IF EVER THERE WAS THE PERFECT WAY TO SCORE your last goal for a club, it would be Zlatan Ibrahimović’s magnificent solo goal for Ajax against NAC Breda. In a moment of pure brilliance, Ibrahimović would torment half their team with cutbacks, feints, several mazy dribbles and, in the end, a simple finish to send the Amsterdam ArenA wild, singing songs for the man they were jeering just over an hour ago.
A goal to take your breath away, it was one of the great solo strikes of all time and an indication of what Ajax were letting go – a game changer, a magisterial forward, and someone who would become one of the finest strikers in history.
The Swede’s story in the Dutch capital started three years prior when he arrived with a more conventional hairstyle from local side Malmö FF. Spotted by former Netherlands and Real Madrid manager Leo Beenhakker, the Director of Football at the club at the time, who claims he was convinced by him in just 15 minutes, and by Danish scout John Steen Olsen, a reputed figure in Amsterdam who still works very closely with the club, Ajax moved quickly to get their man, beating off competition from Fabio Capello’s Roma to secure his signature. Given it was his first journey outside his native Sweden, he could be forgiven for showing naivety and settling into the country slowly.
Ibrahimović arrived at the club for a record fee paid by Ajax at the time, so the pressure was on him already. Relatively unfamiliar outside Sweden at the time, he now had to make an early impact in his first move. Upon his arrival at the club, he was likened to the legendary Marco van Basten given his stature and reputation in his home country, and was awarded the famous number 9 shirt to further intensify expectations.
However, even before his arrival, he wasn’t carving out the best image in the media, being given an unfair tag due to early exonerations of reckless driving in Sweden. His signing was met with that of Egyptian forward Mido, who arrived with a similar reputation as his Swedish counterpart.
Ibrahimović enjoyed a fine start to the club, making his debut in a Champions League qualifier against Celtic, but the Dutch side were knocked out and demoted to the UEFA Cup, thus making the Swede wait at least another year to make his debut in the competition proper. His good start at the club was highlighted by a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win over Feyenoord in the first Klassieker of the season, and he repeated that feat against Twente in another away success a few weeks later. This was followed by two straight games in the UEFA Cup where he appeared on the scoresheet; hefty fee paid to acquire his services already seemed to be paying off.
His early months went by with relative success as the tag of troublemaker slowly faded away. He had a fine run, starting several games in succession in the early months of the campaign, which was necessary for the 19-year-old to gel within the squad. But just as things were going well for him, his off-field problems started to take a toll on his performances.
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This was Ibrahimović’s first move away from home and several factors stopping him from being at his best, including the language barrier, a failure to settle into the city, and most importantly, a lack of communication with his disciplinarian coach, Co Adriaanse.
Around that time, with minutes on the pitch his only reprieve from a stressful start to life in the Netherlands, Ibrahimović became the Ajax fans’ number one target for their inconsistent form, and after a game against Groningen, he received a five-match suspension from the KNVB after being spotted elbowing an opponent. This was around the time of the winter transfer window, and Ibrahimović sought an opportunity to leave the club on loan, even contacting Hasse Borg, the former Swedish international and Sporting Director at Malmö.
Borg represented Ibrahimović during negotiations for his transfer to the Dutch giants and had known him since he made his debut for the Swedish club. Often described as an “extra dad” by Ibrahimović for his support early in his career and helping him make the big move, he would later learn that, just like all sporting directors, he would do what was in the best interests of the club, and not the player.
Ajax had paid a hefty sum for Ibrahimović, but that resulted in him being one of the lowest-earning senior players at the club in a financial plan that benefited the selling side more than it benefited the player, which he had no idea about and only learned from his teammate André Bergdølmo.
Infuriated, he wrote quite an explosive passage about him in his autobiography, released in 2012: “He acted like he was on my side, but in reality, he only worked for Malmö FF and the more I thought of it, the angrier I became. Money has never been the big thing for me, but to be let down and used, to be seen as the most stupid falafel boy that you can fool and make money off, that made me mad.”
