Aroggant? Brilliant? Overrated? Underrated? Greatness? A football conundrum worth investigation due to the sheer accomplishment’s in the awesome career of the big Swede - where does he stand in the football echelon?
‘You fuck me, I’ll fuck you’ emphasized Leo Beenhakker, the former technical director of Ajax, to Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he succeeded in the assault on Malmö FF to sign him. This was of course referring to the temperamental side of Zlatan who was equally as capable of breaking a game open with a moment of merit as he was of diminishing hope due to a lashing of lunacy. Beenhakker saw the statuesque 20 year old as the emblematic future of the number 9 position. A player with height and brawn who was technically brilliant and at times, bordered on the edge of insanity. His confidence, tiptoeing on arrogance, was evident for all to witness.
Zlatan began his career at Malmö FF where he was immediately a star. Malmö had been relegated to the second tier of Swedish football and they looked upon Ibrahimovic to lead the charge in gaining promotion at first attempt which he did, scoring 16 goals in 40 games along the way.
After only two seasons he left his homeland to what is widely considered the home of total football, Ajax of Amsterdam. Ibrahimovic struggled during his first season lacking the emphasis to break into the first team and playing a shadow role to star striker, the Egyptian Mido. Ajax won the Eredivisie that season and Mido claimed honors as the club’s most valuable player. The one essential character trait Imbrahimovic holds, which was expressed in this difficult circumstance, is the internal mental composure to not become dejected in times of hardship. He battled through his first season and came back to Ajax prior to commencement of the following campaign even though manager, Ronald Koeman, advised the board that he was not needed and could be put on the transfer market.
Beenhakker brought Jari Litmanen, the superstar Finnish striker, to the club as a mentor to Ibrahimovic. This immediately reaped dividends as Litmanen played just behind the number 9 and provided superlative service on the pitch in addition to the off field advisership. Ibrahimovic became the main man at the Dutch champions which created disillusionment and disdain for Mido who had gone from star striker to the forgotten man. As Ajax claimed another Eredivesie title, Koeman thanked his lucky stars that Beenhakker maintained strong confidence in the dedicated striker.
A defining moment in Ibrahimovic's career was after a particular match that Ajax lost in which Mido came on as a substitute. Mido had become increasingly agitated at the sequence of events which had unfolded that season therefore neglected his teammates on the pitch. One particular moment infuriated Ibrahimovic when Mido could have assisted him on a potential game-tying goal and as they trudged off the pitch tempers flared. The argument extended into the changing room and reached a climax when Mido hurled scissors at Zlatan, missing his eye by inches.
The semblance of such an event wasn’t the action but the reaction. Rather than following a course of action that most would have and attacking Mido, Zlatan maintained his cool and walked away while the dust settled. They met soon thereafter, locked eyes and began laughing hysterically. When Mido was castigated in the press for his actions, Ibrahimovic surprisingly responded with a defence of Mido saying, ‘everyone makes mistakes and learns, I made many mistakes as well, have you ever made a mistake?’ His mentality was that of a Major General defending his Captain even though a deplorable action was aimed at the General himself.
Ibrahimovic has a ‘we stand together, we fall together mentality.’ It's a trait not seen in many, the ability to understand situations of others and to carry an empathy towards them - he is a man who has experienced and most importantly, absorbed, so many transformational experiences in his lifetime.
Ibrahimovic grew out of his first two clubs, Malmö and Ajax, fairly quickly which led him to Juventus of Turin, a team compiled of world stars such as Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved, Alessandro Del Piero, and Fabio Cannavaro – led by their General, the taskmaster that was Fabio Capello. This period was the beginning of Zlatan’s rise to prominence. When you shine amongst less talented individuals, you have potential; when you emerge amongst superiority, you have achieved greatness. Zlatan did just that leading the team with 16 goals and guiding the Old Lady to the Serie A title in 2005. He credits Capello for turning him into a World Class striker and teaching him about ‘respect’.
Ibrahimovic went on to win three Serie A titles with Inter Milan, the La Liga title with Barcelona, another Serie A title with AC Milan and four Ligue 1 titles with Paris Saint Germain – his career is one of the most decorated in all of club football as he has won 13 league titles in 15 seasons - an absolutely astonishing feat. However, there is one title which eludes him, the Champions League, and the behemoth striker has made a confession that he is obsessed with winning the trophy.
Zlatan currently plies his trade with Manchester United. He didn't arrive at the Theatre of Dreams due to a longing to join the Premier League - that's not what makes the magician tick. It was merely to prove a point to all of the doubters that he can succeed in any league against any competition - point proven. Despite all of his triumphs, the one I class as the most remarkable is one which Zlatan is embarking upon at the present moment. To lead a league renowned for attracting the world’s best in goals with 14, at age 35, is an unbelievable exploit. The additional responsibility of being a mentor to those around him shows the evolution in Zlatan's career. From a petulant teenager with unlimited potential to a role model for some of the world's greatest prospects still performing at his peak, warrants acclaims of considerable magnitude.
A child of immigrant parents - a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, Ibrahimovic battled through the early days of life. His father was scarred by the Balkan war hence turning into an alcoholic and his mother was a strict disciplinarian using a wooden spoon as the common tool for punishment - one which Zlatan would replace if broken. All the while he called Rosengård, Malmö home; one of the toughest and poorest areas of Sweden. He moved houses every six months and continuously had to adapt. The strength of the man to withstand such hardship speaks volumes and moreso, Zlatan channeled his trials to develop superior qualities of perseverance and mental strength. These competencies became ingrained within and have contributed to making him one of the greatest strikers the world has ever seen.
I leave you with this - DARE TO ZLATAN:
Information obtained from:
'Who is Zlatan Ibrahimovic?' BeIN Sports
'Becoming Zlatan' directed by Fredrik and Magnus Gertten