The world’s most outrageous footballer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has joined the Premier League with fireworks to follow, writes WADE PRETORIUS in SportsClub magazine.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has finally arrived. Not in terms of his career – he has nothing left to prove – but the charismatic Swede has finally agreed to a move that will see him grace world football’s oldest, most watched and most lucrative domestic league: the Premier League. His name divides opinion; it always has and it will continue to do so long after the 34-year-old has kicked his last ball as a professional. ‘Brash’, ‘erratic’, ‘over-hyped’ and even ‘vulgar’ are words that have been used to describe Ibrahimovic the player, as well as ‘elegant’, ‘classy’, ‘effortless’ and ‘sublime’.
‘Zlatan needs no introduction,’ said Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, himself often accused of having the biggest ego in the sport. ‘The statistics speak for themselves. “Ibra” is one of the best strikers in the world and a player who always gives 100%.’
Mourinho is not wrong. The striker has won the title in his first season at Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan and PSG and to build on that, he has won league honours almost every year since 2001, with only the 2002-03 Eredivisie blotting his phenomenal record of success. Even Zlatan might find it hard to describe his championship-winning quality. And goals? He netted an incredible 156 in 180 appearances during his time in the French capital with PSG, and over the past decade has scored more than a goal every other outing to cement his status as one of the few, true living legends of the game.
‘He has won the most important league championships in the world of football, now he has the opportunity to play in the best league in the world and I know he will grasp this opportunity and will work hard to help the team win titles. I am certain his talent will delight fans at Old Trafford next season and that his experience will be invaluable in helping develop the younger players in the squad,’ added Mourinho, with a warm sense of admiration for the player with whom he enjoyed so much success at Inter.
There is no reason Manchester United fans should restrain their excitement at the prospect of Ibrahimovic playing alongside the world’s most expensive teenager Anthony Martial, last season’s Bundesliga Player of the Year Henrikh Mkhitaryan and English talisman Wayne Rooney; all mentored by ‘The Special One’.
But it hasn’t always been a life covered in gold for the Malmo-born star. Ibrahimovic was born to a Croatian mother and Bosnian father with more than an occasional penchant for a drink. Sent to live with his father after the pair divorced, Zlatan lived on the unfashionable outskirts of town with football his only release into a world far removed from the one he found himself in. It was to the game that the gangly teen looked for fun, solitude and a place where he was in charge, no matter the opposition. ‘If it’s not fun it’s not worth playing,’ a then 19-year-old Ibrahimovic told documentary makers of a film called Becoming Zlatan.
Ibrahimovic almost derailed his own career at Malmo. Unable to play by the rules, the club reportedly weighed up the option of letting the precocious talent leave because he was simply unmanageable. He would be Malmo’s problem for just two years before Ajax Amsterdam came calling with a club record bid of 8.7-million euros; a move his mom only found out about when watching the news on television, while his father was also kept in the dark.
It was during his adolescent years that Ibra developed into the sharp-tongued, rogue character he is today. ‘But his childhood also meant he had to make his own rules. He didn’t have the same integration in society as others,’ suggested the makers of Becoming Zlatan.
For the vast majority of his professional career Ibrahimovic has been able to keep his demons at bay long enough to allow his talent, and not his personality, write the script of his career. That’s not to say there have not been clashes of egos.
A move to Manchester United would never have materialised if Louis van Gaal was still seated in the Old Trafford dugout. The pair never saw eye-to-eye, with Ibrahimovic calling the Dutch manager ‘a pompous ass’ in his 2013 autobiography, I Am Zlatan. He was fiercely critical of Van Gaal’s handling of him and the club’s stars during his time as director at Ajax, even describing him as a ‘dictator’. A move to a Van Gaal led-United would’ve been impossible.
Another high-profile fallout came during his time at Barcelona, where he infamously quipped that Pep Guardiola had bought a Ferrari but was driving it like a Fiat. ‘Whatever happened, as a coach he was fantastic,’ wrote Ibrahimovic in his autobiography. ‘As a person, I have no comments about that. That is something else. He is not a man. There’s nothing more to say.’
Somehow, if by some stroke of luck, Ibrahimovic and Mourinho ‘get’ each other; not only as player and manager but also on a human level. Whether they like it or not, both have plenty to prove this season and they must harness their shared animosity towards the City manager in a positive fashion in order to do so. ‘If Mourinho lights up a room, Guardiola draws the curtains,’ said Ibrahimovic. ‘I guessed Guardiola was trying to match up to him. Mourinho would become a guy I was basically willing to die for.’ The Stretford End have been longing for such vigour and passion for a fight since former captain Roy Keane’s departure.
At 34, the need to impress or justify his wages won’t even make the tiniest flicker on Ibrahimovic’s radar, nor will the tenacious hounding of the English media. Zlatan will do as Zlatan has always done … whatever he wants.
*Since this article, Zlatan has scored the match-winning goal for in the Community Shield in a 2–1 victory. He matched that feat in his Premier League debut a week later when he scored from range against Bournemouth in United’s 3-1 win. On 20 August, he completed his run of debuts by scoring a brace as the Red Devils beat Southampton at Old Trafford.
Photo: Getty Images
– This article first appeared in issue 99 of SportsClub magazine.