Ibrahimovic: when his brace won the Scudetto at Inter

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“Everyone’s faces had regained color. More than scoring goals, it was as if I had saved them from drowning. ” It is curious how in his autobiography Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not resort to a Christological image to describe the forty-four minutes following his entry from the bench in the second half of Parma-Inter on 18 May 2008. For a character so careful to deify his ego, that thaumaturgical touch in the Tardini marsh would have been perfect to compare himself to Jesus walking on the waters, or to Moses separating them to lead Inter away from the second 5 May.

Even without drawing on that repertoire, in I, Ibra however, the Swede has written a great truth: without his brace, most likely Inter would have drowned in his insecurities that day. Twelve years later that afternoon, however, remains wrapped in a blinding mysticism that hides an important aspect of history, a side of Zlatan Ibrahimovic that we are not used to considering, because that flash of absolute omnipotence was triggered in a moment of great physical fragility and emotional.

How Inter arrive at the decisive match of the season

When he gets off the coach with his teammates and enters the Tardini, fifty days have passed since he last set foot in a stadium. Until a few days before, Zlatan was in Umeå, where a Swedish luminary had tried to soothe the patellar tendon inflammation that prevented him from playing the last seven Serie A games. That knee is anything but healed, but Inter on the last day a championship that he already had in his pocket is being played, and he cannot do it without his best player. Inter still has destiny in its hands – just winning in Parma to make the result of Massimino irrelevant, where Roma second face Catania – but it comes at the end of a tiring season.

Ibrahimovic not only hasn’t played for a month and a half, but he hasn’t scored a goal on action from exactly an entire group. The last was a counterbalance on Cruz’s cross at 96 ‘of Inter-Parma, the game that could reopen the Scudetto race and that instead Inter had overturned in the last minutes with a brace from Ibrahimovic.

The 2-2 penalty will go on for months.

On January 20, Inter, unbeaten as they would have remained until February, was at + 7 on Roma and seemed very close to closing the championship. A fair part of the merit for that unstoppable start belongs to his number 8. The 2007/08 season is that of the definitive consecration for Ibrahimovic, the one in which the maturation process started with Fabio Capello comes to fruition and gives Roberto Mancini a total player, who without failing senseless goals (as against Sampdoria is Siena), it marks with continuity also decisive ones, as the brace of Parma. But it is an influence that goes beyond the goals: his presence at the center of the attack represents, together with the movements of Maicon on the right track, the main director of the offensive game of that Inter.

An influence declined by the newspapers in the controversial “Ibradependence” neologism and put on black and white by the check detached from Massimo Moratti, which offers him a contract until 2013 of 12 million euros per year. After that Inter-Parma match in mid-January, it was unthinkable that eighteen days later it would have come to a league game, and that Zlatan would have started it off the bench without having scored more goals on action. Instead, in the following months the fragility of the Swedish and Inter would emerge simultaneously, up to eroding the foundations of a domain that seemed impossible to scratch. Halfway between Inter-Parma and Parma-Inter, in fact, the Inter season risked to be derailed due to the consequences of another double confrontation.

The two defeats in the Champions League against Liverpool crumble the certainties of the group and create an internal fracture between the dressing room and Mancini, who after the 0-1 at San Siro heralds his farewell three months in advance. Inevitably, Inter also suffered a backlash in the championship, also thanks to the vertical drop in Ibrahimovic’s performance, clearly limited by his left knee. After two months of tooth grits and painkillers, on 29 March he is forced to stop completely, just at the decisive moment of the Scudetto race.

In the first five days without his number 8, Inter reacts very well, responding to the assaults of Rome with five victories that seemed to seal the first place in the championship, given the six points ahead three days from the end. For the Scudetto three are enough in as many games: Milan, Siena and Parma. In the pre-derby press conference, Mihajlović thus answers a question about Ibrahimovic’s current and future importance: “Ibra is one of the best in the world, but I can imagine Inter without him […] if he won’t be there [l’anno prossimo] there will be someone else ».

