You need little more than a brief look at the destination clubs of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be left in no doubt of his stature in the game.
After leaving Malmö for a crack at the big leagues, he spent time with Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, LA Galaxy, and finally back to Milan. It reads like a roll call of European footballing royalty.
The ‘Zlatan’ we have come to know across his career is one of big performances and even larger personality. Arrogant and cocky are just some of the slights aimed at the Swede, labelled a genius in the praise from others.
Ibrahimovic’s long list of quips and quotes can overshadow the natural talent that saw the Swedish striker become one of the greatest centre-forwards of the modern era, but the brash public persona was constructed from a childhood in which a talented, occasionally tempestuous, teen lacked belonging.
The son of a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, Ibrahimovic was raised in a Rosengård, Malmö. The area has long been a destination of immigrants in Sweden, with a population diverse in ethnicity and religious beliefs. A tough home life, in which he was separated from his sister in a custody battle between his parents, added to his early challenges.
Football, however, provided solace, even if a young Ibrahimovic felt an outlander in the country of his birth. It was soon apparent that his talent could offer a route out of Rosengård’s ghetto, once he settled at Malmö FF. He scored 18 goals in 47 games for the senior side, form which brought interest from Europe. After turning down a trial at Arsenal and Roma, he signed for Ajax.
His three seasons in Amsterdam were, perhaps, perfectly Zlatan. Trophies, glorious goals and feuds punctuated his time with Ajax, a period that brought 48 goals from 110 appearances. His first season ended with a Golden Goal winner in the KNVB Cup final against FC Utrecht, completing a domestic double.
Ibrahimovic overcame home sickness to outfight Egyptian striker Mido – quite literally after a dressing room fracas between the pair – for a starting role, but tensions between the forward and other members of the Ajax network brought an end to his time in the Dutch capital.
The breakdown of his relationship with local hero Rafael van der Vaart, who accused Ibrahimovic of injuring him purposely on international duty, saw him sold to Juventus. With scouts from the Italian side in the crowd, he signed off at Ajax with one of his greatest moments.
Against NAC Breda he scored an iconic individual goal, as he feinted, feigned, and feinted some more on route through the Breda backline.
His first season at Juventus saw Ibrahimovic named as the Serie A Foreign Footballer of the Year, as the Bianconeri were crowned champions. Having struck up fine understandings with Alessandro del Piero and David Trezeguet, he helped fire Juventus to back-to-back crowns the following year.
“Where I grew up it was not about scoring goals, it was about who had the best skills, the best technique and I brought that with me wherever I went,” Ibrahimovic recalled BBC Sport.
“That changed when I came to Juventus. I think. I was at Ajax, playing beautiful. I had the pressure, but where it was all about goals was in Italy, with Capello.
“Everything was new for me. Juventus was like, ‘Wow, big club, big players, big coach, big history. Italian football, Serie A. Wow’. That was when Italian football was at the top, and I knew to stay here I had to work hard. But I felt I was there for a reason, I’m here because I’m good.
“In the end I became a machine – in front of goal, score a goal – especially in Italy, where as a striker it’s the most difficult position because they are so tactically good, and at that time you had all these world class defenders.”
Trouble, however, was round the corner. Juventus were implicated in the Calciopoli scandal and relegated to Serie B, with both their title wins erased from the history books. With one of Europe’s best teams set for the second tier, rival clubs came circling like sharks sensing blood.
Ibrahimovic signed for Inter Milan, alongside teammate Patrick Vieira, and embarked on three prolific seasons with I Nerazzurri. The demise of Juventus and Milan had made Inter the division’s dominant force, and Ibrahimovic scored 57 league goals across three seasons as consecutive Scudetti were won.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) June 5, 2023
Barcelona broke the bank to land the Swedish striker in 2009, for a fee of €69.5m and Samuel Eto’o in exchange. It was an extraordinary investment from the Spanish side, who believed the forward was capable of improving their treble-winning team.
What had promised to be a perfect match between Europe’s outstanding outfit and arguably the continent’s best centre-forward, proved an unhappy union. Ibrahimovic scored in his first five league games and ended the campaign with 22 in all competitions, but a clash of personalities with Pep Guardiola saw him last just one season in Catalonia.
Lionel Messi’s desire for a central role and Guardiola’s inability to accept Ibrahimovic’s cocksure character led to tension between the marquee signing and Barcelona boss. A Champions League exit to former club Inter, in which Ibrahimovic was substituted with Barcelona chasing a goal, saw the Swede’s temper erupt. The writing was on the wall.
AC Milan agreed a deal to sign the forward on loan, as Ibrahimovic returned to the city where had scored so prolifically in the colours of their cross-town rivals. Back in Serie A, he was an instant hit, as the Rossoneri were crowned champions in 2010/11. The following season he scored 28 league goals, becoming the first foreign player to win the Capocannoniere award as the league’s leading scorer with two teams.
