Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and how to talk about greatness

Michael Regan

Super-Ibra defies numbers; it turns out we need Nietzsche to quantify his unique brilliance.

When Danny Welbeck converted Ashley Young's cross into England's equaliser in Sweden last night, he had scored 5 goals from 5 shots as an England international. That is estimable efficiency and one model of strikership. A different model, a somewhat less efficient one, was operating at the other end of the pitch by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Zlatan took eight shots last night, some of them (half) were awful, and scored four goals; but he's not about that: numerical efficiency is no measure of him.

And he knows that, of course.

There are myriad quotes -- some of the more recent ones have been curated here -- from Ibra himself and his (super) agent Mino Raiola evincing the big man's sense of his own worth. They are amusing, often, but are partly to blame for the English media's (ludicrous) presentation of the Paris St Germain striker as a flat track bully. Those quotes, and the perception they promote, though, are a distraction. Others, from his international manager Erik Hamren -- "We have a world star", and opponents -- "His performance tonight was simply world class" (Steven Gerrard) -- give a better perspective of his standing. The last player to score a hat-trick against England was Marco van Basten. No player had ever scored four.

And just look at that fourth goal.

When we talk about Zlatan then, unlike when we talk about Welbeck, the numbers can only take us so far. He exists, like all truly great players, on a plane of his own, which makes him difficult to talk about. What can we say beyond, look at that goal; isn't it amazing? It's hard. But, fortunately, smarter (and madder) people than me have tackled this problem before.

Friedrich Nietzsche called the higher type of person, the Ubermensch -- which translates as Over Men or Higher Mennot, sadly, Super Men. Nietszche named a few -- Goethe, Beethoven and, sometimes, himself -- and defined them in terms of their infinite creativity: "the men of great creativity [are] the really great men according to my understanding" (The Will to Power 957). The value of such a man does not, Nietzsche writes, "reside in his utility"; he is, rather, "the pinnacle of the whole species of man: so high, so superior, that everything would perish from envy of him" (WP 877). It sounds appropriate, doesn't it? The timbre of the vocabulary is certainly Ibra-esque.

Ibrahimovic has, it seems, "the will to power" so venerated by Nietzsche. And this, via Nietzsche's controversial moral philosophy, provides us with a context in which Ibrahimovic's greatness can be meaningfully discussed. Easy to misinterpret, Nietzsche's moral/political philosophy basically teaches that some men are better than us -- Ibra, you sense, would agree -- and that it is our duty to allow them to flourish. This sounds odd: like an apologist's defense for the primacy of society's one percent. But in football, and with Ibrahimovic, it makes sense.

Nietzsche's point is that by creating an environment in which our superiors flourish we all benefit; by helping the over-men to rise we, clinging to their bootstraps, rise too. We can see that with Sweden. Carried to and almost through the European Championships by their talismanic captain, dragged from 4-0 down to parity in Germany after a half-time "I am Zlatan", victorious over England in a new stadium that already has glorious memories to go with its happy name, a workman-like Sweden side has made itself greater than the sum of its parts by creating a platform on which Zlatan can flourish. Last night, he did and Sweden won; and that, ladies and gentlemen, is greatness.

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