Then came the Derby and Inter lost it very badly, being transfixed within four minutes by Filippo Inzaghi and Kaka. Even worse is the draw against Siena, in a San Siro packed and ready for the party, with Materazzi tearing the ball from Cruz’s hands before shooting Manninger with the penalty of the possible 3-2.

In the meantime, Roma do not miss a match and arrive within Inter Milan, only one point away on the eve of the 38th championship. At that point, suddenly, Ibrahimovic returns essential.

The week of Parma-Inter

The week leading up to May 18th is marked by the usual flood of opinions and predictions. Ligabue says that his Inter “is doing it”, Claudio Amendola superstitiously predicts an undeserved victory for Inter. Antonio Matarrese, on the other hand, prophesies that between Inter and Rome “the scudetto will win who is more relaxed”. If this is really the case, in Rome they would do better to warn Sabrina Ferilli and to cordon off the Circus Maximus. Inter are in silent press from the match against Siena, but journalistic tones, ranging between the military and the apocalyptic («Inter locked up in the fort of Appiano», «fear of the invasion of fans») would be enough to understand that air pulls the Pinetina in and out.

The most precise emotional thermometer is precisely that of the fans, such as the 200 who after Inter-Siena dismissed the players at the rate of “go to work” or the anonymous Pisa fan who threw his own 28 inches from the balcony after the penalty by Materazzi.

Mancini’s is a team physically and mentally kept with scotch tape, without many owners – besides Ibra, Chivu, Samuel, Cordoba, Cambiasso and Figo are missing – and on the verge of a nervous breakdown after the matchpoints burnt in the last two days. As if that were not enough, just in those days it breaks out the wiretapping case, which indirectly involves some Inter players and managers. In short, not the best climate to prepare for the match of the year.

Zlatan returns to Italy and faces a burning situation. Some comrades, like Julio César, ask him if he feels like playing. He says yes, even though he trained separately for most of the week. Mancini, on the other hand, is more exhaustive and tells him to keep himself ready, because he will certainly play. Maybe not from the beginning, but he will play.

At 3 pm on May 18, he takes a seat on the guests’ bench. He sees the game begin under a leaden sky and Inter face it as if it were meteoropathic. His teammates, who Mancini deploys in a 4-1-4-1 with Cruz in front and Balotelli and César on his sides, fail neither to assert an abysmal technical gap nor to dominate the battle of nerves that Parma has decided to ‘baste.

On the other hand, Parma must make a result to save itself. Ghirardi exonerated Di Carlo in March by replacing him with Hector Cuper, but incredibly the Argentine coach is sent away just before the last day that would have seen him opposed to his former team after being on Inter’s team on 5 May. The president replies to those who accuse him of wanting to favor Inter with this decision that “the only ones who can save Parma are the players”. The coach of Primavera Manzo sits on the bench.

When Tardini’s big screen announces Roma’s advantage in the eighth minute, Inter have a vacuum that could become fatal if Morrone manages to angle his right from inside the small area. Moreover, it starts to rain, the field becomes heavy and adds difficulty to those who should play the game but does not have the technical and above all mental strength to crush the opponent.

On the bench the faces are petrified by the tension, Moratti furiously follows from the grandstand. Not far away, Cambiasso walks nervously spitting insults into porteño. After a first half with more yellow cards that you shoot on goal, you go to the locker room with Roma leaders.

Ibrahimovic’s responsibilities

A few minutes before the start of the second half, the cameras shake on Inter players ready to return to the pitch. Many have the faces of those who are going to meet history with blindfolded eyes and hands behind their backs. Maicon sketches a nervous smile, Stankovic looks like a statue, Rivas is so agitated that he repeatedly bangs his head on Vieira’s shoulder.

