Next summer marks the one decade anniversary of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s explosive introduction to international competition.
He was named among Sweden’s 23 for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, but his contribution was limited to a handful of late substitute appearances and he made scant impression before the Blagult were dumped out by Senegal.
It was at Euro 2004, however, where the Swedes contested Group C along with Denmark, Italy and Bulgaria, that Zlatan truly demonstrated his abilities before a continental audience.
Back then we weren’t on first-name terms with the Ajax forward, he was still known by his full title. In fact, the world media were busily attaching a sobriquet to the frontman ahead of the tournament in Portugal. World Soccer magazine, in their special collector’s edition Euro 2004 preview, described Ibrahimovic as the “Enfant Terrible of Swedish football”.
They had reason to concern themselves with his ‘bad boy’ reputation; during his early years with Malmo, and then Ajax, controversy and Ibrahimovic were all-too familiar bedfellows.
One fascinating anecdote involved the then-Malmo man being invited to Arsenal by Arsene Wenger for a trial. Ibrahimovic, imbued by a keen sense of self-importance even then, assumed (naturally) that he had not been called for talks with the Gunners, but instead was being requested to trial.
Zlatan stormed out, back to Sweden, firing back at Wenger with the immortal words “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions.”
Needless to say, it was Amsterdam, and not London, that would be the striker’s next destination.
Despite his issues, however, Ibrahimovic’s qualities eventually shone through. Once Ronald Koeman replaced Co Adriaanse at Ajax, the forward began to enjoy a relationship with a manager who backed him and recognised his immense abilities.
World Soccer, in their Euro 2004 preview edition described Zlatan as Sweden’s “most gifted forward” who is “capable of scoring great individual goals, gets past defenders with ease and has an unfailing touch”.
Well, if it is a “great individual goal” or an “unfailing touch” you’re after, then go no further than Ibrahimovic’s 85th minute equaliser against Italy in Porto on June 18. It was one of those moments when a flash of genius is so searing, so strong, that those participants can only watch on and admire.
Having fallen behind to a Antonio Cassano goal at the end of the first half, Sweden strove for an equaliser, but faced banks and banks of defending Italians, the Azzuri then in the dying throes of the defensive, pragmatic international style upon which their reputation was constructed.
Despite numerous attempts on goal, Buffon stood strong, until Zlatan’s majestic improvisation to piece a hole through the blue backline. Following a Swedish corner, a melee ensued in the Italian box. The Juventus stopper sought to claim the ball, but Ibrahimovic, quicker of mind, fleeter of foot, forceful of stature and with the balletic poise of Nureyev, leapt forth and sent an electric back-heeled half volley looping over Christian Vieri and into the corner of the net.
The foresight was sublime and the execution was outrageous, Sweden were, in an instant, no longer so concerned by the creaking limbs of Henrik Larsson.
Following Euro 2004, Ibrahimovic ambled into further controversy—an alleged misdemeanour that spelled the end of his career in Amsterdam. During an international clash between Sweden and Holland in the August following the competition’s finale, the Swede was accused of deliberately seeking to injure teammate Rafael van der Vaart—then one of Dutch football’s shining stars.
The allegations were hard to shake and on August 31, only thirteen days after the incident, Ajax swiftly sold Ibrahimovic to Juventus, where Italians were still in awe of the athletic Scandinavian.
Since that move, and Zlatan’s insertion into the elite narratives of European football, the footballer has accrued a vast collection of honours.
He has won domestic cups in Italy, Spain, France and Holland, the Club World Cup with Barcelona in 2009 and has regularly featured in ‘Team of the Year’ awards, not least at Euro 2012 when he took his place within the ‘Team of the Tournament’. He has been top scorer in Ligue 1 and Serie A and, remarkably, has won the league title at every club he has played at since leaving Malmo in 2001; twice with Ajax, twice with Juventus, three times with Internazionale, once each with Barcelona, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.
Among these honours it is important to note that Zlatan was often a central figure in hugely successful teams, cementing his reputation at the elite end of European competition and ensuring that he has commanded enormous transfer fees (such as the £40 million plus Samuel Eto’o that saw him head to Barcelona). He scored 57 goals in 88 league matches during three seasons at Internazionale and has been credited as the key catalyst to guarantee that PSG’s moneyed approach to dominating the French league has resulted in the championship rather than further, sustained humiliation.
