When a talented yet unproven 20-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimović arrived at Ajax in 2001 from his hometown club Malmö, he struggled to break into the first team, battling for a place up front with Egyptian striker Mido, who had also arrived that summer. Initially it was a healthy rivalry between teammates, pushing each other to increasingly impressive levels of performance, but the relationship would imminently turn sour when Zlatan broke his way into the starting line-up, much to the enmity of Mido.
As a teenager, Ibrahimović was already on the radars of many of Europe’s elite clubs, and Arsène Wenger invited him to north London in 2000 to discuss the possibility of a move. Arsenal had gifted him a number nine jersey with ‘Ibrahimović’ inscribed on the back, in an effort to coax the youngster into joining the Gunners – a jersey which Zlatan infamously posed for a picture in. However, when Wenger proposed Ibrahimović do a trial so he could see what kind of player he really was, the young Swede was disgusted, replying with a line which captures his supremely confident persona: “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions.”
Instead he opted to join Ajax for a record €9m fee. Upon arrival, he found starting places few and far between under manager Co Adriaanse, who preferred Mido to the Swede. Veteran Greek striker Nikos Machlas had already proven his worth with 28 goals in his first two seasons at the club and the two youngsters were tasked with fighting for a place alongside him in Adriaanse’s preferred use of two strikers in a 4-4-2 or 5-3-2 formation. Ibrahimović got off to a rocky start in the Netherlands, struggling to find the net and failing to impress the Ajax supporters.
Frustration got the better of him in a September Eredivisie game against Groningen, as an overhit cross sailed beyond his reach and into the goalkeeper’s hands. Play had paused momentarily, and Ibrahimović delivered a sharp elbow to the back of the head of the defender who had been marking him. The Groningen defenders and supporters were outraged, but the referee never saw it. After the game, the KNVB issued him with a five-match ban after video footage clearly showed his strike on the opponent.
Mido would continue to feature as Ibrahimović was forced to watch from the sidelines. At the time, the Egyptian was 18-years-old – a hot prospect with an even hotter head. Indeed, it was his short fuse and lack of control which often landed him in trouble.
Next it was Mido’s turn to lose his cool. In a league match against Twente in November, Mido gave in to the red mist and was sent off after 40 minutes for kicking out at Serbian defender Spira Grujić. Ajax managed to scrape a 3-2 victory but Adriaanse’s time was up at the club. After being dumped out of the Champions League third qualifying round by Celtic, and a run of poor results in November, the board sacked Adriaanse and brought Ronald Koeman in as his replacement. Mido was subsequently reprimanded with a three-match ban. Enter Ibrahimović.
Read | The making of Zlatan Ibrahimović at Ajax
The Swede started the next league game and scored a brace in a 4-0 win against Fortuna Sittard. Mido was concerned that he had gifted Zlatan the opportunity to showcase his obvious ability in his absence, and was even more determined to keep him out of the squad when he returned from suspension. After jumping into the starting line-up, Mido’s temper soon let him down again when he was involved in a training ground bust-up with Koeman, which led to him flying home to Cairo to cool off.
Despite Mido’s frequent strops, the battle with Ibrahimović proved beneficial for Ajax in their debut seasons at the club. Ajax brought the Eredivisie title back to Amsterdam for the first time in four years, and added the KNVB Cup to their trophy haul in Koeman’s first season as coach.
After a series of impressive displays upon his return from Cairo, Mido had started the cup final against Utrecht, while Zlatan was left on the bench – and the Egyptian opened the scoring for Ajax. Zlatan later emerged from the bench to score a golden goal in the 95th-minute to seal the double for Ajax. Mido had finished the season with 13 goals after 31 appearances, while Zlatan netted nine times in 33. However, it was the academy prodigy Rafael van der Vaart who finished the season as top scorer with 17 goals. More on Van der Vaart later.
