For millions of youngsters around the world, the ultimate dream is to become a professional footballer. Success depends on a clutch of factors, however, with talent just one ingredient along with discipline, hard work, a little luck and a healthy dose of motivation. Every top-level athlete burns with a hunger to prevail, yet the deep-seated reasons that push someone to train long hours every day can vary wildly. For Swedish midfielder Simon Tibbling, the driving force behind his breakthrough came from a very unlikely source – Pokemon cards.
"It's true that without those cards, I'd doubtless never have become a professional footballer," says the Groningen No22 and Swedish U-21 international, speaking to FIFA.com with a broad grin. "I started playing football at the age of six for a little club called Grodinge SK, but I didn't enjoy it at all. I wanted to quit after my first training session. My mother insisted I continue, but I didn't want to until she offered me a deal: 'Go to training and I'll give you two packs of Pokemon cards.' I was collecting them and that was enough to convince me to carry on playing football."
Just as well. Thanks to those Pokemon cards, Tibbling continued at Grodinge until destiny came knocking at the age of nine, when he was invited to a training camp organised by Brommapojkarna. Tibbling spent six years at the club renowned across Sweden for their youth programme, climbing through the ranks and eventually catching the eye of top-flight stalwarts Djurgarden in 2010. Two years later he turned professional, and he excelled for another two seasons with the Blåränderna (Blue Stripes) before the next major step in his career – being lured to the Eredivisie by Groningen in 2015.
"That was a special year for me," he says. "It began with victory in the Dutch Cup with my club and then the European Championship title with the Sweden U-21s, which opened up a place at the Olympics. It's tough to do better than that. The 2015/16 season has been more difficult. We've been involved in several competitions – the Europa League, championship and the cup. All those matches made things tricky, but there have been plenty of positives too. Not least the fact that I've learned a lot."
Zlatan in Rio?
Having developed a taste for success with Sweden last year, Tibbling has now swapped his love of Pokemon cards with a thirst for trophies. And while he will not get to quench it with Groningen this term, the Stockholm native can still make history with Sweden at the Rio Olympics in August. "Playing for your country is an immense privilege all by itself," he explains. "But to get the chance to represent your country at a competition like the Olympic Games is extraordinary. It's a very rare opportunity. In fact, the last time my country took part was in 1992, so that just goes to show you."
That the Blågult (Blue and Yellows) are involved at all owes much to Tibbling. It was his control, flick and shot that booked Sweden their ticket, the young midfielder finding the net with 89 minutes gone against Portugal during the group stage at the 2015 UEFA European U-21 Championship. Nevertheless, he is reluctant to take the credit. "Our team really has a certain something special. It's about more than the individual quality of each player – it's the way the team expresses itself together that makes the difference. We have the ability and desire to get the most out of our potential together. Winning the title no doubt surprised a lot of people, but I don't think it was undeserved."
Sweden could surprise people yet again if a certain forward joins their ranks this summer, with the rules allowing each team to call up three players over 23. "Zlatan Ibrahimovic is naturally very welcome," says Tibbling. "That would be fantastic for us. He's an outstanding player who can win games all by himself. If we have the chance to play with a player like him, we mustn't let it pass. He's an idol in Sweden, not just for me personally." The Paris Saint-Germain star would undoubtedly teach his young colleague a thing or two as well – and not merely in the realm of football …
Zlatan once won the World Series of Poker with Pokemon cards #ZlatanFacts
— Zlatan Facts (@ZIatanFacts) April 2, 2015
(Funny and offbeat, 'Zlatan Facts' presents various superhuman feats attributed to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the aim of highlighting the Swedish striker's many qualities and forthright personality with humour)