In November 2001, Ajax’s poor form in the league forced their hand and they dismissed Adriaanse and appointed their former centre-half Ronald Koeman as their manager, a move which Ibrahimović hoped would change his fortunes at the club. At the time, he also formed a close bond with Brazilian full-back Maxwell who, just like him, had joined the club in the summer and was also experiencing his first journey outside his native country. Living together in Amsterdam, the two would play together at Inter Milan, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.
In the second half of the season, Ibrahimović’s fortunes changed for the better and he began to cement his place as the number one striker. Mido, who was Adriaanse’s preference in attack, saw his time on the pitch diminish as Ibrahimović became a more integral part of the team. His confidence continued to grow and had a hand in several goals as Ajax were past their early-season slump and slowly marched towards their first league title since 1998.
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His improved form was evident in a game against Sparta Rotterdam, where a win would seal the championship. He entered the fray just after the hour mark and played a part in all three goals, scoring once and providing the other two to seal Ajax’s 28th Eredivisie title.
The Amsterdammers also made significant progress in the KNVB Cup, and after a tough season, the final against Utrecht gave Ibrahimović the crowning moment of his debut season. The game at De Kuip was poised at 2-2 after 90 minutes. With the cup there to be decided via the golden goal rule, just three minutes into the intended 30, Ibrahimović neatly chested the ball down and hit it past the goalkeeper with his left boot to win Ajax the cup.
He threw his shirt off and burst away in celebration as Koeman and his Ajax heroes created a raucous atmosphere in the home of their fiercest rivals. Ibrahimović had just won his first trophy, and was heading into his second season in confident mood.
The toxic atmosphere that the Amsterdam media expected two giant egos like Mido and Ibrahimović to create did indeed happen, but away from the cameras, and after a dangerously heated exchange, Ibrahimović came out the better of the two. This was set to be his first campaign in the Champions League proper, having only played in the qualifying rounds previously, and because of a moment of sheer stupidity, he would get the chance to headline his debut on Europe’s grandest stage.
Mido had handed in a transfer request just a few weeks prior to the season’s commencement, and things boiled over after a loss to Feyenoord. Typically, it would be Ibrahimović who would respond to him and defend the rest of his team, and in a changing room that included two volatile characters vying for one spot in the team, things were sure to get even more heated. Mido would toss a pair of scissors towards Ibrahimović that just missed him and the Swede would respond with a punch and a slap.
However, they went from brawlers to friends in 10 minutes, and after a lot of arguing, they would leave the room arm in arm. The Egyptian forward would, rightly so, suffer the worse of the punishment – a suspension and a fine that opened the door for Ibrahimović to star in the Champions League.
The opening game would come against Lyon at the Amsterdam ArenA, and a fresh-faced Ibrahimović never hinted at any signs of nervousness. Just 11 minutes in, he showed Europe what he was about. On the left flank he was seemingly at a dead end by the Lyon byline, marked by two defenders, but he smartly cut in between them and unleashed a ferocious shot into the far right corner past a hapless Grégory Coupet. It was a dream start, and it would only get better.
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He would score a second that night, a simple tap-in after some brilliant work by Jari Litmanen and Victor Sikora down the right flank. This was the perfect way to make your debut in the game’s biggest club competition, and if few people outside of Sweden and Netherlands had known him before the Lyon game, that night was the best way to let the world know about the monster Ajax had on their hands.
Ibrahimović’s love affair with the competition would continue to grow. He would score in a group game against Rosenborg that earned them a crucial point on the way to qualification to the knockout rounds. They were then drawn in a tough group for the second stage, squaring off against Valencia, Arsenal and Roma.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Ibrahimović was finding consistent form in the league. After sealing the Dutch Super Cup early in the season, he would have a consistent run in the side after December, starting in 12 successive games and scoring 11 times, establishing him as the club’s first-choice forward. However, his form wasn’t enough to help Ajax retain the league title, as PSV pipped them to it by a point. The KNVB Cup also failed to bring much joy; they were knocked out by Feyenoord.
