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Zlatan: “I don’t need the Ballon d’Or to know I’m the best”

Nov 28, 2013, 10:12 PM EDT

France Soccer League One AP

This will only fuel those reluctant to acknowledge what Zlatan Ibrahimovic does on the field, but after yesterday’s UEFA Champions League match, the Paris Saint-German star didn’t hold back when asked about this year’s Ballon d’Or. With Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo,and Frank Ribéry favorites for men’s soccer’s highest honor, Ibrahimovic knows he won’t win the award. But according to the Swede, his standing in the eyes of awards voters doesn’t influence how he fells about his game.

“I don’t need the Ballon d’Or to know I’m the best,” the ever-confident striker said yesterday, having scored the opening goal of his team’s 2-1 Wednesday win over visiting Olympiacos. The victory put the defending Ligue 1 champions into Champions League’s knockout round, with Ibrahimovic scoring his competition-leading eighth goal of the tournament.

Given his name’s been missing from the Ballon d’Or discussion, Ibrahimovic’s claim is unlikely to be a popular one. The general feeling is that three players are competing for this year’s award: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Franck Ribéry. If Ibrahimovic really is the world’s best, odds are some extra-competitive factors are influencing how he’s perceived.

And of course, there are. The type of brashness that “Ibra” shows leads him to be thought of as an arrogant, self-centered player. While that may very well be true, those terms are often used a prejoratives, people confounding those qualities with an unwillingness to help a team. As Ibrahimovic’s title record shows, his teams seemed to be helped by his arrogance. Over the last 11 seasons, Ibra’s clubs have won 10 titles across five different leagues, the Swede almost always serving as the focal point of his teams’ attacks.

Isn’t it possible that arrogance, confidence, or an undo level of self-believe could be a positive on a soccer field? Leading you to strive for levels others dare not achieve, like a 30-yard bicycle kick in a high-level international friendly?

And isn’t it possible that ambition is actually a good thing? That our want to see such attitudes as inherently negative obscures the possibility that, on the rare occasion that pride matches production, arrogance can help a team?

As people compared Cristiano Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic during the recent UEFA World Cup Qualifying playoffs, there seemed to finally be the willingness to look beyond Ibra’s reputation and recognize what he brings to a team. Despite years of media accounts (particularly, English media accounts) trying to tear him down, Ibrahimovic has taken his rightful place amongst the world’s best. W’ve acknowledged you can be brash off the field and great on it.

Does that mean Ibrahimovic is right when he calls himself the best in the world? No, even if his honesty is refreshing. If you were to dose Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with truth serum, you’d probably get the same answers. It’s hard to compete to be the world’s best player without that kind of attitude, even though Messi and Ronaldo have public faces which obscure their confidence. Ibrahimovic bizarrely gets punished for forgoing the facade.

But he’s no Lionel Messi. Nobody is, right now. As polished and ruthless as Ronaldo can be, not even the Real Madrid star can claim to be a healthy Messi’s equal.

Why Frank Ribéry is in theBallon d’Or discussion over Ibrahimovic, well, we touched on that earlier. Ibrahimovic can claim to be one of the world’s top three players, but sometimes, team factors can poison what’s supposed to be an individual award.

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