Illustration by Federico Manasse
From the ghettos of Rosengård to the brightest lights in Amsterdam, Milan, Paris and beyond, Zlatan Ibrahimović has done it all in a career punctuated by continued excellence. Having gained a reputation for being overly competitive as a child while with the youth teams at Malmö FF, he carried his arrogance with him long throughout his career, and it has proven to be a key aspect of the repertoire that has made him so successful.
Ibrahimović’s career started locally with Malmö, where he broke into the first team at the age of 19 as the club experienced struggles off the pitch. He had a minimal role when they were relegated to the second division but managed to steal the show while there, showing off his skills; cheeky flicks, some astonishing, albeit slightly disrespectful tricks, and, of course, goals. In 26 appearances he scored 12 times and proved his worth to the rest of Europe, often gathering more attention than his counterparts in the first division.
Shortly before he could star in his country’s top tier, Zlatan made his first move abroad and began his journey to superstardom, with his transfer to Ajax showing all he was made of.
A fan of the extraordinary, Ibrahimović built quite a reputation of scoring sublime goals early on in his career. In a Euro 2004 game against Italy, he scored a fine backheeled lob to equalise and subsequently help Sweden qualify as group winners. Just two months later, he bagged another fantastic solo goal, this time for Ajax against NAC, where he left the opposition and TV broadcasters bamboozled after several twists, turns and feints before calmly slotting it into the net. That magical strike would prove to be his final goal for the Amsterdam club.
Eventually his relationship with club captain and local hero Rafael van der Vaart broke down, subsequently forcing him to leave and move to Italy where, across three spells at three clubs, he would show his very best.
Original Series | The 50
Ibrahimović always cited Brazilian legend Ronaldo as his idol in football, and in Italy, with Juventus and both Milan clubs, his attacking prowess would often resemble his hero. At Juve, he was able to propel himself to first choice ahead of Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet. I Bianconeri was a stepping stone for him and he would soon develop from strength to strength in order to make it at the highest level. Two league titles were added in two seasons, but were eventually rescinded due to the club’s involvement in the Calciopoli scandal, thus forcing a move to Inter Milan and allowing him to follow in the footsteps of his hero by joining the very club at which Ronaldo made his name in Italy.
In three seasons at Inter, under Roberto Mancini and José Mourinho, he would add three more Scudetti and a first Capocannoniere in 2009, winning the honour with yet another audacious back-heel flick. After 66 goals with the Nerazzurri he departed for Barcelona, costing a near-world record fee, but would make his return with AC Milan just a year later and become one of their most influential players of the century, firing them to a first league title in seven years in 2011.
While at Barcelona, Ibrahimović’s feud with Pep Guardiola hogged many of the headlines but the forward would still enjoy a fine spell on the pitch and, after his Milan run, he would spend four years at Paris Saint-Germain, becoming their highest ever goalscorer; bagging 156 goals on the way to four league titles, two French Cups and three French League Cups before departing on a free for Manchester United. There too, in the north of England, he found success when his solitary season ended with his team winning the English League Cup and the Europa League; the latter remarkably his first continental honour.
His status as Sweden’s greatest ever is well deserved; 62 goals in 116, as well as a soon-to-be revealed statue outside the national stadium, emphatically prove that. The winner of 11 consecutive Guldbollen – Sweden’s Footballer of the Year awards – Ibrahimović has defied critics in every country he has called home, all the while crafting a legacy that can scarcely be touched by the likes of Gunnar Nordahl, Nils Liedholm and Henrik Larsson. From the ghettos to the gold, with 482 career goals and 31 major trophies to his name, Zlatan Ibrahimović is a self-made champion and one of the greatest forwards of all time