The literal translation of bronca from Spanish is ‘row’ or ‘fight’, but its Argentinian usage, referenced throughout Diego Maradona’s autobiography, means “anger, fury, hatred, resentment, bitter discontent – especially towards oppression … [it was] his motivator, his fuel, his driving force.” Zlatan Ibrahimović plays with bronca, and was an inspired signing for Manchester United by the incoming José Mourinho. In one debut season, Ibrahimović bridged the gap from forlorn, hungover soul-searching to desire to win and push on, to not settle. Ibrahimović gave his teammates belief not with his 28 goals, but with attitude and utter professionalism – a leader lacking elsewhere in the outfield squad.
Of all the players signed by three managers since Ferguson retired and broke Robin van Persie’s heart, a mid-30s Ibrahimović has had the biggest impact on the club. In time, the likes of Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly should hopefully be better recruits, but at present no other player has imposed themselves to the extent that Ibrahimović did in his first season. Martial has had great moments but, in a coveted position, hasn’t sustained his performances enough to lift the team sufficiently. Pogba probably runs Ibrahimović closest in terms of the effect he has on the side, but equally has failed to lead consistently from a midfield he should be making his own. Given these best of the rest are all 25 years of age and under, they can be forgiven for the moment despite their abilities. There are also mitigating circumstances not all of their own doing, however excuses are precisely the point. Ibrahimović offered no excuses, and wouldn’t want them from his colleagues either.
The sobering realisation is that United repeatedly neglected to buy leaders they desperately required. David Moyes handed a spent Wayne Rooney a new contract; Louis van Gaal brought in a mascot-esque Bastian Schweinsteiger; Mourinho signed a player of requisite self-confidence.
Who knows what Ibrahimović would have made of being dumped out of the Champions League by Sevilla after their efforts to get back into it, though Romelu Lukaku inadvertently underlined the issue for him. Facing the cameras and speaking eloquently in a similar way to Lukaku’s own understated application on the pitch. Lukaku has professionally and adeptly lead the line for United in the Swede’s stead and, unlike injuries and loss of form for others, has resolutely contributed to the team with goals and linkup play. As predicted by his manager, perhaps Lukaku, 24, is doing more for United than he’s credited for. Even Ibrahimović was subject to disquiet from fans expecting better from the team overall, but their suspicions proved impatient.
United have built on the success Ibrahimović demanded, firstly in the Europa League victory in Stockholm which he celebrated and then this season in the league thus far. Ibrahimović’s League Cup final performance seeing off a stubborn Southampton will be the highlight, but the goal away at Blackburn in the FA Cup as a substitute was pure Zlatan – timing, execution and grinning like a loon before it had gone in. His shtick mightn’t always be well-received, nor his contribution in every minute of every game, but he is no fool. Ibrahimović is a tireless great of the game. United were fortunate to have him.