Sixty thousand fans hailed Zlatan Ibrahimovic's arrival at the Camp Nou on Monday night.
Pleased to greet you, Zlatan
BARCELONA // Sixty thousand fans hailed Zlatan Ibrahimovic's arrival at the Camp Nou on Monday night. The noise they made was louder than for a league game and club officials made much of the occasion. No player in Barca's history, from Diego Maradona to Ronaldinho (who attracted 20,000) has been welcomed by so many. More than 30,000 met Thierry Henry in 2007, but that was at a time when player presentations were not being orchestrated to score points over rivals.
When Real Madrid filled the Bernabéu to its 80,000 capacity for the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo recently, it marked a new era in Spain's biggest pair trying to outdo each other. It used to be trophies, results, average crowds or size of stadium that mattered - now the crowds at a player presentation are taken seriously, even though they are little more than a sabre-rattling exercise. Ibrahimovic's welcoming committee didn't quite match Ronaldo's, but to attract so many to cheer a player, hear him utter a few precious scripted words and see him balance a ball on his head is staggering. The Swedish striker also kissed the club badge on his new Barca shirt, uttered "Visca Barca" [forever Barca] in Catalan and put his thumbs up to those who unfurled a giant Swedish flag baring the legend "King Zlatan".
Those desperate for him to succeed at the spearhead of Barca's attacking formation share the sentiment with the coach Pep Guardiola, who pushed the high stakes deal through after six weeks of negotiation. Ibrahimovic has signed for five years, which will cost the Catalans ?250 million (Dh1.3 billion) in wages and what amounts to a ?66m transfer fee. Barca's entire annual turnover wouldn't cover the total costs of the deal.
Few doubt Ibrahimovic's class, but comparisons will be inevitable with the man he replaces. Samuel Eto'o, who moves in the opposite direction, to Inter Milan, may have been surly and outspoken, but he has been Europe's most prolific striker for the last five years. Yet such was Barca's eagerness to offload Eto'o he was valued at just ?20m in the deal, meaning Barca will pay ?46m. That part of the deal alone makes Ibrahimovic, Serie A's top goalscorer last season, Barca's record signing. The former Arsenal midfielder Alexander Hleb will also join Inter on a one-season loan, the Belorussian having barely featured for Barca since joining them in 2008. The Italian champions have an option to buy Hleb for ?10m at the end of the loan period.
When Guardiola took over last summer, his principle aim was to build a new Barca around Lionel Messi, while discarding the negative influences of Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto'o. The former pair left, but no club was willing to pay Eto'o's wages and he stayed at Camp Nou, content to run his contract down. Eto'o did change though, and stopped his nonsensical media outbursts. He was again Barca's top scorer, scored in the Champions League final against Manchester United and finished second in the race for the Pichichi Trophy, but Guardiola fretted that he did not convert as many chances as should. Barca's glorious side deliver their No 9 with so many opportunities that it's a striker's dream. So why did the perpetually scowling Eto'o make it look like it was a chore?
Even Eto'o's changed personality did not fit with the new spirit Guardiola quickly created, and he instructed the club president, Joan Laporta, and the technical director, Txiki Beguiristain, to get rid of the player, even though Eto'o did not want to leave a city and club he professed to love. Finding a buyer for Eto'o, who had a year left to run on his contract and could have left for free next summer, became as crucial as signing a striker.
At 27, Ibrahimovic is just a year younger than Eto'o. Having won everything domestically in Italy, he says he wants a new challenge and to win the Champions League. Such are the expectations, and anything less will be greeted with considerably less enthusiasm than was demonstrated at the Camp Nou for his arrival. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic will be out of action for about three weeks after surgery on a bone fracture in his left hand, Barcelona said yesterday.
He will be with the club during its pre-season US tour, and could make his debut in a friendly against Manchester City on Aug 19 or in the return leg of the Spanish Super Cup, against Athletic Bilbao, the following weekend. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org