It swiftly became clear to Koeman that neither player wanted to play second fiddle to the other, but no one could’ve envisaged that the relationship would be pushed to such extremes the following season, materialising into one of the biggest bust-ups to ever take place at the club. The feud between the pair would eventually transpire into the Egyptian being removed from his post in an expeditious loan move to Celta Vigo, as their careers embarked on two vastly different trajectories.
Back in his coach’s good books, Mido started the season as the preferred striker as Koeman frequently adapted to an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Both players were now battling for the focal centre-forward spot. Regularly rotated by Koeman, Ibrahimović and Mido rarely featured on the pitch together. However, both players managed to perform when called upon, despite the increasingly tempestuous relationship quietly bubbling under the surface, like a naval mine waiting to detonate.
Ibrahimović bided his time and quietly went about his business while Mido publicly announced his unhappiness at his lack of starting places in the squad. Koeman criticised Mido’s attitude in training and on the pitch when his performances began to dwindle, and the striker was furious when he was replaced by Ibrahimović after just 30 minutes in a fixture against Groningen.
Koeman dropped Mido from the squad for the following fixture, who went public with his desire to leave the club in the upcoming transfer window. The Egyptian later revoked and apologised for the statement, but the damage had already been done. The club handed him a hefty fine and suspension for his outburst.
Read | The rise and fall of Mido, Egypt’s volatile son
Two weeks later, Ajax hosted Lyon in their opening Champions League Group D fixture, and it took Ibrahimović just 11 minutes to announce himself to a worldwide audience. He picks up the ball to the left of the goal, guarded by Grégory Coupet. Pausing for a moment with his foot on the ball, he lures two defenders towards him, then shimmies right between them and unleashes a thunderous strike off the far post and into the back of the net.
His second arrived after some expert interplay down the right flank from Victor Sikora and Jari Litmanen, which allowed Ibrahimović to tap home from ten yards. The game finished 2-1 to Ajax and a brace from Zlatan in his tournament debut ensured that his stock rose immediately and exponentially higher. Wenger must have been ruing the day he offered him a trial.
Mido worked his way back into the team after his hiatus, but his last game for the club came in March 2003 in a tough 2-0 defeat to bitter rivals PSV Eindhoven. He appeared as a substitute in the second half and, shrouded in a steam of stubborn aggression, refused to pass the ball to Ibrahimović when he was blatantly through on goal.
Mido stormed into the dressing room spewing insults at his teammates after the final whistle, and Ibrahimović immediately fired back at the Egyptian. Cutting the wrappings off his socks with scissors, Mido looked up and hurled them at Zlatan, narrowly missing his head. “It was completely nuts,” said Zlatan in his 2013 biography I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović. “The scissors whizzed past my head, straight into the concrete wall and made a crack.”
Zlatan consequently rushed at Mido, delivering a smack to the head and the pair had to be separated. In the 2016 Swedish documentary Becoming Zlatan, Mido shed light on the incident which effectively ended his Ajax career. “I was very upset I didn’t start the game,” said Mido. “When I came on we were 2-0 down and I started arguing with Zlatan on the pitch. I was shouting at everyone and Zlatan was shouting back at me. I had scissors in my hand as I was taking off the wrapping on my ankles. Ten minutes later, I went into the shower and he was sitting at the jacuzzi. We just looked at each other and started laughing. I said to Zlatan: ‘You know that I almost killed you?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, I know.’
“You don’t understand how people were following me back in Egypt. I was the only player playing from there at the top level. So people were waiting for the Ajax game … all the coffee shops, the restaurants – everywhere was just waiting for the Ajax game. My attitude has always been: ‘If I’m not playing, you have a personal problem with me.’ When I got to the point where I had to fight for my position, I handled things the wrong way.”
Read | The undeniable talents of Rafael van der Vaart, a player born a decade too late
It wasn’t until years after Ibrahimović’s departure from Ajax that he discovered Koeman had actually kept the scissors in question as a souvenir; perhaps as a symbol of how fortunate the players were not to have been seriously hurt, and a reminder to never allow such tensions to boil over again.