But Zlatan rarely stayed for long. The San Siro had been a fine stage for the Swede during spells on both sides of the Derby della Madonnina divide, but new challenges awaited. The Paris Saint-Germain project was next.
Ibrahimovic was the latest big name capture for PSG’s ownership, who had bold plans to turn the Parisians into one of football’s elite. The club’s Qatari investors had sought stars and the double deal for Ibrahimovic and teammate Thiago Silva sent a statement.
Now 30, Ibrahimovic’s decision to move to France was sneered at by some. Arguably a step down from Europe’s elite leagues, he instead sought to raise the level of Ligue 1.
📅 #OTD in 2012, Paris unveiled new signing Zlatan Ibrahimović. 💙❤️
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) July 18, 2019
Despite his long list of achievements on the continent, Ibrahimovic took time to convince those on English shores. A modest record against Premier League teams in Europe had led some to suggest the Swede, might not be, all that.
In November 2012, that narrative was ended. England were the visitors to Stockholm’s Friends Arena, to take on their Scandinavian hosts in a fixture to mark the opening of the stadium. Fittingly, Sweden’s superstar took centre stage.
On a memorable evening Ibrahimovic scored all four goals in a 4-2 win for Sweden, including an astounding overhead kick from distance that will be replayed for decades to come. The doubters had well and truly become believers.
#OnThisDay in 2012, Zlatan Ibrahimovic did something which, let’s face it, only he can do. That thirty-odd yard overhead kick against England. Sizzled Joe Hart’s brain in his head like it was a fried egg. Sensational. pic.twitter.com/Wj7vmmBB8n
— MUNDIAL (@MundialMag) November 14, 2020
In four seasons at Paris Saint-Germain he scored 156 goals in 180 games in all competitions, a club-record return which brought four league titles and five domestic cups to the Parc des Princes. Ligue 1’s leading scorer and Player of the Year in three of those campaigns, he was a cut above the competition even has he creeped towards his mid-thirties.
When the time came to wave farewell to France, few expected Ibrahimovic’s next turn. At the age of 34, he took on the considerable challenge of a Premier League move, joining Manchester United on a free transfer.
Where Ibrahimovic went, success usually followed, and his first season in northern England brought 28 goals and a League Cup and Europa League double. The former of those triumphs saw Zlatan score an 87th minute winner against Southampton, the second of a brace that decided a thrilling cup contest.
A serious knee injury curtailed that campaign and brought a premature end to his Premier League venture, with Ibrahimovic signing for LA Galaxy in 2018. A popular place for ageing stars to see out their careers, it became apparent that Ibrahimovic – defying his body’s biology – was still too good for Major League Soccer.
His debut was the sort of cinematic occasion American sports fans cherish, as the marquee recruit came off the bench to transform the inaugural El Trafico derby with Los Angeles FC. A 45-yard half volley and stoppage-time header helped turned a three-goal deficit into a 4-3 win for his new side.
Ibrahimovic scored 53 goals in 58 games for the Galaxy, but MLS failed to scratch the itch of top-level football.
Out of this world. 🤯
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 17, 2020
A short-term return to Italy was agreed, as Ibrahimovic re-signed with Milan. Even as the clock creaked towards his 40th birthday, Ibrahimovic proved there was plenty of the old magic left. A run of 10 goals across the second half of the campaign earned the Swede an extension to his deal.
Ibrahimovic scored 23 goals in 42 league appearances across the next two seasons, moving past 500 club career goals and leading Milan to a drought-breaking Scudetto. The club’s 2021/22 title was their first in 11 years, the previous of which Ibrahimovic was also influential in winning.
Ibrahimovic revealed that he had played through the effects of an anterior cruciate ligament injury during the club’s Scudetto season, with surgery required as the wear and tear of more than two decades at the elite level became harder to conceal. A brief return saw Ibrahimovic become the oldest goalscorer in Serie A history at the age of 41 years and 166 days, before calling time on an incredible career at the conclusion of the campaign.
A record-breaking 62 goals in 122 caps cemented Ibrahimovic’s place as Sweden greatest footballer, one who came, saw and conquered Europe’s biggest leagues. He is the only player to have scored Champions League goals for six different clubs, and the only man to have reached 50 in the colours of both Milan clubs.
Love him or loathe hime, Ibrahimovic was unmissable. This was a talent who scored goals of divine dexterity and who played with the fluidity of a footballer half his size. The goals were unforgettable and the quips even more so.
In an era where professionals have become PR machines, Zlatan was a throwback. Unashamedly and unapologetically himself.
A film on the life and times of Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be a truly fascinating watch. On the pitch he did what others couldn’t, and off it he said things others wouldn’t. Such is his incomparability, it would take some leading man to fulfil the role.