It is September 2003 and Sweden have just been awarded a second penalty against San Marino in a European Championship qualifier. The team’s designated penalty taker, Kim Källström, has dispatched the first and expects to take this one too.
However a 21‑year‑old Zlatan Ibrahimovic has other ideas. He is the player who has been fouled and grabs the ball to take the spot-kick. He scores to make it 5-0 but no one is in a mood to celebrate with him. He has disobeyed orders and, even worse, has put himself above the team.
It is a pretty un-Swedish thing to do but then one of the most fascinating aspects of Ibrahimovic’s long and successful career, on which he called time at the age of 41 on Sunday night, is just how unconventional he was in a country where you are not supposed to stick out.
He was cocky and brash. He didn’t like to follow rules. He said he would become the best player in the world. He stole bicycles, threw eggs at windows, joked that he had a gun in his bag at an airport security and pretended to be a police officer to arrest someone he and his friend thought was a sex buyer. It turned out to be a priest trying to help the sex workers.
Ibrahimovic’s parents came from Yugoslavia and there were times during his upbringing in Sweden when he felt he did not fit it in. In his autobiography, I Am Zlatan, he wrote: “I was a small guy. I had a big nose and I had a lisp and had speech therapy. A woman came to me in school and taught me how to pronounce the letter s and I thought it was humiliating and I guess I felt I had to prove myself.”
He did that on the pitch. He stood out from an early age. He started playing for local club Balkan where, according to legend, he was called up for an under-12s game at the age of 10 but ended up on the bench as a punishment for misbehaving. At half-time, with the team 4-0 down, the coach decided to put him on. They won 8-5 and Ibrahimovic scored all eight goals.
The talent was always there but he did not always have the right attitude. At times he was downright lazy. When out running with his Malmö teammates he could position himself last, then jump on a bus, get out, wait until they had passed and rejoin the group at the back. He grew out of that though and the key, in the end, to his longevity was his competitiveness and absolute determination to be the fittest he could be.
In the latter stages of his career – from his days at Paris Saint-Germain – he became a role model for his teammates. Marco Verratti, who played with Ibrahimovic at PSG, once said: “At PSG it was impressive to see that he was still training like an 18-year-old boy. He was also an example to follow in the dressing room. He was a leader. Sometimes, just watching him train, you wanted to do more.”
Paul Clement, the former PSG assistant coach, told the Guardian in 2014 that Ibrahimovic was “a phenomenal player: ability, character, power, strength” and referred to his attitude in training as key. “I remember him putting on one of the most unbelievable sessions I’ve ever seen,” the Englishman said. “It was a couple of days after he’d come back from scoring four against England [in November 2012]. The last goal he’d scored for Sweden had been out of this world and he came back on the crest of a wave.
“We only had a small group of players, five-versus-five work, and I’ve never seen a player train like that: the quality, the intensity, the drive. He scored with an overhead kick not dissimilar to the one in the match, but in a small-sided game into a 2m x 1m goal. Everyone just stood there with mouths wide open.”
He was for a long time one of the best 10 players in the world, never reaching the Ronaldo/Messi levels of sustained brilliance for a whole season but a joy to watch. He won the league in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. He scored some jaw-droppingly good goals, such as the backheel flick against Italy, the 40-yard bicycle kick against England and the pirouette-volley for LA Galaxy.
Off the pitch he got it seriously wrong at times. When a debate broke out in Sweden over why a male player had been given a car for breaking the all-time appearance record but the female equivalent had not, Ibrahimovic said that it was “ridiculous” to compare men’s and women’s football and that the female player could have “a bike with his autograph on it” instead.
He also told LeBron James that athletes should stay out of politics and often referred to himself as “God”. He didn’t need to do all of that. He was good enough to be remembered for just the things he did on the pitch.
Some of what he achieved can be summed up in numbers – such as the goals, assists and trophies – but his most important legacy is impossible to put a figure on. He may not have been the archetypal Swede but he has given generations of immigrants in his home country hope that anything is possible, even if you grow up in a broken home in a poor suburb. And for a nation, that is invaluable.