The Sweden striker scored a fine goal against England but it was only a friendly and its worth was distorted by TV
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored his fourth goal in Sweden's 4-2 victory against England in Stockholm on Wednesday night, an audacious overhead shot into an empty net from a range of 30 yards and an angle of 45 degrees, some commentators went into hyperbolic overdrive. It was the greatest goal ever seen, or at least the best of this relatively young century.
For one observer the moment "combined unfathomable imagination and expert technique", and they never said that about Peter Withe. To be sure it was an outstanding piece of individualism which will be seen time and again in TV replays and those DVD compilations of football's best goals. But the best ever? Surely not.
For a start the context was relatively modest, an international friendly that by the 90th minute had been won and lost with England's earlier superiority dissipated by Roy Hodgson's need to look at half a dozen different players in the final half-hour. The chance that Ibrahimovic took so brilliantly, moreover, came about because the opposition's reshuffled defence had disappeared, leaving Joe Hart to advance beyond the penalty area and attempt to head the ball clear, which is never a task best left to goalkeepers.
Give Ibrahimovic credit for knowing exactly what he was going to do when he moved in to intercept Hart's weak header. His bicycle kick was a calculated act not a wild hit-or-miss gamble that did not matter either way.
Each of the striker's earlier three goals had a touch of quality, the first flicked off the outside of a foot, the second driven past Hart after an exquisite first touch and the third a free-kick tucked into the far corner of the net. The last was a luxury better fitted to a World Cup or European Championship, but then again England would not expect their goalkeeper to go walkabout in either of those circumstances.
Ibrahimovic's last goal was made for TV, which is where most of the world watches its football. Television loves these moments but is less comfortable with goals that involve an abundance of passing and movement. For all its technical excellence, the medium can only ever give a narrow view of football or indeed any team game.
On television football comes across as two-dimensional even in 3D. The quality of the passing and movement involved in the buildup to a goal is only fully appreciated in the stop-start playbacks that, while informative, can never recapture the sheer poetry of the motion.
One of the greatest goals ever scored in a World Cup occurred during the group stage of the 2006 tournament in Germany, when Argentina beat Serbia & Montenegro 6-0. Their second goal followed a complex build-up of one-touch passes, short sprints, and decoy runs involving all the outfield players before Esteban Cambiasso put the ball into the net. As an example of what modern football is about it will never be surpassed. And Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi started that match on the bench.
Arguments about who scored the best goal in football history have merely been complicated by the ever-increasing amount of evidence available in TV, DVDs and the web. For years a personal favourite was Alfredo Di Stefáno's final goal for Real Madrid when they outclassed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden to win the European Cup in 1960. After collecting the ball in his own half Di Stefáno dummied and swerved his way through the Eintracht defence to cap one of the game's most famous performances.
Looking at it now it is tempting to wonder why nobody closed him down. Even so, Ibrahimovic's goal hardly fits into that category any more than it compares to Diego Maradona's surge through England's defence to score Argentina's second goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.
Suffice to say that the Swedish striker's finish must rank as one of the most outrageous punishments ever handed out to a goalkeeper for leaving his line. Better than Manchester United's David Beckham catching out Wimbledon's Neil Sullivan with a lob from the halfway line at Selhurst Park at the start of the 1996-97 season, Luis Suárez finding the net from 41 yards for Liverpool at Norwich last season or even Oscar's long-distance strike for Chelsea against Shakhtar Donetsk last week.
Steven Gerrard will best remember Wednesday's match for his 100th England cap. The world at large will cherish it for Ibrahimovic's sublime impudence. Hart will want to forget it altogether.