The direction is detached on the narrow sideline, where only one Inter player is warming up. Ibrahimovic curls up and down the side band, the thoughtful face of the hero put aside: “You are sitting there. The rest of them go out to train. You drag yourself to the gym and from the windows you see your teammates on the field. It is like seeing a film in which you should also be there, but you cannot »so he will write about those days in his autobiography.

If Inter were to throw away that scudetto, he would be the main culprit, and that failure would be seen as yet another proof of his shrinking in front of the greatest occasions. Ibrahimovic has already won 3 Scudetti as a protagonist, but he has never been asked for proof of responsibility like the one that is about to arrive with Parma. At the latest a few years earlier he had decided to go to the 2002 Dutch Cup in extra time and had celebrated by ripping off his Ajax shirt. Those were other times, other contexts, and he was a semi-unknown young Swede, not one of the best players in the world.

Not being in full swing for someone like Ibrahimovic is a problem. Nobody like him is able to use to his advantage the exceptional physique he carries around and hypothesize his crippled version is really difficult. There is a gray area between the injury and the “not being at best” that the most decisive players often attend in the decisive moments of the season, without however this can be considered an excuse in front of public opinion and fans, after all not take to the field with crutches. When Inter go out with Liverpool and Ibrahimovic plays badly, he is crucified by everyone, without anyone pointing out the knee pain with which he had taken the field.

Ibrahimovic then prepares to take the field to take the most important responsibility of his career so far – because it is in some way implicitly accepted by everyone that he must solve it – when his body is less ready to do it.

The looks and the “Ibra think about it” that his companions give him while adjusting the shirt in his shorts reiterate the speech à la Yoda made by Mihajlović a few days before: “” Ibra, “he said; “I know what you want,” I said; “Okay, but listen to one thing. There is no need for you to train. You don’t have to do anything. But you have to be against Parma, and you have to help us win. “; “I’ll try,” I promised; «You don’t have to try. You have to do it, “he replied before leaving the room.”

Ibra on the field

For Zlatan the time to do it comes to 50 ‘. Mancini throws him into the fray instead of César, who ironically was on the pitch with the Lazio shirt on May 5 and had served the assist for the final 4-2. His entrance is greeted by a concert of whistles and applause, a mixture of fear and hope that immediately affects the game, which begins to heat up when, after not even fifty seconds, Ibra is free on the trocar, advances in the lead, takes aim and kick. His right goes off weakly to the side, but works as a first warning. Parma’s defense receives the message and at 58 ‘, when it touches the first ball in the area, within two seconds, it surrounds it with six players.

ibra

The expression just before entering the field.

In the 60th minute, Julio César returns along for Cruz, who heads forward on the Swede who controls and gets rid of Paci with a single movement, then adjusts the ball but kicks too early, as if taken by the heat of having to succeed at all costs. Another weak shot, but now there are two warnings. At that point the terror of Parma’s defense exceeded the guard levels. Mindful of what happened in the first leg, the Couto and Paci power plants do not even want to stop the ball.

Not surprisingly a minute later, when Stankovic needs a relatively harmless pass, Couto tries a reckless advance forty meters from the door. Ibrahimovic sees him coming out of the corner of his eye and lets the ball slip like a bullfighter. He had made the exact same pretense a few months earlier, against CSKA, scoring one of the best goals of his career, proposing it again to score the most important so far. On the second touch he adjusts the ball, which, however, thanks to the rain, slips a little longer than he would like. Then he is forced to accelerate the coordination and to anticipate the right to avoid Castellini’s recovery in a slip. The result is a low, slightly choked diagonal, which exploits aquaplanning on the Tardini lawn and spurts a couple of times, gaining speed.

It is certainly not his best shot, but he is angled enough to bag himself to Pavarini’s right and remove a huge boulder from Inter’s back, which returns to the top of the championship after fifty-two agonious minutes from Vucinic’s goal in Catania.

