England’s soccer team has a habit of giving up spectacular goals. The team’s exit from the 1986 World Cup in Mexico was mired in controversy, after Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal gave Argentina the lead. But his sumptuous second, where the mercurial midfielder picked the ball up at the halfway line before dribbling past England’s defense, is often regarded as the best goal ever.
On Wednesday night in Sweden, England saw an equally outrageous strike, causing grown men to drop their jaws in admiration, and children to dream of what they’ll be trying in recess.
The friendly between Sweden and England was ostensibly put together to herald the opening of the home team’s 50,000-seat Friends Arena. The game also marked England captain Steven Gerrard’s 100th appearance, making him the sixth Englishman to attain a century of caps.
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Enter Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Sweden’s talismanic striker often seems to suffer a raw deal. He has undoubted, and sublime talent, but goes unnoticed because he doesn’t fit the mold of the conventional superstar soccer player (see Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo). He’s rather ungainly (Ibrahimovic stands 6 ft. 5, a giant in soccer terms) and bounces around from club to club. You’ll also hear the laughable suggestion that he always fails to perform against English sides, as if that was any real indication of assessing the merits of a player.
Just look at the facts. Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring average is roughly one every two games. Those numbers might not match the ludicrous output of Messrs. Messi and Ronaldo, but they’re still world class. What’s more, the sides he plays for tend to win league titles. And these teams aren’t exactly makeweights but rather – deep breath required – Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and now Paris Saint Germain, who are currently top of the French standings on goal difference.
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Against England, the Swede had already helped himself to a hat-trick of strikes to singlehandedly lead England by a score of 3-2. Then came that goal. With the game coming to a close, the striker decided to try something that pretty much only he could think about attempting, let alone pull off. Goalkeeper Joe Hart’s poor clearance resulted in Ibrahimovic improvising a bicycle kick from at least 30 yards out. The ball flew into the net, even resulting in applause from the England fans who knew they had witnessed something truly special.
The tributes came in swifter than the shot itself. England captain Gerrard said it was “probably the best goal” he had seen live while Sweden coach Erik Hamren said, “I don’t know if you will see another like it in your life,” as he rightly compared the effort to “watching a video game.” His counterpart, England manager Roy Hodgson, was about as magnanimous as he possibly could be: “It’s a wonderful goal to see on a football field, though I would rather have seen it against someone else.”
As for Ibra, he was in turns gracious (“Hart was a long way out and I was just trying to get it into the goal”) and ever so slightly chippy with a veiled reference to some people’s perception of him. “That’s the way it is with the English,” he noted. “If you score against them you’re a good player, if you don’t score against them you’re not a good player. I remember Lionel Messi before the 2009 Champions League final for Barcelona. Then he scored against Manchester United and suddenly he was the best player in the world. Maybe now they’ll say something like that about me.”
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Where does the goal rank among the greatest ever? Feel free to comment below; my opinion is that it’s above Maradona’s second in 1986, as England’s players were already wilting in the heat, but slightly below Marco Van Basten’s wonder goal, from an impossible angle, in the Euro 1988 final against Russia, and Brazil’s perfect team goal scored by Carlos Alberto to round out their 4-1 victory over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final.
Back to Wednesday. Gerrard was asked to give himself a mark out of 10 to sum up his international career. “Six or seven,” was the typically modest (and accurate) response. When the same question was put to Ibrahimovic, he answered, without hesitation, “ten.” It really was that kind of night.