Make no mistake, Zlatan Ibrahimović was not born cocky, nor is his arrogance anything more than an elite sportsman’s unblinkered focus on being the very best he can be. “I also want to send a thought to all the kids out there,” he writes in the dedication to his 2011 autobiography, “all the kids who feel different, who don’t quite fit in and who are singled out for the wrong reasons. It is OK not to be like everyone else. Keep believing in yourself. Things worked out for me, after all.”
Born to Jurka and Šefik Ibrahimović on 3 October 1981, Zlatan was immediately an outsider. His Bosnian father was a bricklayer and caretaker and his Croatian mother a cleaner. He may have been born in Malmö, but he wasn’t made to feel Swedish by his peers. “You can take the boy out of the ghetto,” he said in reflection of his break with Pep Guardiola and Barcelona in 2010, “but you can never take the ghetto out of the boy.”
That ghetto was in Rosengård and as a small kid with a lisp, growing up in a neighbourhood as ethnically diverse as to be full with Somalis, Turks, Yugoslavians and Poles wasn’t easy, made harder by a turbulent home life that had Zlatan and his sister Sanela separated by social services. His dad was awarded custody of him; his mother custody of his sister.
Zlatan has half-brothers and sisters but Sanela is his only full sibling. He looked up to her and loved his mother despite the warmth being unrequited at the time. “Sure, she’d hit us with wooden spoons and boxed our ears and didn’t listen to us, but she loved her kids.” Living with a dad who was being mentally tormented by the ongoing Yugoslav War meant there was little time invested in the future nine-time Ballon d’Or nominee in his camp either.
It was against this backdrop that Zlatan began bouncing between youth clubs – MBI, FBK Balkan, BK Flagg – and between stints in goal and spells up front, all pulling on the skills and party pieces he had to learn whilst playing on the council estates. “I’m sick of all the people who go round quacking, ‘I saw straight away that Zlatan would turn into something special, blah blah blah. I practically taught him everything he knows. He was my best mate.’ That’s bullshit … it was more like, ‘who let the brown kid in?’” At Malmö, there was even a petition going round to have him kicked out of the club, following an altercation with a teammate.
“Give me the child until he is seven,” Aristotle purportedly declared, “and I will show you the man.” Whether he said it or not, it was a prophecy with Zlatan. When he signed for Ajax in 2001, he chose to carry his surname on his shirt; in Sweden with Malmö FF, he was known simply as ‘Zlatan’. Let the world know who I am and where I am from, was the message.
Eighteen goals in 47 games was enough to impress those in charge at the Amsterdam club and, on 22 March 2001, just shy of three weeks after his 20th birthday, Ibrahimović, the son of a Catholic mother and Muslim father, and already a senior Swedish international, made the £7m move.
Fast forward ten years and the striker had played for Malmö, Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona and AC Milan, had been managed by Fabio Capello, Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman and José Mourinho, and held the world record for the highest combined transfer fees: £150m.
It is easy to reduce Ibrahimović to a string of soundbites, which is quite remarkable considering that as of July 2019 he has scored 454 goals across 770 appearances, and another 62 from 116 international caps, but the player who has been voted Sweden’s Forward of the Year every year since 2007 is nothing if not remarkable. Still, at the age of 37, he is setting new records.
In 2018, having signed for LA Galaxy, he was named in the MLS Best XI, won MLS Newcomer and Goal of the Year awards, and took home a hat-trick of Galaxy gongs: Player of the Year, Golden Boot, and Goal of the Year. All of this came 19 years after his professional debut in his hometown of Malmö.
Upon joining Ajax, Ibrahimović quickly became friends with Brazilian Maxwell. They’d later play together at Inter, Barcelona and PSG, but it was in the early days in Amsterdam that the bond was made. Stuck in an empty flat with no money, it was his fellow newcomer that he turned to for help. “’Maxwell, I’m in a crisis here,’ I said, over the phone. ‘I haven’t even got any cornflakes at home. Can I come and stay at your place?’ ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘come right over.’”
The first time they played 90 minutes together, Ibrahimović recorded a goal and an assist. Over the course of their dovetailing careers, they’d play a total of 325 matches together – 42 percent of Ibrahimović’s career total and 62 percent of Maxwell’s, and as a double act their points per game return was 2.24, winning 221 of their fixtures and losing just 38. In their last ever game together – a 4-2 win over Marseille in the Coupe de France final – Ibrahimović scored twice and assisted one. Next time you see that pesky Twitter meme, ‘name a better duo, I’ll wait,’ you know what to do.
Maxwell aside, there have been two other constants in Ibrahimović’s career: goals and trophies. To date he has 31 of the latter, meaning the only active players with more are former teammates Andrés Iniesta (37), Lionel Messi (35), Dani Alves (42), and Gerard Piqué (33). Maxwell has 33 and Ibrahimović only won five without him: two at Milan and three at Manchester United. Until joining LA Galaxy, he had won at least one trophy every year since leaving Sweden in 2001.
After two Eredivisie titles, a KNVB Cup and the Johan Cruyff Shield, Ibrahimović’s time in Amsterdam was up. He’d told Louis van Gaal, acting as technical director, he wanted to leave and then told his manager, Koeman. With Juventus scouts in the crowd, Ibrahimović pulled off one of the finest individual moments of his career.
Receiving the ball with his back to goal, he held off his man, bounced the oncoming second defender off, feinted away from his original marker, feinted once more to shake another defender, shimmied the two of them again, before waltzing straight through the middle, and then embarrassed the last man not once but twice before slotting it left-footed past the ‘keeper. What looks like the entirety of his team swarm and bundle him to the ground, and an amazed Koeman smiles from the touchline. If it wasn’t already a done deal, it was now.
At Juventus, he signed his contract in the presence of a father. “I was knocked sideways – like, is that you? It wasn’t the dad I was used to, definitely not the one who used to sit at home in his workman’s dungarees listening to Yugo music on headphones. This was a guy in a nice suit, a man who could pass for an Italian bigwig, and I felt proud.”
The two Serie A titles won during Ibrahimović’s tenure were stripped from the Old Lady, but he was named their Player of the Year in his first season at the club, scoring 16 league goals from 35 games. He’d spend just one more season in Turin before leaving alongside many others when the club were relegated to Serie B due to their part in the Calciopoli scandal.
His destination was Inter and what followed were the three most successful years of his career: three consecutive Scudetti and two Supercoppa Italiana. He scored 57 league goals in those three seasons, prompting Barcelona to spend €69.5m on him. He became the first and only Barça player to score in their first five league games but stayed for just one season, famously clashing with Guardiola throughout his spell. It was still fruitful, however, winning the quadruple with the club and scoring 22 goals in 46 games.
As the decades changed, Ibrahimović returned to Italy, having stamped his name and inimitable style on yet another country. He would go on to do it to another three in the next decade of his career, but it was undoubtedly between 2000 and 2010 in which Ibrahimović not only reached a peak he would maintain well into the next decade but discovered what kind of man he wanted to be.
“There are a thousand paths to go down, and the one that’s a little different and a little awkward is often the best one. I hate it when people who stand out get put down. If I hadn’t been different, I wouldn’t be sitting here now, and, obviously, I don’t mean: Be like me; try to be like Zlatan. Not at all!” he writers. “I’m talking about going your own way, whatever way that is, and there shouldn’t be any damn petitions and nobody should get the cold shoulder just because they’re not like the others.”
By Jordan Florit @TheFalseLibero