SPECIAL REPORT: The Swedish striker saw his time at Camp Nou reach an abrupt end after the Argentine was shifted centrally, but there was no ill-feeling between the two forwards
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The writing was on the wall for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede squandered several clear-cut chances in a Liga game away to Zaragoza and could barely hide his jealousy as Lionel Messi hit a wonderful hat-trick at La Romareda. The end was not only nigh; it was inevitable.
Ibrahimovic had been signed amid much fanfare by Barca in the summer of 2009 as the Catalan club flexed their muscles in the transfer market in a response to Real Madrid’s lavish spending spree down in the capital.
Zlatan was all smiles on arrival and played his part for six months. The Swede scored the winner in the Camp Nou Clasico against Madrid and was involved in some fine football for the Blaugrana, scoring 21 goals for the club in 2009-10. But there was always the sense that he wasn’t quite right for Pep Guardiola’s slick side.
And in the end, Messi’s move inside to a central role saw Ibrahimovic marginalised and in that time, his relationship with Guardiola grew ever more tense. The two were not even on speaking terms by the end of the season and it was no surprise when the striker left – initially on loan – to join AC Milan in the summer.
Ibrahimovic has hit out at Guardiola on numerous occasions since leaving, but in reality it was Messi who brought the Swede’s Camp Nou career to an end.
In late 2009, Guardiola was astonished to receive an SMS from Messi which read: “I can see I am no longer important to the team, so…” Taken aback, the Catalan coach quickly sought dialogue with Barca’s best player and the result was a move to a central position for the Argentine attacker.
“It was a childhood dream and I was walking on air,” Ibrahimovic said of his time at Barca last year. “It started well but then Messi started to talk. He wanted to play in the middle, not on the wing, so the system changed from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1. I was sacrificed and no longer had the freedom on the pitch I need to succeed.”
Ibrahimovic sought explanations from Guardiola but never got them. He and Messi, however, remained on good terms. The two continued to enjoy a positive relationship and the Swede’s frustration was at never receiving appropriate answers from his coach, once telling Pep: “You have no balls!”
He was also upset at the club culture under the current Bayern boss, claiming in his autobiography I Am Zlatan that Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta “acted like schoolboys” in the presence of Guardiola.
Since leaving Barca, however, Ibrahimovic has faced his former team-mates on a number of occasions with AC Milan and also Paris Saint-Germain. And even though there are some jeers for Zlatan when he returns to Camp Nou, the Swede always shares warm embraces with Xavi and Messi in particular.
On PSG’s video channel, Zlatan recently selected his all-time XI and included Iniesta, Xavi and Messi – as well as himself. Each player picked was described by a single word and Messi’s was “genius”, while the striker defined himself as the “God” of the team.
And instead of bad-mouthing Messi as he has with Pep virtually every time he is asked about the Catalan coach, Ibrahimovic always finds warm words for the Argentine.
“Messi is natural, while [Cristiano] Ronaldo is a trained product,” he said last year. And in January, he celebrated the Argentine’s return from injury. “Messi is extraordinary,” he said. “He does things only seen in video games. I saw his second goal against Getafe and it was incredible, magical. He’s back and he looks hungry. I really enjoy watching him play.”
Less so from the bench, logically. And it was from there that Ibrahimovic saw Messi score four times against Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-finals in April 2010. By then, Guardiola’s mind was made up.
The Swede ultimately left the club in August, but continued to enjoy a positive relationship with Messi until the end and that has strengthened since the striker’s exit in 2010.
“There was some tension between the two,” a source within Barcelona told Goal. “Ibra felt let down by Guardiola because he believed he should be playing and because he was suddenly out of the picture.
“He knew Messi had asked Pep to play him in the centre, but there was never a personal problem like the one between Ibra and Guardiola. Zlatan’s ego was bruised and when he asked for an explanation from the coach, it never came. But he and Messi remained cordial until the end, never fell out and are always happy to see each other these days.”
On Wednesday, the “genius” and the “God” meet again, and while the Swede will be met by boos from fans at Camp Nou, he can expect a warm welcome from the Argentine at the ground he once called home.