Gianluigi Buffon headed towards it, fist out, ready to punch it away but he never got there; a huge figure, tall and powerful, reached it first and somehow lifted the ball over him, over the man on the line and into the net. With his heel. At the time it could have been dismissed as a stroke of good fortune, but not any more. After all, it is not as if Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not done things every bit as outrageously brilliant since that night.
“He has scored that same goal three or four times; it has become something a speciality,” Buffon said on Thursday. “It is no longer surprising.”
On Friday night, 12 years on, Italy and Sweden meet again. “It was a fantastic goal,” recalled Kim Kallstrom, the only other player likely to start here who was there in Oporto that night. If that kind of goal is no longer surprising now, it was then: a fantastic goal that came as an announcement of his arrival. Ibrahimovic was not some unknown back then but he was not I Am Zlatan, either. Aged 22, a striker at Ajax, he was playing his first European Championship and that late equaliser against Italy, finalists four years before, was his first goal at a major finals.
As Antonio Conte put it when asked about the impact Ibrahimovic could have in the Premier League should the forward end up at Manchester United, he is “such a great player he could play anywhere”. The Italy manager called him a “superstar” here, and his Sweden counterpart, Erik Hamren, insisted that the rumours over Ibrahimovic’s future had not and would not affect the team. He recognises that their hopes rest with him.
Italy’s fears too. Buffon described Ibrahimovic as “one of a very small group of absolute superstars who really make the difference for the teams they play for”, admitting: “We fear him so much. He has the talent, the ability and the belief that he is a superstar that you don’t see in others. He will be a real problem for us.
Buffon knows; Italy knows. They suffered him that night and they have seen him more than anyone else. That same summer, Ibrahimovic joined Juventus from Ajax. For three years he was a team-mate of Buffon, a man about whom he has always spoken fondly.
The Swede won three league titles in a row with Juventus. He went from there to Internazionale and, after a season with Barcelona, to Milan. In total, he played in Italy for seven seasons. In six of them, he won the league. Only in 2011-12 did he not. In between his two Milan stays there was a Spanish league win and since then there have been four consecutive French titles. Oh, and before it all there were two league titles in Holland.
Yet it is tempting to see that night against Italy as the start of something, particularly on the eve of a game such as this which, after 114 caps and aged 34, seems likely to be among the last Ibrahimovic plays for his country. Fail to get a result here or in the last group game against Belgium, and it may be the penultimate match of his international career. Sweden’s poor opening night outs them under pressure.
It could also be the penultimate game for the 33-year-old Kallstrom, 129 games later, and he said he was delighted to be able to see out his international career in France, where he spent much of his club career. “I didn’t think I would be here when I started out,” he said. “I just wanted to play football with my friends; that was a good time in my life.” There have been many of them: asked about Ibrahimovic’s goal against Italy in 2004, he replied: “That’s one of the good memories, one that we take into this game.”
“It is not a beautiful memory for me, although later I was able to appreciate the technical ability,” Buffon said. “Zlatan was still quite young; we didn’t know how far he would go. [Since then] he has shown his ability.”
That goal left Sweden and Denmark first and second in the group and Italy on a knife edge. Their fate was not in their hands; it was, rather, in the hands of Denmark and Sweden – and they met next. If Zlatan’s goal was not a beautiful memory, what followed was even worse and makes this one of European football’s more unusual rivalries. What followed drew a bitter reaction from the Italians at the time and has not been forgotten there.
Biscotto is the word. It means biscuit. It also means a fix. Thanks to that goal, a 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark in their final game would put Italy out and the two Scandinavians through. When the Italians suggested before the game that they feared becoming the victims of a pact, the Swedes and Danes reacted angrily. But it did indeed end 2-2, thanks to an 88th-minute equaliser from Mattias Jonson, aided by a mistake from the Danish keeper Thomas Sorensen.
The accusation is unfair, the Swedes say. “Every time we meet it comes up,” says Anders Andersson, who played for Sweden that night. “But it’s totally ridiculous.”
He tells the story: “After the game against Italy, when we had drawn 1-1, we didn’t even know that a 2-2 draw with Denmark in our last game would send us through, but all the Italian journalists kept asking about it; we found out because of them. Straight away they said it to us, right there in the mixed zone after the game. We hadn’t even thought about it and we didn’t think about it.
“Also, our coach was one of the warmest, nicest people you could ever wish to meet and would never, ever think of doing something like that and we wouldn’t either.
“It is true that Danes and Swedes are friends, neighbours, that we like each other. So before the game, some newspapers talked about it and some fans had 2-2 written on their foreheads. It was the talk of the town. But anyone who saw that game could see that it wasn’t something we had played for. Denmark were very good; we were lucky. The goalkeeper lost the ball in the goal and I suppose that’s why the Italians thought that [it was suspicious], but that’s just not our world. The result was just coincidence.”
“There was a moment when I did something stupid though,” Andersson admits. “I was in midfield that day and up against Thomas Gravesen. They were 2-1 up and they were: attack, attack, attack. And I said something like: ‘Fucking hell, calm down.’ On the pitch you talk all the time and it was just a joke. And Gravesen responded: ‘Well, you have to attack [yourselves].’ That’s how you know how innocent we were, that we said that.
“I never thought like that and had never experienced that either, not even the suggestion of it. I do remember once, just once, when I was playing in Portugal when the manager came in and said: ‘I have just been talking to the other team and they need the points and they asked.’ And I told them to fuck off. And now we’re going to beat them even harder. I don’t even know if that was true, but that was what he said and it is the only time I have ever even heard of that. I’ve never played in Italy. Maybe the mentality is different there.”
On Friday night Andersson will be watching on the television and, like everyone else, his attention will be drawn to the man who was once his team-mate. “Zlatan has been just so amazing and done so much for Sweden,” he says.
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