He was Zlatan and he always delivered on the entertainment to match the ego

Zlatan Ibrahimovic Credit: Alamy
Zlatan Ibrahimovic Credit: Alamy

Zlatan never did insignificant, boring or mundane. As he retires from football we admire the cojones and the delivery of the man.

“Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome”

Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic would ever have the nerve. A full-page advert in the LA Times to announce his arrival would have seemed outrageous if any other player had dared to do it, but this was Ibra and this was what he did.

Maybe it would have had less impact had he not then scored an outrageous 35-yard volley on his debut for the LA Galaxy in their ‘El Trafico’ derby against cross-town rivals LAFC. Maybe it would have seemed insignificant had that goal not tied the game at 3-3 after the Galaxy had been trailing 3-0. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered had the Bosnian-Swede then not go on to score the winner with a precise header into the corner of the net.

Here’s the thing though: Zlatan never did insignificant, boring or mundane.

Right from the start, growing up in Malmo with a Muslim Bosnian father and a Christian Croat mother, Ibrahimovic endured a difficult childhood and a battle against the odds in an immigrant family surrounded by crime and poverty. It would have been easy for the young Ibra to go off the rails and succumb to his environment but, aside from some petty crime such as stealing bikes and shoplifting, the all-time leading Swedish goalscorer’s story is one of channelling the emotions of his youth and proving the doubters wrong, time and time again.

Unlike many of the middle-class Swedish talents that Ibrahimovic played with and against, he had no contacts within the game, no friends in high places to accelerate his development, so he had to take the hard road that forged his character, good and bad.

Just like his childhood, Ibrahimovic’s career was a whirlwind of chaos. Chaos but high-level, goalscoring chaos. The numbers speak for themselves: 405 club goals in 637 games as well as 62 in 122 for the Swedish national team. Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan, PSG, Manchester United, LA Galaxy, and back to AC Milan, his career reads like a who’s who of elite European clubs. 12 league titles, 11 Ballon d’Or nominations, a Europa League, and several domestic cups provided the silverware, as if the story of such a giant could be broken down into trophies.

Ironically enough, it’s the trophies that Zlatan didn’t win that are often talked about the most. The Champions League famously evaded Ibrahimovic after leaving Inter for Barcelona in 2009 (just after Barcelona’s first Champions League success under Pep Guardiola), only for the former to win it a year later.

Indeed, if there was one regret in his career, it would surely be joining Barcelona at a time when Pep Guardiola was building quite possibly the greatest football team in history around a certain Lionel Messi, backed up by magicians Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Stylistically and behaviourally, it was never going to be the right fit and subsequently led to conflict between Guardiola and Zlatan when the former moved Messi into a more central role, severely reducing the Swede’s impact in a team that put the collective above the individual in every scenario.

Conflict was never too far away from the surface with Ibrahimovic, but aside from that and his considerable ego, his penchant for spectacular goals is what he will be remembered for. Indeed, the highlights reel is something to behold: The slaloming run for Ajax against Breda in 2004, the 35-yard overhead kick in a friendly against England in 2012 and the thunderbolt for PSG against Anderlecht in 2013 are just three goals that showcase what Ibra was as a player.

Despite his huge frame, his technical ability rivalled anyone of his generation. The flicks, the tricks, the thunderbolts, and the absolute miracles would go on to define one of the greatest players in football history, his technique and football intelligence allowing him to be just as effective into his 30s, with more than half of his career goals scored after turning 30 in 2011.

It’s impossible to conclude a tribute to Zlatan without leaving the final words to the man himself. Tributes were paid after Milan’s final game of the season at home against Verona on Sunday night and the away supporters dared to boo as the man himself took to the mic for one final speech:

“Continue booing. This is the moment of your year seeing me in person.”

And who could argue with him?


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