The self-proclaimed legend of Swedish football stopped delivering. For good. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last game in Swedish bright yellow wasn’t worthy of a movie and had no Hollywood ending.
But that made it fitting for a career that, for all his towering achievements in club football in five countries, has glaring holes in it.
Sweden’s record scorer leaves international football with memories to cherish, none more powerful than the acrobatic overhead kick against England that won him FIFA’s goal of the year award in 2013, but also with a gnawing feeling that a player with his talents and footwork that was astounding for a 6-foot, 4-inches tall colossus could and should have achieved more.
He never advanced deep into a major tournament with Sweden, stalling in the last 16 of two World Cups and a European Championship quarterfinal in 2004 where he was one of two Swedes who failed to score in a penalty shoot-out loss to the Netherlands.
How much of the blame for those frustrations should be laid at his feet or at the feet of Swedish teammates who weren’t of his level will be an enduring debate.
Sweden’s 1-0 loss to Belgium on Wednesday in their last match of Group E meant Ibrahimovic failed to advance to the European Championship knockout stage for a third successive time.
Ibrahimovic had the opportunity at Euro 2016 to join Cristiano Ronaldo as the only player to score at four championships. The 34-year-old talked big at the outset, saying “the legend can still deliver”. But he shot blanks, with his tally of career goals for Sweden stuck, forever now, at 62 in 116 appearances.
Ibrahimovic’s spotty international and European record is doubtless among reasons why he has never been among the top three names for world player of the year.
He scored 19 goals for Sweden in World Cup qualifying but no goals in his two trips to the tournament itself. He came off second-best to Ronaldo when they met in qualification playoffs for the 2014 World Cup. Ronaldo scored four goals, Ibrahimovic two, and it was Portugal not Sweden that traveled to Brazil.
His exit from international football was surprisingly low-key for such a larger-than-life character, a part Bosnian Muslim, part Croatian Catholic son of Sweden who was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Malmo with a chip on his shoulder and a determination to prove that he could amount to something.
“I will have many fantastic memories from the national team,” he said. “Because it’s a nice story. Because where I came from, the little, what people call ghetto.”
He has proved himself over and over and in spades. He didn’t always live up to his own hype, but did so often enough for his arrogance not to appear ludicrous.
League titles came in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France and, if the chatter of recent months is well-founded, perhaps another adventure lies ahead with Manchester United and new manager Jose Mourinho in the Premier League.
That could be a smart move, a chance to show that he can still have impact in a league tougher than his last stop, in France. Or it could expose him as past his best.
After the final whistle in Nice, Ibrahimovic peeled off his captain’s armband and slowly made the round of his Swedish teammates, shaking their hands. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots offered him words as they left the pitch. By then, the chants of “Zlatan Ibrahimovic” from the bright-yellow banks of Swedish supporters had long died out in the warm French Riviera night.
“We’re going to miss him. We are probably not going to get another one like him for 100 years,” said Frederik Jeansson, a fan who dressed himself as an airline stewardess, in a skirt, and traveled from Linkoping in southern Sweden.
Fans said Ibrahimovic’s braggadocio, his deep wells of self-confidence, left a lasting impression. In taking him into their hearts, Swedes were changed a little by him, too, some said. “He loves the limelight. That’s very un-Swedish,” said Mathias Lovefors, another fan. “He’s broken a lot of barriers.”
But he has got stuck on obstacles, too. Most notable: four successive losses in the Champions League quarterfinals with Paris Saint-Germain.
The imbalance between his domination of French football and PSG’s inability with him to break into the European top four has left Ibrahimovic vulnerable to the argument that in France he enjoyed the benefit of being a big fish in a small pond.
In the Premier League, he would be one of many big fish – more interesting, perhaps. Even a legend, it seems, still has something to prove.