Zlatan Ibrahimović, the lion who won’t stop roaring. And now that Zlatan has taken his legend to the USA and the MLS, it is time to reflect on one of the most magical careers in football history.
Let’s forget about his LA Galaxy debut for a minute. Let’s forget that his team was down 3-0 only to win 4-3 with the last two late goals coming from substitute Ibra himself against new cross city rivals LAFC. Let’s forget about his first of that brace being a perfectly struck ball mid air from 45 yards away. Let’s forget all that. That is what’s happening now. I want to focus on his legendary past.
Zlatan’s legacy is in tact. It is real. The numbers simply do not lie. He has played at numerous clubs and has won at all of them. From the age of 19 at Ajax in 1999 up until the present he has scored in double digits. The last time he scored less than 20 goals in a season was in 2006-2007 whilst at Inter in a striker unfriendly Italian Serie A (he scored 15 that season, his first for the Nerazzuri). That is legitimately mind boggling!
At Ajax he won the Eredivisie twice. That’s The Netherlands conquered. At Inter he won the Scudetto three times in his three seasons there. Italy conquered. At Barcelona he won La Liga the only season he played there. Spain, check. On his return to Italy, he won the Serie A title again, but this time at Inter’s ferocious stadium sharing rivals Milan. At his next club, Paris Saint-Germain, Zlatan won four Ligue 1 titles. France off the list. And for Ibra’s swan song in Europe he moved to arguably the biggest and most storied club in the world, Manchester United, and did not win the league, but instead vitally fired United back into the Champions League with a crucial Europa League winners’ medal around his neck. England, done, for the most part.
Zlatan has THIRTY ONE trophies he has won with his teams. That’s 31 gold medals from some of the most historic teams in sports. He won 9 league titles in a span of ten years from 2006-2016. And that’s what his legacy is about. He brought on challenges, not shied away from them. He played for the biggest and best teams from when he left Sweden’s Malmö, his hometown team, up until his current status as LA’s new face. Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, PSG, Manchester United. It is a struggle to think of many strikers who spent their entire careers on the very top.
His fiery character and unrelenting ego have been his making but certainly his downfall as well. Managers and clubs have been at peace with letting such a star go, sometimes to arch rivals, due to his anarchic nature to at times disrupt. Ibra famously never got on with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona (“You bought a Ferrari, but you drive it like a Fiat.”) leading to a loan move to Milan in 2010 whilst Pep and Barça would go on to lift the only trophy that eludes Zlatan’s glittering career: the Champions League (Barcelona with one of the most brutally flawless XI’s in football’s existence eventually defeated Manchester United 3-1 in the final at Wembley).
Zlatan has been iconic on the international scene as well. He has notched 116 caps for Sweden, the country of his birth (Ibra’s father is Bosnian and his mother is Croatian), with 62 goals to boot. One of those 62 strikes being the life altering Puskas Award winning overhead kick from seemingly the parking garage against England in 2013. A genuinely unforgettable moment for any fan of football, and I was wearing the white of a Three Lions fan that historic night. Zlatan retired in 2016 as captain, but rumors extravagantly sway in the air of his triumphant return to the Swedish charges as they against the odds defeated Italy in a playoff to make it to the finals in Russia this summer. The tournament and the world stage certainly need its stars now to bring the international element of the sport out of the doldrums the murderously corrupt FIFA has set it in. The perfect stage for an Ibrahimović. (“One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”)
I could go on. Speaking about Ibra is easy for me. He has been one of my favorite non-United players since his shaved head days of Juventus in 2005 (one of the best adverts of all time is Nike’s 2006 Joga Bonito clip featuring the king Eric Cantona narrating a battle of skills between a young Cristiano Ronaldo and Ibrahimović). I had the honor and privilege of witnessing Zlatan first hand in 2009 as he lined up for Jose Mourinho’s Inter against United at Old Trafford in a Champions League Round of 16 second leg (the match also featured an impeccable Dejan Stanković performance, an Adriano scissor kick that somehow didn’t go in and a substitute appearance from a youthful and raw and impetuous Mario Balotelli). The Swedish genius hit the woodwork against a helpless Edwin van der Sar early on and should have scored again putting a shot wide after being clean through once more in the first half. The tie was won after a glorious Wayne Rooney cross with his right foot from the left hand side (I can still picture it now and that feeling of “wow, I don’t know how he did that”) to a newly crowned Ballon d’Or winning Cristiano Ronaldo heading into Júlio César’s net.
If you’ve seen Zlatan in person you understand why he has achieved what he has achieved. He’s brash but he puts in the work. He trains hard, harder than his teammates, and he loves the game. Physically, he is a beast. His strength and height and athleticism make him impossible to mark and cover when he is in form. His technique on the ball is masterful. You cannot make a mistake when defending him. That Manchester night in March 2009 I watched one of the best centre back pairings in all of time, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, barely survive. When you watch him play you see that he is enjoying himself on the pitch. The moment is never too large for Zlatan. He wants to score, he wants to humiliate the opposing fans jeering him, he wants the headlines. In that second leg he could have walked away with a hat trick in a match United controlled (along with his two first half chances he had a cross deflect onto his face in the second 45 which he almost slipped past van der Sar). Football comes easy to him. Winning drives him. And that is evident. He wills his way onto the scoresheet and that is why every top team has gone out of their way to take a chance on Ibra.
And now this is his last chapter. Los Angeles has answered the call and is daring to Zlatan. The long haired, bearded and tattooed behemoth from Malmö has left $97m in Chinese money on the table to make his mark on the MLS. It his next challenge. His happiness is paramount and he is currently very happy to show Americans what us Europeans have been spoiled with for twenty years. The world has not seen the last of this lion just yet and backing him to fail is simply not an option.