Nelson Rodriguez has spent his entire adult life in soccer so it’s not often a question about the game finds him without an answer. Yet the Chicago Fire’s president and general manager was stumped Friday when asked if he had seen anything like this weekend’s match-up between the Fire’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Schweinsteiger, the former German national team star, is the clean-cut, humble boy next door who is both a World Cup and Champions League winner. Ibrahimovic, the Swedish yin to Schweinsteiger’s yang, is the loud, boastful guy from the other side of the tracks who has won everything but a World Cup or Champions League crown.
Told the faceoff sounds a little like Batman versus the Joker, Rodriguez smiled.
“That’s not a bad comparison,” he said. “I kind of like it.”
So does Major League Soccer because Saturday’s game, which will take place at a frigid, rainy and sold-out Toyota Park in suburban Chicago, is arguably the most compelling duel in the league’s 23-year history.
“It would be special for any league in the world,” Rodriguez said. “Two world-class players, two great champions. And in a lot of ways they are foils for one another.”
MLS has seen accomplished European stars meet before, of course. David Beckham faced Thierry Henry; Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard teamed up against Frank Lampard. However in many of those games the players simply shared the field and, like opposing quarterbacks, never butted heads.
But with Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic increasingly using Schweinsteiger as a midfield sweeper he and Ibrahimovic, a striker, could wind up doing hand-to-hand combat often on Saturday.
“That’s no issue,” Ibrahimovic said. “He does his job, I do mine. He wants to win, I want to win.
“And at the end of the game, everything is back to normal. But during the game, nothing is normal.”
The fact both are on the wrong side of 30 in a league that has grown younger in recent years hasn’t been an issue either: Schweinsteiger, 33, has played all 90 minutes in three of Chicago’s four games this season while Ibrahimovic, 36, leads the Galaxy in both goals and shots on target.
The last time they were on the field together they were wearing the same jersey and playing for Manchester United, the final European stop for both. That was 14 months ago in a Europa League match. Less than a month later Schweinsteiger jumped to MLS and Ibrahimovic followed a year after that.
Each still holds the other in high regard.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Ibrahimovic said of his former teammate.
“When you talk with him you see that his soccer IQ is very high,” Schweinsteiger said, returning the compliment. “He understands not only how to be a striker, he understands also what the goalkeeper has to do or the fullbacks or the center backs.
“There are some players who have this IQ but there are not many who have three options in their mind when they play. He sees things which actually happen 10 seconds later.”
More commonly, though, they have been opponents, meeting six times in Champions League play, once in the 2006 World Cup and once in World Cup qualifying. Each has won three games, with the other two ending in draws.
Saturdays’ game could be the tiebreaker.
“Every great sports league needs heroes and villains and storylines,” Rodriguez said. “Zlatan and Bastian, those guys have come here to win, to compete. And to add their experiences, add their perspectives, add their personalities to the growth of the league.
“They are much more pioneers than they are pirates.”
Or maybe more like Batman and the Joker.
“I kind of like that example,” Schweinsteiger said. “The Joker is always coming back, right?”
“But at the end of the day it’s not one against one. What’s the name of the guy from Batman, the detective? Gordon?” he continued, mentioning the superhero’s ally. “That’s how it is with us. He has his teammates, I have my teammates. It can’t be one against one.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11