The meaning of Zlatan – ‘the golden one’ – has always revealed a lot about him, at least to those that admire the striker. If football numbers are any sort of indicator of a player’s prowess on the field, Ibrahimović can always depend on them. They are also suggestive of something else – a golden era for the ageing player.
“The older managers get, the cooler they are,” says Zlatan. At 34, even Ibrahimović sooner or later has to find out that nobody escapes the clutches of father time. Yet somehow, the tall Swede is turning the notion that a striker’s goal-scoring form dips as age increases on its head. He’s flipped the script.
Zlatan’s goal tally continues to rise despite the months and years passing by. His physical ability is ever present, and scarily his goal scoring instincts and football intelligence are on the rise as the wisdom and experience of the years piles on. It’s a late age renaissance. He’s reborn as a striker. The only problem? Zlatan never went anywhere. He never needed a renaissance to begin with.
So much has already been written about the blue-collar immigrant kid with a Bosniak father and a Croat mother. And with Ibrahimović’s intent, so much more is waiting to be written in the annals of history. His football ability is a mere afterthought in comparison to his colossal personality and, indeed, ego.
Not many athletes have been able to freely boast and proclaim future victories and then continuously back up the claims of bravado. Zlatan stands as one of the few in football. When Parisians pleaded with the Samson-like hero to stay, his response was: “Only if you replace the Eiffel tower with a statue of Zlatan.” That sort of response would result in disgust if it came from most people. From Zlatan it resulted in chuckles and understanding.
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His career numbers alone do the talking. Since his move to Ajax, across six different clubs and four different leagues, he has scored an unbelievable 373 goals in 49,126 minutes or 628 full matches, averaging a goal every 131 minutes.
Some, however, continue to peddle the line that he’s a pure striker, one dimensional even. Not so fast, friends. As impressive as the goal tally is, perhaps equally so is the assists number: 149. When combined, Ibrahimović is involved in either scoring or assisting a goal every 94 minutes. For all of the the claims of selfishness and self-indulgence, Ibrahimović has been a team player who spreads the wealth among his team-mates.
Leaving the overall contribution aside, surely the point of competition is to win. To do that, you bring Zlatan to the club. Soon upon arrival to each of the six clubs, he has lifted significant silverware including 11 league titles (13 if you count Juventus’ revoked titles). At Paris Saint-Germain alone, Ibrahimović claimed four league titles, two Coupe de France titles, three Coupe de la Ligue, and three Trophée des Champions.
Perhaps the most impressive statistic is his recent goal tally for PSG, at 34 years of age. As other strikers fade away, their physical ability limited by the ravages of time, Ibrahimović stands tall in the face of oblivion. During his four seasons at PSG, he player scored 35 goals in his first season, 41 in his second, 30 in his third and an eye-popping 50 in his fourth.
That’s 156 goals across 180 matches – or 15,059 minutes – bringing his goal average to one every 96 minutes. These are not the numbers of a player in decline or a striker who is fading away. The upward trending data is suggestive of a developing talent, not a grizzled veteran.
The goals haven’t just been a product of chance or a weaker league. Ibrahimovic has regularly produced important goals and moments for Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden. In the Euro 2016 play-off match against Denmark, he scored three monstrous goals to will his country through. For his club, there have been match-winning goals galore.
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Read | José Mourinho and Manchester United: the inevitable marriage
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In his final game for the Parisians, Ibrahimović scored twice to beat Marseille and claim one last honour. It brought his total silverware in France alone to 12, including a league championship for each season with the club.
As Manchester United announced the arrival of José Mourinho, and then finally paired him once again with Zlatan, one stat should bring a lot of comfort to fans of the Red Devils, and much displeasure to everyone else in the Premier League. During their short time together at Inter Milan, Ibrahimović had, perhaps, one of his best periods of his career.
Under Mourinho, Ibra was crowned Serie A top score in the 2008-09 season, with Inter Milan finishing as champions. Many would argue Mourinho unlocked a new level within Zlatan as the player went from averaging 14 league goals to 25. Perhaps even more important was their personal relationship, one built on mutual respect and a deep competitiveness. The hatred for Pep Guardiola helps too. The Manchester derby has never looked so appetising.
As he moves from the city of love to the city of industry, Ibrahimović knows that as the years go by, resting his laurels on talent alone won’t be enough. Indeed, his decorated career will eventually come to an end, but what kind of end will it be? For someone so engrossed in his own legacy and persona, he will want to make sure it’s an exit fit for a king.
He’ll have to work harder than ever during the twilight of his career. But if the statistics are any indicator for Ibrahimović, this may not be the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of another golden era.
By Albinko Hasic. Follow @albinkohasic