Tuesday 22 October 2013

Opinion: Zlatan Ibrahimović triumphs due to his background

Mercurial striking talent Zlatan Ibrahimović as largely been billed as a man who defied his background on the re-release of his autobiography. However, Alex Lawson argues it is his background which made him the player he is.

If there has been one player who has divided opinion across the global game in the last decade, it's Zlatan Ibrahimović. From being dubbed the next van Basten to a 'big game bottler', the tall Swede who has led the line for Europe's premier clubs never fails to attract attention. 

'Welcome to Planet Zlatan', the blurb on the back of Zlatan Ibrahimović's autobiography reads. The strapline is an apt one as the reader is rapidly sent up in a rocket powered by the Swedish legend's ego into a world unlike any other. 

As unreliable narrators go, Ibrahimović was always going to rank highly. His version of events in his life and the frequent glossing over of details with a thick brush leads to a thrilling, if sceptical read. 

Much of the focus around 'I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic's release has been on his upbringing in the council estates of Rosengård, a district of Malmo. And it is these passages which provide arguably the most interest, so closely documented has his career been since. 

There are details of alcohol and drug abuse in his family; both of his parents' tempers and the struggle over custody. Zlatan himself, it appears, has always had a short fuse ("I was rowdy. I was mental," he admits) as well as the cocksure self-confidence he is known for which led to several bust ups with junior coaches. 

Ibrahimovic's is not a straightforward tale of humble triumph over adversity, the book reveals he kept his cantankerous heart from his teenage years through to his career as an international superstar. Perhaps most revealing is his latent surprise at his rapid rise from a substitute at  Malmö FF into Sweden's most expensive player when he landed a £6m move to Ajax.

It is this unique combination of a player who did not have a parent at the sidelines willing him on (until his Yugoslavian dad finally shows up when he's almost a pro) and an attitude which blew hot and cold which made Ibrahimovic the no.9 we know. If his signature arrogance is his most talked about trait, it is only a by product of having almost no one else - apart from Malmö FF sporting director Hasse Borg - who believed in him. 

And so the Ibrahimovic we know was born. Astonishing Taekwondo kick goals combined with lunacy off the field racing cars, deliberately hanging with unsavoury individuals and talking himself up to the media. That last relationship is interestingly explored in the book. At first, Zlatan courted the media and makes bold statements at every turn but quickly he was stung and pinpoints several personal vendettas not least with Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet.

Ibrahimovic's decision to open the book with his year-long dispute with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola is an intriguing one. Perhaps the biggest conflict of his argumentative career, the difference in the dispute with the Spanish boss and other stand-offs in his life is the cold, quietness of the controversy. Ibrahimovic talks of being sidelined outside an exclusive Tiki-taka club including Messi, who he admits he even promised Guardiola he would be subservient too and be part of a team built around the Argentine. 

Ibrahimović's has been a career marked by conflict and success. The former, perhaps wisely, is given the most air time. However, it's worth standing back and peaking into his trophy cabinet of league titles in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. Ibrahimovic is one of the most talented and controversial players of his generation, he is also a unique example of triumph because of adversity. 

Article originally appeared on FootyMatters.com

Sunday 20 October 2013

London Sports Writing Festival considers how El Clásico gained its bite

A heated panel discussion on the highest profile match in world football - Barcelona v Real Madrid - was a highlight of the London Sports Writing Festival at Lords this week. The four-day event featured a plethora of interesting speakers from British rower Katherine Grainger to BBC Sports website supremo Ben Dirs. As a fan of excellent sports writing, collecting the great and good in one event at the home of cricket was mouthwatering. 

Guardian Spanish football correspondent Sid Lowe and Sky Sports' man in Spain, Graham Hunter, squared up on each side of the debate over El Classico, chaired by The Times writer Matt Dickinson. A packed audience listened attentively as the two took apart the rivalry in what has realistically become a two-team league.

Hunter claimed Johan Cruyff shaped the modern rivalry. He argued the Dutchman, who demolished Real in a 5-0 for the Catalans in February 1974, paved the way for future matches to be considered the peak of Spanish football. He believes that Cryuff's desire as both player and coach to overcome Barca's greatest rivals added spice to their encounters.

