By Chris Dunlavy
Back in 2012, on the cusp of England’s visit to Stockholm, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was taking pelters in the UK media. Famously described as “the most overrated player in the world” by Martin O’Neill, the perception lingered.
Show pony, we said. Doesn’t do it on the big stage. Only three goals in 15 games against English sides and, well, they were all against Arsenal. All this despite a set of medals the envy of Michael Phelps.
“Wait and see,” said Zlatan. “I will show you.” And he did, smashing four goals past a star-struck England, including an unforgettable 30-yard bicycle kick. “Zlatan against children,” was the verdict of Sweden teammate Tobias Sana.
Asked whether he now anticipated greater recognition, Ibrahimovic proved as trenchant with his tongue as he had with his feet.
“That’s the way it is with the English,” he shrugged. “If you score against them you’re a good player. If you don’t score against them you’re not a good player.
“I remember Lionel Messi before the 2009 Champions League final for Barcelona. Then he scored against Manchester United and suddenly he was the best player in the world.”
This tendency to overvalue the difficulty of our own competitions while under-estimating the quality of overseas players – the classic ‘wet Tuesday night in Stoke’ trope – is undeniable.
Pep Guardiola had won 21 trophies in two countries when he arrived at Man City, yet was persistently asked whether his style would need to be adapted for England. This year, a side built in the image of Bayern and Barca has made a mockery of the Premier League.
In the Championship, Wolves’ own foreign legion have delivered an equally emphatic riposte to those who questioned their cojones.
Back in August, I was one of many pundits who tipped a burgeoning title-charge to bog down in the muddy farmyards of a Championship winter, who wondered if a 46-game season would deaden skilful legs.
Whether playing in the pedestrian, press-free climes of Spain and Portugal was adequate preparation for the harum-scarum Championship.
We’d seen Charlton’s Roland Duchatelet gamble on a job lot of cheap imports from substandard leagues and accused Fosun of repeating the folly.
My error – just like those who questioned Pep and Zlatan – was a failure to appreciate just how talented Wolves’ imports were. To regard them as ‘unproven’ simply because they had proved nothing on English turf.
Yet Ruben Neves, signed from Porto for £15.8m, arrived as a full international who had captained his side in the Champions League at 18 and was courted by Inter Milan.
Diogo Jota, though less established, had been touted as a rising star of Portuguese football ever since a dazzling debut for Pacos de Ferreira at 17.
Every scout in Europe knew the 21-year-old’s name.
On it goes, from Barry Douglas – a title winner in Poland – to Willy Boly, a veteran of 100-plus appearances in the French top flight.
These were not B-team dregs. These were world-class players, especially Neves, a masterful technician the likes of which the Championship has never seen – and may never see again.
Whatever you may think of agent Jorge Mendes’ influence, executive chairman Jeff Shi and the ethics that underpin Wolves’ triumph, those in gold shirts deserve nothing but praise.
Like Zlatan, they have demonstrated that true quality –that elusive combination of talent, physicality and intelligence – will prosper in any team, in any division, against any opposition in the world.
And it’s shown people like me we should have a little less reverence for the uniqueness of English football and a little more respect for reputations gained outside our borders.