In spite of Mido’s temper and histrionic reactions, he managed to find the net ten times in 26 games in the 2002/03 season before he was loaned out to Celta. Ibrahimović would go on to find the net 21 times, but was again outgunned by attack rival Rafael van der Vaart, who finished the campaign with 22 goals.
Ajax painfully missed out on the Eredivisie by a point as PSV claimed their 17th title. Mido was gone, but Zlatan was now set for a new war with Van der Vaart to be the star of the Ajax team. Ibrahimović cemented his place as the club’s first-choice striker and finished the following season as de Godenzonen’s top scorer with 15 goals to Van der Vaart’s eight as Ajax reclaimed the Eredivisie title.
As for Mido, he would go on to play for ten different clubs in six countries over the next decade, never recapturing the goalscoring form he displayed in his two seasons at Ajax. His only other major title came in a brief loan move that brought him back to Ajax in 2010/11 from Middlesbrough, where he scored three times in six appearances and helped the club to its 22nd league title.
Ibrahimović, on the other hand, would go on to enjoy a glittering career with 12 more league titles with six separate clubs, although both of his Juventus titles were revoked as a result of Calciopoli.
The rivalry between Zlatan and Van der Vaart was different to that of Mido, as they were not directly battling for a place within the team. Rather they were battling for their status at the club – who was number one? On 18 August 2004, Sweden hosted the Netherlands in a rematch of the Euro 2004, which the Swedes narrowly lost in a penalty shootout 5-4. It was billed as a friendly match but there was an added bite emanating from the Swedes, particularly Ibrahimović, facing several of his Ajax colleagues.
In the lead up to Mattias Jonson’s opening goal for Sweden, Ibrahimović received the ball outside the box and attempted to wiggle his way around four onrushing Dutch players. He reached for a ball that became loose, and in the process his studs clamped down the back of Van der Vaart’s ankle. Ibrahimović said that it came as an unfortunate result of him protecting the ball, while Van der Vaart claimed it was a malicious challenge with the intention to maim.
Read | The making of Luis Suárez: a year in Groningen
The game ended in a 2-2 stalemate, but the Ajax captain had to be substituted due to ankle ligament damage and was incensed at Ibrahimović, berating him in the media after the game, contending that his teammate had injured him on purpose.
Upon the players’ return to Amsterdam, Van der Vaart held a team meeting with Koeman and demanded both an explanation and an apology from Ibrahimović. He received neither. “If you accuse me again, I’ll break both your legs, and that time it will be on purpose,” Zlatan recalled in his biography.
Nonetheless, Ibrahimović’s time at Ajax was coming to an end. He had begun to outgrow the club and another rising dispute between two Ajax’s star players looked to be irresolvable. Eager to disarm the spat before a repeat of the Zlatan vs Mido event, Koeman and the board accepted a €16m deadline day offer for Zlatan from Juventus, but not before he gave the fans one last look at the player he was set to become.
In his penultimate game for the club, Ibrahimović led the line against NAC Breda, while an injured Van der Vaart watched from the stands. The atmosphere around the stadium was palpable; the Ajax supporters had sided wholeheartedly with club-captain and fan favourite Van der Vaart. Zlatan was booed and whistled on the ball; even when he levelled the scoring at 1-1, he received an oddly muted reception.
Ibrahimović added a second to make it 5-1 but there was still a sense of conflict coming from the supporters in the stands. But not even the most obstinate Van der Vaart supporter would have the capacity to resist paying homage to the sheer brilliance of his third goal.
Ibrahimović received the ball while holding off a defender with his back to goal, 30 yards from his target. He swivelled, bobbed and weaved his way past six NAC defenders, ostentatiously beating some more than once, and slotted the ball beyond the hapless goalkeeper to seal his final goal, and arguably the best of his illustrious career.
The crowd erupted in a raucous ovation. The Dutch commentator instantly compared Zlatan to the likes of Maradona and Zidane, while the camera panned to highlight a stone-faced Van der Vaart, the only person in the stadium still glued to his seat. It was all in a(nother) spat.
By Alan Condon @alan_condon