Even using the most basic Abacus skills there are a handful of contests taking place in Lisbon on Friday night – despite the world simply wanting to call it ‘Zlatan v Ronaldo’. Just like ‘The White Album’ was actually titled ‘The Beatles’ this event also has a ‘real’ name – Portugal v Sweden for a place at next summer’s World Cup. And there are other interests at play.
In the white corner, Real Madrid. They just renewed their greatest star, the striker who looks set to eclipse every club record, Puskas, Di Stefano, Raúl, and they committed close to €100m in salary in doing so. One of the yardsticks used by Ronaldo’s management company in negotiating the deal was that he should receive more than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s €17m annual salary with Paris St Germain.
Madrid want their returns in victories over Barcelona, Liga titles, victories over Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Champions League titles. But they also need Ronaldo to be an advertising and sponsorship magnet. They need him to draw money to the club. Success in Brazil next summer, albeit for Portugal, embellishes those chances – it will be a significant and extremely painful loss to his club if Ronaldo fails to make it to what remains football’s biggest global impact.
Then there is something more nebulous – Zlatan’s off field worth to the Qatar Investment Authority and his club President Nasser Al-Khelaifi is huge and it’s prestige-based. They want trophies, they are a genuine Champions League contender but they want much more. Their aim is visibility, credibility, awareness – for Qatar. Zlatan, whether he likes it or not, is one of their salesmen and were he not to make it to the World Cup with Sweden it would sting his paymasters. And there’s a little side match which you’d imagine may influence matters.
Up-sepp-ing the applecart
When Sepp Blatter stood up and did his Captain Mainwairing on magic mushrooms act at the Oxford Union last month he unwittingly put Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli under huge extra pressure. This was the ‘Blatter-moment’ when he also asked his audience if they thought he was: “… a ruthless parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the world and out of football.
The godfather of the FIFA gravy train. An out-of-touch, heartless schmoozer?” Answering a question about Leo Messi and Ronaldo he called the former a ‘nice boy’ and the latter a ‘commander’ before standing up, sucking in his girth and stomping about the stage to imitate a pompous military presence when demonstrating his view on the Portuguese.
He also committed the folly of pointing out that one of them ‘spend more on hairdressers’ and admitting a personal preference for Messi. NB: Just so that we are all clear the voting for the Ballon D’Or ends on November 15. So these two play offs can’t influence the vote positively in anyone’s favour – unless a handful of journalists and international team captains wait until the very last minute to email their votes and one or other of Zlatan or Ronaldo cut loose with a hatful of goals tonight.
Anyway because of Blatter’s words and deeds Madrid instantly sent off a communique stating their ‘repulsion’ at the ‘unjust’ actions and words and they stated, explicitly, their concern that Blatter had done enough to ‘condition some voters for the Ballon D’Or’ Ronaldo went further. On Twitter ‘he’ wrote: “This shows the respect and consideration that FIFA has for me, my club and my country. “Much is explained. “I wish Mr.Blatter health and a long life, with the certainty that he’ll continue to witness the successes of his favourite teams and players”
It reads as if there was legal advice before he posted it. But it also reads as if he suspects bias. In Portugal, ahead of a FIFA World Cup play-off there was furore. Every columnist, every news reporter, every fan will now become football’s version of the Witchfinder-General. They’ll sniff and hunt for any hint of bias and, worse, they’ll howl and roar for every decision to go their way with that passion of the unjustly wounded.
When Signor Rizzoli [or his mama] packed his whistle, notebook and hair gel for the Lisbon trip I hope he included a tin-hat and thick skin. Expect there to be penalty calls to be made by the officiating team. You just know it.
Zlat’s what you’d expect
Obviously enough the two stars approach the main contest in sublime form – arguably the best each of them have ever played. Zlatan made that very point about his own game this week admitting:
“I evolve all the time and even if I’m 32 now, I have the feeling that I keep improving and that I’ve never played this well”.
Each man is carrying his team on his back, each is showing new levels of leadership and maturity. Both of them signed-off for their clubs with hat tricks at the weekend. If you have a long memory it takes you back to 2006.
Prior to the German World Cup Nike launched their Joga Bonito advert campaign in which Eric Cantona sticks a ‘tablet’ in front of the young Ronaldo, shows him his opponent’s tricks and says: “This is Zlatan. Can you beat this?” The two footballer’s show their divine technique, arrogance. confidence and elegance until, at the end of the extended advert, Cantona admits: ‘Ooo weens? I dohn know…’
Who you WANT to win depends on whether or not you like marmite players. Neither of them are exactly the houswives’ choice. They divide opinion via the way they look, how they act, what they say .. and their perceived arrogance. To my eyes they are both extraordinary and we are privileged to live in an era when they, plus Messi, adorn our television screens.
Who would the tournament miss most? That’s subjective and the picture can be clouded a little by lies, damn lies and statistics. For example – Ronaldo is in his plenitude, he’s scoring at his highest every rate in club terms and he’s consistently produced goals in semi finals or finals for Real Madrid plus a flood of Clásico goals too. Yet the World Cup finals themselves tell lies with their CR7 stats.
Those stats make him look like a dud. In ten World Cup final matches Ronaldo has scored precisely twice. Against North Korea and a penalty against Iran. You have to admire his stance against totalitarian states though.
Ronaldo’s Korea low?
Zlatan’s general tournament performances, if you take Euros into account, ain’t bad. A couple of ‘Best Goal’ winners one of which, the backheel against Italy in 2004, is amongst the most remarkable you’ll ever see. So, things to look for.
Before even trying to separate out whether Ronaldo or Zlatan might turn the tie in Lisbon it might be worth confronting the fact that goals are far from guaranteed. The last two meetings of these sides were nil-all draws, Portugal have fewer than a goal per game in the fifteen meetings with Sweden – let’s not go looking for champagne football here.
If one of the two Titans is to turn things it actually profiles as Zlatan. Ronaldo’s four goals in the last eight qualifying matches came against Luxembourg and Northern Ireland (a hat trick) whereas the Swede produces more regularly and against better opposition on current form. Where, perhaps, there might be a curveball is his notorious temperament.
Domestically, in Serie A, Signor Rizzoli likes a red card as much as the next man. One every three matches. Internationally he’s sent one player off in last 23 ties.
However Zlatan facing Portugal’s likely centre backs of Pepe and Bruno Alves (robust bucaneers the pair of them) looks like it might test the Italian’s liberal temperament.
Sepp Blatter will be watching events with anxiety. We can relax and pray for goals.