When the draw for the European Zone play-offs was made, the headlines immediately homed in not on one match, but on two players.
“I think it’s a game everyone is looking forward to,” Sweden defender Jonas Olsson said of his team’s tie against Portugal, “and I know that a lot of that is down to the fact it’s Ibrahimovic versus Ronaldo. With the form they’re in at the moment, there was always going to be a lot of focus on that.”
The personal duel between Cristiano and Zlatan has indeed been a focal point for much of the media’s coverage, with this particular play-off sure to deny Brazil 2014 one of the game’s truly outstanding individuals. Ibrahimovic’s status as such is now beyond dispute, and the Paris Saint-Germain striker seems to have forced his way into a ‘greatest player’ debate long dominated by Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. For Olsson, this increased esteem is long overdue.
“Definitely,” was his instant response to the question of whether Ibrahimovic is now on a par with Messi and Ronaldo. “I’ve been saying that for quite some time and it’s good to see that it’s now being recognised. I think all three are amazing players with different qualities, but what makes Zlatan so incredible is that he combines his technical skills with that physical presence of his, which is very unique. He’s just amazing. You train with him in the national team and sometimes the things he does are really unbelievable. I’ve played with and against some very talented players here in England, but for me Zlatan is on another level all of his own.”
Though no-one can deny Ibrahimovic’s inimitable talent, plenty have questioned his equally unique personality, with allegations of arrogance and aloofness frequently levelled. Olsson, though, feels that his captain’s public image does not fit with the man he has grown to know, admire and, yes, like during his time with the national team.
“Zlatan’s a very warm person,” the West Bromwich Albion centre-half told FIFA.com. “The way he welcomes players into the squad is great; I was quite late into the team, so I saw that first-hand. He makes sure players feel comfortable and welcome, and anyone who says he’s just an arrogant guy doesn’t know him well at all. I think the media opinion of him has become the accepted opinion of the general public, and to me the picture people have of him is very wrong.”
Sweden will certainly hope that their skipper is at his brilliant best in a tie that will determine whether they march on to Brazil, or watch a second successive World Cup from the sidelines. Portugal were acknowledged by the Swedes’ coach, Erik Hamren, to be “probably the toughest team we could have met”, while the Aftonbladet and Expressen newspapers described the draw simply as “a nightmare”. Olsson, though, believes that the strength of the opposition may suit him and his team-mates, and admitted the prize on offer is providing powerful motivation.
“It’s a tough draw but, at this stage, with eight good teams left, it was always going to be that way,” he said. “Now we have two cup finals ahead of us, and I think in a way it might suit us being the slight underdogs. We know what’s at stake. Qualifying for a World Cup is any player’s dream and a World Cup in Brazil, well, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I can’t think of any better place to play a World Cup and to be part of it would be amazing. We’re going to give everything we have to get there.”
The incentive for Olsson is all the greater because, as a relative latecomer to the international scene, he will be 31 by the time Brazil 2014 comes around. This, therefore, could be his one and only chance to play at a World Cup and, having found himself in and out of the team during qualifying, he is aiming to ensure that his name becomes one of the first on Hamren’s team-sheet.
He said: “I can’t complain because I’ve played ten games during the qualifiers and started six or seven of those. But obviously I want to make my mark and make a position my own, and hopefully I can do that. If I play well for West Brom, that’s the best way of convincing the coach to pick me.”
If Olsson’s place does indeed rest on his club form, his ticket to Brazil will surely be guaranteed. After all, the 30-year-old has emerged as one of the most consistent central defenders in the English Premier League over recent seasons, and was attracting interest from Arsenal before signing a new long-term contract in October 2012. And with West Brom currently flying high in the top half of the table, having registered a stunning win at Old Trafford, their Swedish centre-half is relishing the challenges ahead.
“These are definitely exciting times,” he said. “Things have been going well and, on a personal and team level, I’m happy with the performances so far this season. We’ve shown over the past few years that we can be a very good team. We won at United this season and there have been other wins like that at the big grounds in seasons gone by. We’ve also become the kind of team that, even when we’re not playing to our absolute best, can still win games. That’s a big strength to have in a league like this.
“I signed a four-year contract last year, and I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t happy here and if I didn’t believe the club was still progressing year after year. Our record shows that we’re getting better and better, and it’s nice to be a part of a club that’s going in the right direction.”