or announced today, many fans and neutrals alike certainly aren’t surprised to see the 32-year-old among the list of the world’s best footballers. But will he be among the final three chosen come next year? Does he have what it takes to knock four-time winner Lionel Messi off his perch?
Rabid fans of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi vehemently disagree, because they can’t see anything beyond the Portuguese nor the Argentine, whose battle for the world’s best footballer is similar to the presidential race in the United States—a Republican or Democrat always wins. Or, in terms of footballing terms—like the two-horse race in the league the duo ply their trade—a common barb is that one always has a 50% chance of predicting who’ll win La Liga at the end of the season—because it’s always either going to be Barcelona or Real Madrid. Although, if one were to look at the league table these days that just might change as Atletico Madrid continues to be just one point behind the Blaugrana, keeping pressure on Messi & Co such that one slip might just mix things up and turn the race for the title from a two-legged into a three-legged race, which certainly would delight los Rojiblancos’ supporters quite a bit.
But, unlike the U.S. presidential elections, football isn’t so bi-partisan and to be honest, Ibrahimovic can certainly stake his claim to be among the world’s top players. Messi might be dominant in terms of statistics but to be honest, one can argue that one thing going against the Argentine maestro is that he hasn’t been tested in other leagues besides Spain, let alone, outside the comfort of the team that he’s made home since he was a young lad. Now, that’s not to say that one-club men aren’t worthy of considered top class players—the likes of Ryan Giggs, Francesco Totti, Steven Gerrard and Paolo Maldini all come to mind as modern-day greats who’ve pledged their loyalty to one club.
However, one thing that Ibrahimovic does have going for him is that he’s proven that he can be successful in different venues—winning the league title in every team that he’d played for from the Netherlands, to Italy, to Spain—save for the 2011-2012 season with Milan that snapped his eight year winning streak. But, he quickly rebounded after being sold by the same team whose 2nd place finish ended his impressive run by leading PSG to their first league title since 1994, becoming the league’s top scorer in the process, and has now claimed that prize three times in two different countries—however, he has yet to win the European Golden Shoe.
In terms of Ballon d’Or contenders, only Cristiano Ronaldo can make that claim as well—having won the top scorer in two different leagues and even more impressively, the European Golden Shoe also twice with both Manchester United and Real Madrid. Diego Forlan (with Villarreal and Atletico Madrid) and Mario Jardel (with Porto and Sporting CP) previously won the continent’s prize for best marksman with two different clubs, but within La Liga and the Primeria Liga respectively.
Detractors often point to the fact that Ibrahimovic has yet to win a CL title—but to be fair, it takes 11 players (and more) to win a trophy. Even Messi couldn’t have won the CL numerous times with Barcelona by himself, and Cristiano’s failure to win another trophy with Real Madrid following his triumph with Manchester United is certainly no fault of his own. And although he hasn’t had the opportunity to grace the winners’ podium and lift that massive trophy, it’s a testament to his ability that last season he might not have been the top scorer but became the first player to score with six different clubs in the tournament and also finished as the top assist-provider with 7, showing that he’s no longer the selfish player that many had previously accused him of being in his past.
By no means can anyone say that the La Liga duo don’t deserve to be among the nominees, even the finalized list of the world’s best footballers. But to be honest, no one—save for the most devoted (and perhaps willfully ignorant)—Messi or C. Ronaldo fan can say that players like Ibrahimovic and definitely European footballer of the year winner Franck Ribery shouldn’t be counted among serious contenders for the award in Zurich this upcoming January, especially if he’s able to replicate his fantastic form with Sweden in their crucial play-off clashes with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal coming up next month.
If so, certainly it’s possible that the monopolistic hold that Messi has held on the world’s best footballer prize (so much so that despite Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Pichichi and his second Golden Boot in 2010-2011, he still was not awarded the prize) might become more of an oligopoly and turn a previously boringly predictable one horse-race into a more interesting actual competition come 13 January.