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In Good Conscience

Ron is gold, Messi is class, but Zlatan adapts anywhere

In the spirit of giving (and the taking of chances), three men transcend the scoring ratings of this, and many a year.

Cristiano Ronaldo has regained the Ballon d'Or as World Footballer of the Year from his nemesis of the whole of the past decade, Lionel Messi.

Fair enough, you might say, given that Ronaldo's Real Madrid cleaned up the Champions League and, last Sunday the Fifa Club World Cup - and he captained Portugal to win the European Championship.

Player of the Year, torso of the year, Cristiano R.

But Messi outscored him over the calendar year and, in the statistic that is seldom measured, swamped him in terms of playing for the team. How do we assess that?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is near the top of the pile in terms of Premier League goals this season. Like at all his previous clubs, he has hit the ground running for Manchester United and his imposing presence against West Bromwich Albion in their 2-0 win a
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is near the top of the pile in terms of Premier League goals this season. Like at all his previous clubs, he has hit the ground running for Manchester United and his imposing presence against West Bromwich Albion in their 2-0 win at the Hawthorns last week proved a real handful for Claudio Yacob (bottom) and Jonas Olsson. PHOTO: REUTERS

Well, with our eyes, for a start. Right to the final Sunday of their seasons, Ronaldo proved the undeniable opportunist with his hat-trick of goals to finish off Kashima Antlers in the Fifa trophy played in Yokohama.

That night, Messi was super mesmeric, again. He played so deep that at one point he wove his way past four opponents from a starting position just outside Barcelona's own penalty box. At least three more times, he danced (and that word is used in its aesthetic sense) in and out of handfuls of Espanyol defenders before setting up opportunities for team-mates.

Of course, this being the Catalan derby, the tempo and the tackles were fierce. Messi did as Messi does, he served his fellow players first, and Luis Suarez especially gratefully gobbled up the goals.

Finally, Messi got a goal. It was the 51 goal in 51 games for Barca this year (not the season, the Ballon d'Or spreads over the second half of last season and the first half of this).

Ronaldo notched 42 goals in 44 games for Real Madrid. The defining difference, or a definitive difference in overall contribution, comes with the assists. Messi created 25 goals for colleagues, Ronaldo 14.

They had similar ratios for their national sides, near a goal a game but with Messi assisting double the count of Ronaldo.

Great players, different mind-sets, different body types, but irresistible vote winners.

Now comes my "alternative" viewpoint. Journalists choose this France Football Ballon d'Or accolade. And writers with silver cups in front of their eyes deemed Ronaldo worth 745 votes. Not only was this more than twice the sum of Messi's votes, it accounted for the total votes cast for all of the next 17 men in the list for 2016.

Buried in that cast, in 14th place with just five votes, was (from my perspective) the man who merited at the very least third in the list.

The name? Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Zlatan found expression through football and martial arts.“My father is Muslim, my mother is Catholic,”he has said. “For me,football is meta-religion... everyone is welcome.” In this dangerously divided world, those are important words.

Knowing Zlatan, he would be mortified to be placed that low in anybody's reckoning.

At 1.95m and 95kg, he's bigger and more of a presence than either of the "Big Two". At 35, he's considerable older than most players he competes against.

Statistically, Ibrahimovic is between the two top guys. His 2016 haul amounts to 49 goals (33 for Paris St-Germain, 16 so far for Manchester United). Give him two more games, which United have against Sunderland and Middlesbrough before the year is out, and would you bet against Zlatan overtaking Messi's total, given that the Spanish season is in seasonal siesta?

Me neither.

Zlatan's reply all those years ago when he was 16 and Arsene Wenger invited him for a trial at Arsenal was: "Zlatan doesn't do trials!"

He doesn't do assists either, or at least he hasn't assisted in any goal in the Premier League yet.

But in personality, in ego, and according to Jose Mourinho and all those who took a chance on giving a player in his 35th year his first taste of Premier League football, Ibrahimovic is worth his reported £260,000 (S$461,000) per week salary for the example he is setting younger United players, like Marcus Rashford.

Possibly it was foolish to question whether this huge specimen would suffer in the physicality of England's league. The Swede with the top knot gained a taekwondo black belt when he was 16, and to judge from the way he violently barged West Brom's Craig Dawson last week, he hasn't lost that ability to impose himself upon others - legally or illegally.

"In my mind," he tells reporters, "It's like I am a 20-year-old boy."

He laughs, at himself, at others, at the whole concept of being an untouchable in a team sport.

However, his achievements are serious. Born in Sweden to immigrant parents, his father is from Bosnia and his mother from Croatia. Zlatan found expression through football and martial arts. "My father is Muslim, my mother is Catholic," he has said. "For me, football is meta-religion... everyone is welcome."

In this dangerously divided world, those are important words.

Not only is Ibrahimovic good at translating, he speaks five languages fluently and has in any case spoken through his actions in the six countries where he has played - Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France and now England.

He is, in that regard, proven to be more adaptable than Ronaldo and Messi put together.

Zlatan could, if he wished, be playing now in the United States. He has only to say the word, and the Chinese would offer him more than it is already paying hundreds of stars (lesser stars) to join the revolution in the stadiums there.

But he considers his business in England unfinished.

Why would he doubt that? Given half a season to acclimatise to another new league, new country, tradition, language and dressing room, he's already up there alongside Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Aguero as the scoring beasts of the Premier League.

The transient Ibrahimovic doesn't do settling-in periods either.

Zlatan found expression through football and martial arts. "My father is Muslim, my mother is Catholic," he has said. "For me, football is meta-religion... everyone is welcome." In this dangerously divided world, those are important words.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline 'Ron is gold, Messi is class, but Zlatan adapts anywhere'. Print Edition | Subscribe