Ajax’s European adventure, though, was a stop-start journey as their six games in the second group stage would see them win just once and draw five times – nevertheless, it was enough to see them qualify for the quarter-finals. Ibrahimović got on the scoresheet in the first game against Valencia and also in the following tie against Roma – their only win in the round – after an error by goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli. It was his last goal in that season’s competition as Ajax were knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual winners AC Milan, however, after five goals in his debut European campaign, he was now identifiable as big-game performer.
His season ended early due to injury, but Ajax knew that they had unearthed a gem. In his breakthrough campaign, he played the most number of games in one season – 42 – and scored the most number of goals with 21. Despite only winning one trophy, the Swede would now be looking to cement his place as the star turn in the Ajax machine.
There is no greater individual honour for a footballer than earning a nomination for a Ballon d’Or and, at the age of 21, despite playing for a team that didn’t have the ability to match some of their continental rivals, Ibrahimović received the acclaim alongside 49 other footballers. He finished 20th, which was a commendable position considering he was known by few just 15 months prior. As a result, his value skyrocketed.
The 2003/04 season also saw Ajax fans finally take to their striker en masse, putting aside worries about his volatile nature and early inconsistencies. His style and role in the side was now based more on his flair and ability rather than just being the target man up top. Ibrahimović’s development over the previous three years was plainly evident and he was returning the considerable fee Ajax paid in the form of crucial performances.
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Ajax reaped the rewards of a more commanding and free-spirited Ibrahimović and went on to win the league title in convincing fashion, having attained top spot in matchday six and keeping PSV Eindhoven at bay throughout to win their second league title in three seasons.
Despite a serious hamstring injury curtailing most of the winter period, sidelining him out for three months, he scored a few outstanding goals – which he would become synonymous for later in his career – on the way to Ajax’s title success. One of them included a stunning overhead kick from a crossed free-kick against AZ just weeks after his return in March 2004, and earlier in the season a wonderful overhead volley against NAC in a 4-2 defeat. He was able to follow that up with some exceptional assists for his team, included an audacious back-heel in a Champions League game against Club Brugge, however Ajax couldn’t replicate their success of the previous season in Europe, crashing out in the first group stage.
With his name now well-established in Europe, a move to a more competitive league beckoned, and with that in mind, his ego started clashing with two others at the club, including Louis van Gaal and Rafael van der Vaart. It was the former manager – now the director of football – who he failed to get along with first, having an argument over his style as a forward in a training camp in Portugal in 2004, with Ibrahimović suggesting that Van Basten had provided him different instructions and that he would rather listen to him, considering his career, than Van Gaal, who he believed knew little about being a striker.
Infuriated, the two never saw eye-to-eye in the little time they worked together and Ibrahimović’s sale was one of the big reasons that Van Gaal lasted less than a year in his job.
An infamous clash with Rafael van der Vaart also hastened the Swede’s exit. In an international friendly between the Netherlands and Sweden, Ibrahimović crudely, albeit unintentionally, caught Van der Vaart on his leg before passing the ball for the opening goal of the game. The two, who were teammates and were going through similar phases in their careers, argued over intent of the challenge, with Van der Vaart claiming that the Swede purposely injured him.
Being the local hero, most fans took his side, and with a sense of unsettlement, Ibrahimović and his agent, Mino Raiola, engineered a move to Juventus, whose manager Fabio Capello had been interested in him since his Malmö days.
His last goal for Ajax was that incredible effort against NAC Breda, and it was the perfect way to end a tumultuous but largely successful three seasons at the club. Forty-eight goals in 110 appearances and four trophies built him quite the CV early in his career and set the platform to become of the most feared and respected strikers of his generation.
Ibrahimović still holds Ajax dear in his heart, often speaking positively about them and rightly crediting them for his development as a footballer and a human. Amidst the back-stabbings, arguments, injuries and goals, Zlatan Ibrahimović engineered the roots of greatness in Amsterdam.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26