Lowe, who has just published Fear and Loathing in La Liga, an excellent look at the fixture, argued that Real legend Alfredo Di Stefano played a bigger part in shaping the modern dynamic. While he agreed that the 5-0 game was a crucial point, Lowe articulately outlined the circumstances around Di Stefano's complex transfer, in which both teams laid claim to the talented Argentine and even briefly countenanced sharing him in alternate seasons.

While Real Madrid's nine European Cup and Champions League victories have long been held as the most significant element in arguing which is the more successful team, it is the club's relationship with Spanish dictator Franco which gets more air time even than to the merits of Barca and Spain's Tiki-taka re-invention of the game. The perception of Real Madrid as Franco's club is one which Lowe points out the club have done little to dispel, and the image of Los Blancos as the monied class is only further exemplified by the Galactico era and Gareth Bale's humungous transfer fee.

An intellectual debate is only undermined by several self-serving questions from the audience. Hunter's repeated attempts to second guess why the audience have attended rather than simply debate the subject is a little tiresome. But largely, this was an interesting and informed discussion on the merits of each club and their relationship.

In reality, both teams need each other and while Barca are streaking away at the top of the league this season, both are incredibly successful. A key question asked is whether the seeming lack of competition in the league may have damaged their performance in Europe - after being hammered by Germans in last season's Champions League semi-finals. 

Moreover, the number of Classicos, perpetuated by showpiece friendlies and domestic cup success, may also have diminished its standing. But El Classico looks set to remain the most intense fixture in world football for some time as the two giants fight over the world's pre-eminent players.

Thursday 3 October 2013

How Liverpool Ladies broke Arsenal's title monopoly

Liverpool Ladies’ title win shattered Arsenal’s decade-long grip on the FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) title. Alex Lawson looks at how they achieved it. 
Liverpool Ladies midfielder Louise Fors could have been forgiven for feeling a little nervous as she stepped up to take a first half penalty for the Reds against Bristol on Sunday. The spot kick was a crucial moment in a title decider few would have predicted at the start of the season.
Liverpool top scorer Natasha Dowie
As the new season opened, Liverpool had notched just two wins in the previous two seasons as they finished rock bottom in each. However, the Anfield club’s US owners ploughed money into its women’s team and brought in new manager Matt Beard to lead the side.
Moreover, a handful of classy foreign signings from the US, Sweden and Germany – who were given English lessons funded by the men’s team – were brought in to gel with the core home grown talent in the side.
Under Beard, Liverpool became the first team in the FAWSL to train full-time and a winning mentality was bred. Beard’s publicly stated aim of a mid-table finish has been blown out of the water by a team which scored 44 goals on the way to Sunday’s title decider, spurred on by former Crystal Palace and Coventry manager Iain Dowie’s niece Natasha.
Dowie, the league’s top scorer with 19 goals, was snubbed by former England manager Hope Powell for the squad for the summer’s Euro 2013 finals but took the rejection in her stride.
She has also spoken of the incentive that hunting down Arsenal Ladies – a team which bore comparison to the relentless winning machine of Manchester United’s men’s side in the 1990s – gave the side. With foreign players on board, the stigma of beating the dominant Gunners has been quelled and both Liverpool and Bristol have outclassed them during this 14-game this season.
So when Fors stepped up, there was a deal of pressure to see through what has been a significant journey for Liverpool. But she cooly dispatched the penalty and when Icelandic midfielder Katrin Omarsdottir struck home from Dowie’s pass Liverpool had secured a momentous victory at the Halton Stadium.
So what does Liverpool Ladies victory mean for the game? Firstly, there’s a new sense of vitality and competition to the league as Liverpool became the first league victors who weren’t Arsenal since Fulham in 2003. Moreover, it provides some healthy coverage for the women’s game after the poor showing by England at Euro 2013 damaged perceptions of domestic women’s football.
However, the pattern of Powell’s sacking after a lacklustre tournament and a team with significant financial backing surging up the league to take the title via a raft of foreign players is a familiar one. While the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have clinched the Premier League title with a handful of English players, neither can seriously claim to be aiding the blooding of homegrown talent.
The British spine of Liverpool’s team – namely Dowie, midfielder Fara Williams and captain Gemma Bonner – may take experience from this victory but there remains work to be done if the national side is to remain undamaged by the lack of opportunities for young home grown talent.
For Arsenal, who were deducted three points for fielding an unregistered player but would still have lost out to Liverpool, this may provide the shot in the arm to kickstart a fightback.
Article originally appeared on Footymatters.com