It is an honours list that few could even dream of, let alone match. However, despite the many glorious moments, despite the ridiculous triumphs and the extraordinary endeavours that have placed Ibra firmly among the globe’s most-celebrated footballers, he has never escaped the litany of controversies that have persistently accompanied his career.
The feud with van der Vaart, the origins of which were explained above, has continued to blossom. New rivalries have developed as well; Jonathan Zebina was punched in the face at Juve, poor Rodney Strasser was an unknowing victim for some spontaneous karate practice, while Cassano himself received a boot to the head while giving a life TV interview in 2011.
Stephane Ruffier, Dejan Lovren, Frodi Benjaminsen, Salvatore Aronica, Oguchi Onyewu, Marco Rossi and Andres Guardado have all, subsequently, written themselves off Zlatan’s ever-decreasing Christmas card list.
Following his muddled stint in Catalonia, Pep Guardiola was very publically dismissed in a revealing autobiography, while the manager’s charges at Barcelona were depicted as little more than starry-eyed “schoolboys” as a fairly bitter Ibrahimovic explained his side of the move that seemed to have gone so horribly awry.
The Swedish national side have not been exempt from his misdemeanours either. Soon after joining Internazionale in the summer of 2006, Zlatan, along with Olof Mellberg and Christian Wilhelmsson, broke a curfew and were banned from playing in a European Championship qualifier against Liechtenstein by Lars Lagerbeck.
Ibrahimovic was quick to demonstrate his discontent and refused to play for Sweden for the following six months. It wouldn’t be the last time that he has temporarily suspended his relationship with the national side.
Upon leaving Milan in 2012 and joining Le Projet at Paris Saint-Germain, Zlatan’s career feels like it has changed pace and the public perception has been altered.
It would be easy to say that a step to France, to a league that lacks, perhaps, the intensity and the intrigue of England, Italy, Spain and Germany has simply reduced his importance within the global game. I would suggest that this would be a misconception, that in fact, Zlatan (not inconsiderably backed by Qatari billions), has steadily been bringing French football to the forefront of people’s imaginations.
Perhaps it has been his new role as the figurehead for a global brand and the sporting corner of a global city, perhaps it is the fact that he has now passed thirty, maybe the many triumphs have taken the edge of Zlatan’s fractious, ferocious nature. Whatever the reason, it does feel like the Swede has changed over the last few years.
He has mellowed well into his role as one of the game’s more senior and most-recognisable characters and where Dimitar Berbatov has become a languid anomaly, Zlatan has become one of the game’s truly multi-dimensional figures.
Certainly, he may be caricature-esque in his self-aggrandisement (take ‘I, Zlatan’, the title of his tome, for example), but the almost comical nature of his intensity and the diverse strands of his personality make him one of the most endearing personalities and one of the sport’s most engaging individuals.
We all had a good giggle when Sweden and Portugal were drawn together in UEFA’s World Cup Qualifying play-off, knowing that one of Europe’s great footballing prima donnas (Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo) would have to miss out on Brazil 2014, the globe’s grandest sporting occasion.
For Zlatan, however, the draw will surely have come as devastating news.
While his club career has brought accolade after accolade, not least during these glorious stages latterly in France, Zlatan, like Ronaldo, has unfinished business with the national side. Even ignoring the various disputes and absences from Swedish duty, Ibrahimovic’s fortunes in major tournaments has been underwhelming.
Despite several excellent moments of individual brilliance, Sweden, during Ibra’s international career, have endured extra time elimination in the first knock-out round of the 2002 World Cup at the hands of Senegal, penalty heartbreak against the Netherlands at Euro 2004, a Last 16 defeat to Germany in 2006, group stage disappointment at Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 and failure to qualify for the World Cup altogether in 2010.
He will be 36 in 2018, the next time the World Cup rolls around, failure to make Brazil 2014 could prevent Zlatan from ever making that career-defining outing at the world’s greatest stage. Doubtless, the man himself will be bullishly confident of making the tournament, Ronaldo, however, will surely have other ideas.