Reliving Zlatan Ibrahimovic's wonder goal against England five years later
With 12 minutes remaining of a friendly against Sweden in Stockholm, five years ago this week, England were 2-1 up and playing pretty well. Considering this was a fairly experimental team, with Roy Hodgson giving debuts to six different players, and they were still getting over the relative chaos left by Euro 2012 and its build-up, it was looking like a decent evening for England. Then Zlatan Ibrahimovic happened.
There were plenty of other reasons to make this friendly notable: it was Steven Gerrard's 100th cap; it was the opening of the new Friends Arena in Stockholm; those six new England caps; a few weeks earlier Sweden had come back from 4-0 down against Germany in a World Cup qualifier, so there was a sense they could do anything.
But in the end, the only reason anyone recalls this game is because of Ibrahimovic. The striker, then playing for Paris Saint-Germain, scored three goals in the last 12 minutes, bringing his tally for the game to four after he opened the scoring. But it's the last of the four that will be most remembered, a sensational, absurd, extraordinary scissor-kick volley from around 35 yards out, leaving a clutch of international footballers look like simple schoolkids.
"It was the perfect performance, Zlatan against children," said Tobias Sana, who was on the bench for Sweden that day. "He has been criticised in England in the past, but this proves them all wrong." Indeed it did.
"Sometimes you feel you're looking at a computer game where you can do all these incredible things," Sweden head coach Erik Hamren said. "Because that's not possible to do that, that fourth goal."
This was a slightly curious international fixture, with England's previous game a month earlier and their next qualifier not scheduled until the following March. It was a cold Wednesday night in Scandinavia with league games on the weekends either side, so it perhaps wasn't a surprise that a few regulars were missing. Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole were all absent, so Hodgson selected a number of new faces.
Wilfried Zaha, at the time being courted by Ivory Coast, was called up, as were Ryan Shawcross, Carl Jenkinson and Steven Caulker. Raheem Sterling became England's fifth-youngest debutant at 17 years and 342 days old, but perhaps the surprise call-up was Leon Osman, given his first cap aged 31: there had never before been such an age gap between two players making their England bows.
"I hoped I would get an opportunity when I was younger," Osman tells ESPN FC now. "I got the call late, but it was a very welcome one."
Before the game, to mark the occasion as the first fixture at Sweden's new national stadium, there was a surreal opening ceremony featuring knights and other forms of pageantry. Ibrahimovic gave Sweden the lead, poking the ball in after Caulker had blocked his initial shot. Joe Hart and Gary Cahill then nearly handed Sweden another by getting in each other's way after a cross, but from there England established themselves in the game.
Sterling played a brilliant pass out to the left for Ashley Young, whose low cross was turned home by Danny Welbeck. Then a few minutes later Gerrard whipped a brilliant free kick into the area and Caulker, of all people, volleyed in to give England the lead.
Hodgson's men fairly well controlled the game after the break. Sterling, Caulker and Osman had started the game, then in the second half Zaha, Jenkinson and Shawcross were all introduced. It was a mistake by the latter that started the late mayhem, allowing Ibrahimovic the space to take a lofted pass down on his chest, then lash a volley home to level the game.
Five minutes later Ibrahimovic completed his hat trick, firing a low shot into the corner of the net. Hart could have and probably should have saved, but the ball was hit with power and through a thicket of legs.
"It wasn't Joe's best night," said Hodgson afterwards, but a bigger indignity was to come.
As the clock ticked into injury time, Hart dashed out of his box to head away a long punt from deep in Swedish territory. Ibrahimovic chased the ball but as Hart advanced, he realised what was about to happen and hung back for a second. Hart's header didn't go very far, but there was enough distance on it that Ibrahimovic had to twist his body away from goal. The sensible thing to do would have been control and assessment of the options: if he was really quick he could have spun around and tried a chip over the retreating Hart.
"The imagination ..." says Osman, his voice tailing off in wonder even five years on. "It didn't even enter my mind that he might go for it, and the next thing I knew it was in the back of the goal."
Rather than do what any other normal footballer might, Ibrahimovic launched himself and his massive hamstrings into the air, and hooked an implausible overhead volley high, over the England keeper and into the net. It was part football technique, part martial arts move.
At various points in the game the England fans rolled out a creative song that accused Ibrahimovic of being, shall we say, a substandard version of Andy Carroll. Ibrahimovic is a man who likes to talk, but it also helps when you can respond with goals that no other player on the planet can score. Gerrard called it the best goal he'd ever seen, but oddly for him, Ibrahimovic was a little more circumspect.
"I saw him come out and had to decide whether I should go in a duel or wait for him to head it out," Ibrahimovic said. "When he headed it I had it in my mind to try to score. I hit it in mid-air and, when I landed, saw [Shawcross] running back to try to clear but it bounced over him. It was a good try, that is all. When it comes off it looks fantastic but, for me, I liked the first goal more because it was history -- the first in the new arena."
At that point there was still an erroneous narrative, among a few in England at least, that Ibrahimovic was something of a show pony, not a player for the big occasion. This performance and that goal killed that idea stone dead.
"But for an exhibition from Zlatan, we deserved to win," says Osman. "At the highest level, the top players stand up and can turn a match like that. It was incredible to watch at such close quarters. I didn't quite realise the standard of him. I'd watched him play a few times but to be out there on the field and see how quickly his brain worked, and just how good he was, was fascinating. And then it was capped off by that wonder goal."
International friendlies can often be staid affairs, disjointed games that don't live long in the memory. But thanks to Ibrahimovic, everyone will remember this one.
Where are those debutants now?
Leon Osman: Osman played once more for England, in a World Cup 2014 qualifier against San Marino. He was released by Everton at the end of the 2015-16 season, after 26 years at the club, finding out he was no longer required via text message. He retired shortly afterwards and now does media work and is an ambassador for his old club's sponsor, SportPesa.
Wilfried Zaha: Zaha made one further appearance for England, coming on as a substitute in the friendly against Scotland in August 2013, shortly after his move to Manchester United. After returning to Crystal Palace and regaining his form, he elected to represent the nation of his birth, Ivory Coast, making his debut for them against Sweden in January 2017, before being selected for the Africa Cup of Nations squad.
Steven Caulker: Despite scoring, this was Caulker's only England cap. The following season he joined Cardiff City from Tottenham, before moving to Queens Park Rangers, from where he spent loan spells at Southampton and Liverpool. Earlier this year, Caulker gave an interview to the Guardian in which he discussed mental health, alcohol and gambling problems. He is currently back at QPR and has made four appearances for the club this season.
Ryan Shawcross: It's often been speculated that Shawcross might have more England caps if he played for a bigger team. That might be true, but ultimately this was his only England cap, hurt in part by the fact he came on with 14 minutes left, the score at 2-1 to England. "I'm the butt of the joke in my family, just because the 10 minutes I had in international football was ruined by one man," Shawcross told the Daily Telegraph in 2016.
Carl Jenkinson: After deciding to represent England over Finland, for whom he qualified through his mother, Jenkinson was called up after only a few senior appearances for Arsenal, who he had joined from Charlton the previous season. Since then he's been on loan at West Ham twice and this summer joined Birmingham City on loan, but dislocated his shoulder 30 minutes into his debut.
Raheem Sterling: The only one of the six debutants to make more than one further appearance for England, Sterling has since established himself as one of the best attacking players in the Premier League. After moving to Manchester City in 2015, he has made more than 200 club appearances and has 35 England caps, scoring two goals.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.