Commentary

Why Ibrahimovic winning the Ballon d'Or would be great for soccer

By Samuel Charles
@SoccerIsArt

Imagine Zlatan Ibrahimovic spending the entire run-up to Euro 2016 speaking in the third person about how Zlatan, the host nation’s biggest star, single-handedly carried the European Cup back to Paris, and France Football, custodian of the Ballon d’Or since 1959, before sneering down his legendary nose during the award ceremonies in Switzerland, making it obvious Cristiano Ronaldo and Donald Trump were strictly pretenders to the throne when it comes to ego and arrogance.

The awkward magnificence of that mythical moment would be a long-awaited crescendo after London’s scribes spent the first half of next season enraptured by the 6-foot-5 taekwondo black belt, regaling the English press with his tales of soccer’s last samurai from Sweden, before and after destroying the Premier League.

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Ibra’s prior oratory gems included sensible fire marshal tips for Mario Balotelli: “I like fireworks too, but I set them off in gardens or in kebab stands, never in my own house”

A nuanced preview of Euro 2012 without Sweden: “I don’t give a sh## who wins, I’m going on holiday.”

And my personal favorite, when asked what he’d be getting his wife for her upcoming birthday: “Nothing. She already has Zlatan.”

Sky Bet odds to win 2016 Ballon d'Or: Leo Messi 11/10, Ronaldo 11/4, Neymar 5/1, Luis Suarez 6/1, Gareth Bale 16/1, Robert Lewandowski 20/1, Eden Hazard 28/1, Alexis Sanchez 33/1, Kevin De Bruyne 33/1, Mesut Ozil 33/1, Sergio Aguero 33/1 and Ibrahimovic 33/1.

How Zlatan wins. The manner in which PSG knocked Chelsea out of UEFA Champions League made one thing clear, regardless of my feeling about the future of PSG and Ligue 1, the club from Paris is now closer to Europe’s upper crust than any outside Munich, Madrid or Barcelona -- but any scenario involving Ibrahimovic actually winning the award will require Paris Saint-Germain capturing its first Champions League crown.

PSG drew an injury-struck Manchester City in the UCL quarterfinals, while Barcelona’s draw with Atletico Madrid was the toughest among elite clubs, but in truth, simply winning the European Cup probably isn’t enough for Ibra. Taking home the Ballon d’Or may require PSG, which won the last four French titles, dispatching Barcelona and Messi directly, but any combination including Barca, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid and Ronaldo would make the achievement more significant.

However, there are two major international tournaments this summer, which heavily affect voting, so Ibrahimovic must follow up his first European Cup by exceeding Sweden’s modest expectations at Euro 2016, while hoping other leading candidates don’t enjoy overwhelming national team success, before a strong start the next season, at his new club that has yet to be determined.

The likely candidates to break the eight-year run with the Golden Ball by Messi and Ronaldo are obviously Neymar and Luis Suarez at Barcelona, who could distinguish themselves from Messi by planting the flags of Brazil or Uruguay as champion of the Copa Centenario in the United States (while Messi winning his first major title with Argentina could easily see La Pulga best Ibra even if PSG knocks out Barcelona).

The chronically overlooked Thomas Mueller isn’t even among the top 12 in the odds above, teammate Robert Lewandowki has a few more goals, but the Polish captain’s absence at Euro 2016 will prove conspicuous, and if the 26-year-old Mueller leads Germany to a European title after Bayern follows Barcelona’s second treble with one of its own, such achievement for the 2014 World Cup champion would demand recognition -- but who knows, with the ever-scrupulous FIFA helping France Football pursue its own version of democracy through the award since 2009, voting can get confusing.

Just ask Paul Kennedy, as Soccer America's Editor in Chief is the only media member in the U.S. who has a Ballon d’Or vote. In January he touched on the voting changes, and the possibility Pele would've won seven Golden Balls if eligible.

Why a third-party candidate would be good for soccer. Ushering in the future with Neymar, conceding the vampire genius of Suarez, or recognizing the greatness of Germany and Bayern through Mueller, would be represent fresh blood, but it would all come from the same old guard (even though Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, in 1981, was the last Bayern player to win).

Billions bought PSG’s excellence out of thin air, the ensuing shockwaves from a Ballon d’Or won by Ibrahimovic, or a Champions League crown for the weakest of Europe’s top leagues can’t be overstated, but it would inject life into a soccer world that has gotten stale at the very top, while the prism through which Ibrahimovic’s career is viewed would be changed. Forever.

Labeled as a ridiculously talented money-grubbing mercenary, Zlatan has been sold for a record transfer total of over $225 million since leaving Malmo in 2001. Prior to playing at PSG he wore the uniforms of five different European champions -- Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and AC Milan -- but the fact he failed to help any of them win another led to a narrative claiming he can’t bring home the bacon, although he sure seems to enjoy collecting league titles to pass the time.

PSG recently clinched the Ligue 1 title, which was the 13th league title won in the last 14 seasons by the 34-year-old Ibrahimovic (two with Juventus were vacated). That’s two more league titles than Messi (seven) and Ronaldo (four) have in their careers combined.

No one is arguing Zlatan is the world’s best player, but I would argue vigorously that he would incite more blind fervor for his candidacy among his constituency than anyone else, and sadly, that matters, no matter what office you’re running for. But Ibra’s performance already deserves consideration, as the man who has been shortlisted 10 different times may be having his best season. (Zlatan’s fourth-place finish in in 2013 Ballon d’Or was the only time he finished higher than seventh.)

Ibra has 36 goals and 14 assists in 37 appearances for PSG, he’s the only player besides Messi and Neymar who’s played 20 games in one of Europe’s top leagues to have a WhoScored rating over 8.00, he is tied for the most assists in France -- and his 27 goals in Ligue 1 are nearly twice that of anyone else (two players have 14 goals).

Winning the Champions League final in Milan at the San Siro this year, a stadium he once called home -- cashing checks both archrivals who play there, naturally -- would seem a confluence of circumstances that would find this infinitely fascinating hired gun waxing poetic about himself, Italian soccer, and Zlatan, which would not only be good for that country, it would be good for the game itself, as well as the Zlatan.

I could weave a (slightly) more fantastic tale about how Jamie Vardy could outfox the competition after leading Leicester City to a Premier League title taking home England’s first major international title in 50 years from France, which sounds more romantic, but I’m not sure it'd be better for soccer.

More and more 'European soccer' is reduced to England's Premier League and whatever media time is left over is dedicated to the goings on with Messi, Ronaldo and the three giants from Spain and Germany. The lure of the EPL is powerful, the greatness of the others is undeniable, but think to yourself -- have you even bothered to wonder what’s going on at AC Milan?

The fact a team with more European titles than any other club on earth, except Madrid, is hosting the Champions League final in its own stadium just months from now and we’ve barely heard a whisper about its absence from the competition, much less its eighth place and 10th place Serie A finishes the last two years is troubling. Once far and away the world’s best league, Serie A itself has become an afterthought beyond Juventus to most casual fans.

A club from Paris that bought most of its best players from Italy -- with petroleum money from Qatar -- winning the UCL title in Milan isn’t exactly a flawless remedy, however, watching the dust settle after the ensuing chaos following this nuclear option in soccer’s elite club competition, and its highest individual honor, may be exactly what’s needed for a sport that’s become a beautifully predictable game.

One thing’s for certain, no election will ever be boring with Zlatan on the ballot.

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