Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had one of the most decorated careers of his era, or any era. For all of his incredible individual accomplishments (and there are many), or outlandish statements touting himself as God’s gift to soccer (there is no World Cup without him after all), he and his clubs have been some of the most successful in Europe. He has won his league — the Eredivisie, Serie A at three clubs, La Liga and Ligue 1 — a stunning 12 times, including eight titles in as many years across three leagues with four clubs. But for all of his winner’s medals, one has escaped him — the UEFA Champions League.
The European championship, arguably the biggest club trophy in all of soccer, has been just out of Ibrahimovic’s reach. His one campaign at Barcelona saw him reach the semifinals and the quarterfinals have become commonplace, making it that far another six times, but that is it. His dream has always died short of the biggest stage, and two steps shy of the trophy podium.
Now Ibrahimovic is 34 years old and his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expires in the summer. The club’s manager, Laurent Blanc, has thrown the brakes on any talks of a new deal and his future at the Parc des Princes is very much in doubt. With lucrative offers from around the world sure to come in for a massive star like Ibrahimovic, this season could be Swede’s final chance at European glory.
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Those are the very personal stakes on the line for Ibrahimovic as PSG prepare to face Chelsea in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 (Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET on FS1, FSGo). And while this is only the round of 16 — hardly new ground for the striker — each round comes with the pressure of what could be his final go. That the opponent is Chelsea, a club they have faced in each of the last two years, just makes for a brighter spotlight on a man who doesn’t need it.
PSG enter the second leg leading just 2-1, and they allowed Chelsea to tally an away goal in Paris. Even with the Blues a shadow of their former selves — and PSG did eliminate a very good Chelsea side last season — that is hardly a comforting lead going to London.
As Zlatan goes, so does Paris St. Germain.
Fairly or not, Ibrahimovic will almost assuredly bear the brunt of the criticism if PSG fall at Stamford Bridge. He hasn’t racked up goals at his normal rate in the Champions League knockout stages, having scored just once in his last five matches from the round of 16 on. Part of that is undoubtedly a product of playing Europe’s best teams that deep in the competition and a failure for service. But as the catalyst for France’s biggest team, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in investments all in the name of Champions League glory, his mortality on big European nights has not gone unnoticed.
Making matters even more difficult for Ibrahimovic, and heaping even more pressure upon him, is his place as the face of Paris Saint-Germain. Qatar Sports Investments’ purchase of the club, and outrageous spending in the five years since, has become a topic of fascination for the soccer world. UEFA, who levied a Financial Fair Play penalty on the Parisians, paid particularly close attention to the cash influx.
The team was entirely overhauled, reconfigured to not just win Ligue 1, as they have in the last three years, but to win in Europe and feature some of the world’s biggest stars. Thiago Silva, the world’s best defender when he was bought in 2012, made headlines upon his arrival. PSG set a transfer record for a defender when they bought David Luiz. Javier Pastore and Marquinho’s signings were also massive, as were Edinson Cavani, Lucas Moura and Angel Di Maria’s. But throughout it all, Ibrahimovic has been the team’s biggest star. He is the first name that people think of when PSG comes to mind, and the club has featured him in every piece of marketing possible.
Ibrahimovic has carried the weight for PSG happily, and talking about himself is never a problem for the magnanimous striker, even declaring that the club would undoubtedly taste European glory. All of that talk and hype, whether by the club, Ibrahimovic himself or even the world media, comes back to the Swede, though. And all that matters now is the Champions League. That is where all the money, buzz and a legacy will be justified.
The Champions League knockout stages already bring their own share of pressure and a very bright spotlight. When the clubs in question are PSG and Chelsea, the cities Paris and London, the investments of Qatari Sports Investments and Roman Abramovich, that focus is only multiplied. And all of that falls on Ibrahimovic. So does conquering Europe, the only club trophy left for him to capture and cement his place among the all-time greats, not to mention a reputation as an untouchable club hero to go along with his individual dazzle and unforgettable personality.