On November 19, 2013, the dream came crashing down. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick and Portugal were on their way to the World Cup, at the expense of Sweden.
But, more poignantly, at the expense of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
One can argue that Ronaldo was more deserving of a spot at the World Cup, seeing as there could be little argument that he was deserving of the title of "World's Best" when the tournament started. But there's no denying that the tournament would have been a better one had it been Zlatan, not Ronaldo, that arrived in Brazil. And for that reason alone, the 2014 World Cup can never be known as the greatest in history. Here's what we might have missed out on thanks to Zlatan's absence.
Zlatan would've put the Pepe head-nuzzle to shame.
Ibrahimovic isn't exactly known for his restraint. In 2010, an elbow to Marco Materazzi's face sent his former teammate to the hospital. While at Milan, he got into a training ground brawl with teammate Oguchi Onyewu. At the end of his first season with PSG, Ibra lost his head, screaming at Leonardo, the club's director of football, over a doping test delaying his opportunity to celebrate with his teammates.
Beyond the realm of football, this tournament hasn't given us too many overly dramatic moments. That's how it should be, of course, but sometimes we long for moments of pure absurdity. That's the best way to describe Pepe's sending-off against Germany. With Portugal already down 2-0 and Thomas Müller irritating the hell out of Pepe, it wasn't surprising that a tussle led to Müller crashing to the ground. What did come as a bit of a shock was Pepe's response. The defender hustled over to Müller and, almost in slow motion, bent down to nuzzle his head with his own. Pepe received a red card for the world's most loving headbutt, and life went on, with Germany winning 4-0.
If Ibra were involved, we'd still be discussing his outrageous foul. Not because Müller would be in hospital (Zlatan has learned to restrain his physical reactions) but because he would've known how to push Müller's buttons. Had the forward dared to jostle Ibrahimovic -- or worse, performed that ridiculous stumble-fall-crawl free kick routine -- he would have found himself hounded for the rest of the match. He'd feel a tap on the shoulder, a nudge on the knee. He'd look behind him and there'd be Zlatan, grinning. Eventually Müller would go mad and get himself sent off.
Zlatan would've staged a comeback against Germany.
On October 16 2012, Germany were up 4-0 over Sweden, with just 28 minutes left to play. Then came the Sweden comeback, as Ibra, Mikael Lustig and Johan Elmander all scored within 14 minutes. Rasmus Elm put in the equalizer in the 93rd minute, leaving Germany stunned.
On July 8 2014, Germany were up 5-0 with thirty minutes played. Had Zlatan been involved, this match would have only just started to be interesting. Since Sweden's comeback against Germany, Ibrahimovic has only managed to improve, so clearly he would've had no problem mustering up an extra goal in that thirty minutes.
And lest you think Germany were fielding a much weaker side than that of 15 months ago, the only defensive change was Benedikt Höwedes for Holger Badstuber. With the exception of Höwedes mom, perhaps, there's likely few people out there who believe the Schalke man could've done much to stand in the way of a Zlatan intent on preserving his dignity.
Zlatan would've put an end to the Suárez debate.
Is Luis Suárez the most vile villain ever to set foot on the pitch? Or is he a tragically misunderstood character, a victim of a vicious smear campaign conducted by the English media? Had Ibra been involved, there'd be no need to debate the nuances of the latest Suárez scandal.
When Suárez sank his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini, the Italy defender reacted with astonishment, shoving the forward away and pulling his shirt down to reveal teeth-shaped depressions. Had the Uruguayan elected to sample Zlatan instead, the result would've been much different.
Ibrahimovic may look tempting, what with all that golden skin, but chances are had Suárez sank his teeth into the Swede's shoulder, there'd still be fragments embedded in the skin. The solid mass of muscle likely would have dislocated Suárez's jaw, rendering him unable to do much more than sip milkshakes through a straw. Such a painful consequence would finally put him off biting for life, leaving players to go about their daily work without being trailed by a cloud of fear. As such, Ibrahimovic would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, thus making him the most successful player ever to compete in an international tournament.
The James Chest-Turn-Score? Robin van Persie's levitating header? Tim Cahill's thundering volley? Zlatan would've topped them all.
We've been blessed with the opportunity to see some absolutely outstanding goals during this World Cup. When Robin van Persie scored his header against Spain, some were already set to give him the goal of the tournament - despite the goal occurring in the third match. Then came Tim Cahill, knocking in a thundering volley against Netherlands, as if to warn the Dutch that no, the most tremendous goals would still be coming. But for many, Cahill's goal faded from memory after witnessing James Rodríguez chest the ball down and, pirouetting, volley it off the crossbar to put Colombia in front of Uruguay.
The talk of the 2014 Goal of the Tournament will continue long after the winners' medals are handed out, but even as people debate each nuance included in every flick, one question will remain: what would Zlatan have done had he been in Brazil? Would it have been an overhead bicycle backheel? A speeding strike from near the center circle? Might he have performed a triple forward-handspring culminating in front flip, rising above a crowd of defenders to nudge the ball in with his forehead before sticking the dismount?
We will never know.