Thought Trails: Team Cristiano or Team Zlatan?

“The World Cup needs Zlatan more than Ronaldo.” - Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Maxi: With less than a year until the World Cup kicks off in Brazil, we’re at a point where, coincidentally, we’re likely to see one of the most anticipated international games until the knockout rounds of the World Cup itself. Ego vs. Ego. World’s Best vs. World’s Best. International icon vs. International icon. Zlatan vs. Cristiano. While corporate sponsors rub their hands wondering whether their horse will make it to the global stage, one can’t help but think that as Zlatan and Cristiano have excelled as individuals, the fortunes of their respective countries have declined. Shame that one of the two will be forced to watch the World Cup as a spectator, no?

Eric: It is a shame. Sure, Portugal isn’t the power it once was and Sweden has never been guaranteed a spot in the World Cup, but they can only blame themselves (and maybe the system, man) for being in this position. But this is the situation, and Portugal and Sweden probably won’t unify within the next six months. The real question we need to face: Would you rather see Zlatan or Cristiano in the World Cup?

Maxi: Ooh, that’s a tough one. Hair gel or ponytail? Amazing volley versus improbable backheel? As an uninterested party to either team, we should pull for the player likely to cause the most excitement during the World Cup, the one who can realistically cause a few upsets and change the landscape of the competition. Based on recent results though, I’m not too sure Sweden or Portugal can provide that. Sure, Zlatan and Ronaldo can change the complexion of a match on their own, but their teams have struggled. And not just against quality sides, either. That said, it really comes down to personal preference, no? And the inevitable storylines that would follow a potential Brazil vs. Portugal match point towards Ronaldo.

Eric: There’s Messi vs. Ronaldo. There’s Portugal vs. Brazil, Spain, England, France… When it comes down to it, both Cristiano and his country have more rivals than Sweden and Zlatan. If you’re not Scandinavian, what’s not to like about Sweden? It’s hard to think of much beyond a universal healthcare system that actually works. Like Ronaldo, Zlatan is quite the egomaniac, but he’s a lovable egomaniac. Maybe you don’t want him anywhere near your club, but it’s fun that he exists. Little known fact: In 1882, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”, and he was talking about Zlatan. Sweden is Zlatan + 10, and would be an incredible novelty because the team is Zlatan and a supporting cast. You don’t expect them to outplay opponents, you expect them to hang on and rely on Ibrahimovic’s wizardry. And that’s another little known fact: Zlatan is a wizard. What does Ronaldo offer this tournament that Zlatan doesn’t?

M: Besides a jaw that can gut glass? Cristiano and Zlatan fascinate me for similar reasons: besides their incomparable talents, they both occupy a very specific space as anti-heroes of the modern game. So self-aware and confident are they of their talents, that somehow, that means we should favor them less when compared to the sort of sandbox joy you see radiate from Lionel Messi. That said, while Zlatan fully embraces the role, and in fact, enjoys underlining it by insulting and kicking teammates and opponents, Cristiano always seems like he’s trying to push that image aside. Whether it’s charity work or that forced smile when he loses out on another trophy, Cristiano is uncomfortable with the role to which he’s been typecast. 

That said, while that tension with his image is always simmering, it rises to the surface during international matches. Sweden is Zlatan and 10 random folks from Sweden. Are they professional footballers? Maybe? I’m not sure. All I know is that their main objective is get the ball to Zlatan and get out of his way. The same is true with Portugal, except that Portugal has SO MANY talented players. Joao Moutinho, Nani, Nelson Oliveira. They should be a competitive international team, except that they don’t play as a team. “Get the ball to Ronaldo, even though you’re all world class players.” You can see the frustration in the body language of every player on the team. The sighs, the raised hands, the pointed fingers. With Sweden, it’s undeniably Zlatan’s team. With Portugal, it’s Cristiano’s as well, except that neither the squad nor Cristiano himself seem comfortable with that fact. I’m a sucker for drama, and Portugal is full of it.

E: Before Sweden’s army comes after us for calling its best players borderline professionals (side note: Sweden has the oldest army in the world, not in an “the average soldier is 71” way),  we know the team has talent, but nothing compares to Zlatan. And let’s be honest, Kim Källström should be much better considering he’s a midfielder with twice as many umlauts as Özil. I agree that Ronaldo and Portugal bring the drama, which is arguably what the tournament is all about, beyond - you know - uniting the world and cameramen trying to find the most attractive fans in the stadium. I also think that we need to recognize Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world right now. This is partially due to Messi struggling with injuries, but regardless the man has only continued to improve. Sure, Neymar and Messi are going to be in Brazil, but what is a sport’s best tournament without its best player? A little empty, in my opinion.

M: I’m sure Zlatan, and, well, Nicklas Bendtner would disagree with that assessment, but it’s absolutely right. Last time I checked, what was it, 27 goals in his last 20 matches? Ridiculous. Which leads me to something I’ve been thinking about recently. We all wear rose tinted glasses when looking towards the past, and those heroes who excelled through the early years of the game will always be remembered, but looking at the current state of football, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the current generation of players is astounding in regards to their collective talents. Zlatan, Ronaldo, Messi, etc. It’s useless to compare players from different eras, but we’re living in a Golden Era of athletic excellence, aren’t we?

E: We are living in a golden era, and though football purists may hate that Zlatan can buy a hotel with all the money he’s making, we’re watching some of the best that have ever played the game. What’s more interesting is that Messi and Neymar are the only ones tied to the “they need to win the World Cup to be considered greats” narrative. Sweden and Portugal may never win a World Cup, but when the boots are taken off one last time no one will argue about the achievements of Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo. Or rather, no one should. These players are both tremendous, unabashedly proud talents who take pleasure in silencing their doubters. I do get the sense that Ronaldo would be more crushed to miss the tournament than Zlatan, simply because he has an obsession with becoming one of the best ever to play the game. Zlatan already knows he’s a great, and no one can tell him otherwise.

M: Right. And while it’s a shame that one of the world’s best will be watching the World Cup poolside, the tournament will be full of drama, tension and beautiful soccer regardless of which team advances from the playoffs. That said, I’ve got to go work on my “Give me Ronaldo or Give me Death” sign. I’ll catch you on the other side.

Eric and Maxi are behind these Thought Trails. You can follow them on Twitter at @BeardEric and @FutbolIntellect. Comments below please.

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