Ibrahimovic sketches an exultation but then remains motionless, waiting for the shipwrecked to come to submerge him, and indeed they all arrive, except Stankovic who remains bent on his knees, perhaps crying, perhaps praying, perfectly embodying the mood of millions of ‘Inter. In the grandstand it is total delirium. Moratti receives more hugs than Ibra, while Cambiasso, who in the meantime has reached Gianfelice Facchetti in the Parma presidential box, exults in such a shameless way as to be chased by Ghirardi’s mother. Obviously it’s not over yet. There are still 30 minutes to go, and the Inter history is too rich in harakiri to think of taking a breath.

To cling to the A Parma relies on the totem Cristiano Lucarelli, entered in place of Cigarini. The thirty-three in five minutes goes very close to earning a penalty, but the player who comes closest to scoring is the youngest of those on the field. Balotelli is 17 years old, and it is also thanks to him if Inter remained afloat during the injury of Ibrahimovic. That Sunday he played a game of sacrifice, willingly dangling in the defensive retreats, and he was one of the most proactive in attack, to the point of warning the whole left chain of Parma. At minute 64, the opportunity to end the game comes to his feet, but his diagonal is rejected by a great save by Pavarini.

Balotelli also deserves the goal, but it is increasingly evident that there is room for only one hero. It’s amazing how the opportunities keep raining on him. At 74 ‘Maicon trots along the trocar and lets a cross fly over the area until it reaches the second post, Ibrahimovic is in good position, raises his head and prepares to hit, but Cruz gets in the way and the ball passes along towards the lateral foul. In hindsight, that occasion seems the general rehearsal of what happens in the 78th minute, when again Maicon sinks from the right, enters the area and puts another soft ball on the second post. Parma right-back Coly, until then flawless, is distracted and lets himself be overtaken by the ball. Ibrahimovic counts the steps, takes aim and opens the left plate.

Twenty-eight minutes, seven shots, two goals. Zlatan runs towards the flag and sketches a slip that, despite the sodden field, stops within a meter, and then remains with open arms, panting and smiling, as he prepares for another group hug. In the meantime, the Inter bench is deserted, they are all standing, Moratti gives off his own light in the stands, Cambiasso is probably risking DASPO.

The last few minutes go by without really playing football, partly because the field is reduced to a paddy field, partly because the news came from Catania that Malaka Martinez drew, so the verdicts are certain: for the Inter is the sixteenth league title, for Parma the first relegation to B. The glacial silence of the home fans contrasts with the delirium of the guests, who have infiltrated thousands despite the travel ban.

The end

At the triple whistle of Rocchi, the part of spectators interisti at the stadium overflows on the field going hunting for the icons of the protagonists of the Scudetto. Zanetti is held hostage by the affection of about fifty fans, Materazzi embraces anyone who comes within range and is the happiest of all, since no one seems to remember the penalty against Siena. Ibrahimovic completely exhausted and stripped of a finished shirt who knows where, is rescued by Toldo who escorted him to the locker room.

Photo New Press / Getty Images

Just in the changing rooms, after the celebrations, the moment of greetings comes, because it is clear to everyone that this will be Mancini’s last year. If we are witnessing the Swede, all the players in turn go to Mancini, shake his hand and thank him for what he has done in those three years. When his turn comes, Ibrahimovic looks at his coach with a sneering grin and just says “Please”. As if to say: «Did you have doubts that I would solve it for you? Because I didn’t have any ».

Instead, some doubts seemed to have it, even if Ibrahimovic’s head for doubts and fragility there is no room. If we look at the exultation, the moment of maximum spontaneity for a footballer, in his mimicry there is no contemptuous security of other moments of domination, when he had no doubt of being able to bend the course of events. After the second goal in that happy face destroyed by fatigue we read the relief of those who, perhaps for the first time, have come to terms with the possibility of failing even beyond their demerits. And this does not decrease, if anything increases, the extraordinary nature of those forty-four legendary minutes.



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