Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ahead of Milan hosting Barcelona, Il Capocannoniere profiles Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (Exclusive illustration by Lilly Allen).

“Zlatan. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively have to win the league title, accept no substitutes.”

Of course I’m paraphrasing Samuel L Jackson’s character from Jackie Brown, but you can imagine a number of top coaches in European football would go along with this sentiment. Every season since 2003-04 the team that Zlatan has played for has finished top of their league, one with Ajax, two at Juventus (both subsequently revoked due to the Calciopoli scandal), three at Inter, one in his only season with Barcelona and then last season for Milan. This season Milan lead the way again in Serie A this season and it looks likely that Ibra’s team will finish top for a phenomenal ninth consecutive season.

For all his title winning qualities, coaches of Zlatan have also always had to deal with the man’s fiery temperament too. His career is littered with almost as many controversial clashes as it is with titles and this is one of the reasons for his failure to settle at one club.

Born in Malmo, Sweden, to immigrant parents – a Bosnian father and Croatian mother – he grew up with his big family of three sisters and two brothers in the tough Rosengard neighbourhood. Immigrants to Sweden and their offspring, particularly those of Eastern European descent have not always had an easy time in the ultra-conservative Scandinavian country and it is this background that has undoubtedly shaped the attitude of the man who is now held up as one of the top footballers in the world.

Taking up football at the age of six, it’s clear that one thing Zlatan has never been short of is confidence. He has boasted in interviews of one match in his junior days where his side FBK Balkan were down 4-0 at half time, the young Zlatan coming on as a substitute to win them the match by scoring eight goals. Looking back at his career now, it must be said that any confidence or even arrogance that Zlatan has is fully justified; few players can claim to have played such a key role in amassing such a trophy haul as he has.

Another sport also played a big role in his youth and helped him develop the athleticism that would be deemed almost impossible for someone standing 6 foot 5 inches. By the age of 17, Zlatan had achieved a black belt in Taekwondo. The skills gained in the martial art are seen in a number of his goals throughout his career, not least, the acrobatic back heel goal he scored against Italy at Euro 2004. Of course Zlatan wouldn’t be Zlatan if he didn’t sometimes take things too far. After Milan won the Scudetto last season, Antonio Cassano was being interviewed pitch side. Ibra thought it would be amusing to walk up and kick him in the head live on TV. Luckily Cassano is more a lover than a fighter and took it extremely well.

However, over the years other team mates have not always reacted so well to Zlatan’s efforts at male bonding. Whilst at Inter, Zlatan had a disagreement with Mario Balotelli (why always him?) that led to the young Italian locking himself in a toilet cubicle while several Inter players, including Marco Materazzi, restrained Zlatan from kicking the door in. That clash with Balotelli was not the first that got out of hand between Zlatan and his team mates. He was said to have a bad relationship with Rafael van der Vaart at Ajax and this spilled over onto the pitch when Holland faced Sweden and van der Vaart was injured by a Zlatan tackle that the Dutchman claims was intentional. This event led to Zlatan’s sudden transfer to Juventus 13 days later.

His time at Juventus is more than anything else responsible for the claims that ‘Zlatan chokes in the big games’. It’s true that his record in Europe for La Vecchia Signora was poor, only finding the net three times in 19 European ties over two years. However his record at his other clubs, Milan and Barca in particular, shows that Ibracadabra is more than capable of sprinkling his magic on the big stage.

It’s a widely held opinion amongst English media and pundits that Zlatan’s match winning reputation is a false one. Perhaps they should ask Diego Maradona what he thinks. Only last week El Diez said that Zlatan is behind only Messi and Ronaldo in the world game. I’d suggest that they also ask Arsenal fans about his performances at the Emirates in 2010 for Barca and in the San Siro last month. Much of these opinions are formed on the basis that the bulk of Zlatan’s career has been spent in Serie A, a league that is always viewed as inferior and boring on these shores. The insularity and myopia of these views are unfortunately brought to the fore every time ITV screen a match involving an Italian side and the commentary and punditry is cringeworthy at best, xenophobic at worst. Most right thinking football writers however understand that Serie A is a challenging competition that is always at the forefront of tactical innovation. Goals have never been easy to come by in Italy, yet Zlatan consistently makes a mockery of that. As of this weekend, Ibra has scored 116 goals in 210 Serie A matches and leads this year’s Capocannoniere standings with 22 in 23 games. Whichever way you look at it, his record is fantastic and comparable with the best in the world over the last 10 years.

Going to Barcelona for a fee of €49m plus Samuel Eto’o in exchange was never going to be easy for any player to live with. If anyone could cope though it was Zlatan, and despite him only spending one season there before heading back to Italy with Milan, the statistics say that he did a fair job for the Nou Camp side. Twenty-two goals from forty-five games in all competitions is just shy of the recognised quality watershed of one in two, but it must be noted that many of his appearances late in the season came as a substitute after an apparent falling out with Pep Guardiola. He also of course, won another league title. In his autobiography ‘I am Zlatan’ he states that from March 2010 Guardiola refused to speak to him. Guardiola is along with other footballing luminaries lambasted without prejudice. Ibra insists that Pep, ‘lacks balls’, something which he claims he told the coach to his face, following it by telling him that he (Guardiola) was ‘shitting’ himself at the thought of facing Jose Mourinho, then coach at Inter. It seems obvious in hindsight that the egotist Zlatan was not going to be a comfortable fit with Barcelona’s egalitarian family squad, yet it was Guardiola more than anyone who pushed for the move for the Swede. Perhaps the Barca icon believed he was the man who could make Zlatan fit into his strict, rule based regime and get the most out of him. It seems however that all that happened was that this rebel with a cause just rebelled even more.

The following from ‘I am Zlatan’ more than anything sums Ibra up: “I had done a lot to adapt – the Barca players were like schoolboys, following their coach blindly, whereas I was used to asking ‘why?’ I like guys that run red lights, not pedantic and strict rules. So I tried to be nice, didn’t dare lose my temper…for example at Barca players are forbidden from driving their sports cars to training. I thought this was ridiculous – it was no one’s business what car I drive – so in April, before a match with Almeria, I drove my Enzo Ferrari to work, it caused a scene.”

It’s apparent that many coaches have torn their hair out when it comes to Zlatan, yet those same coaches have also won many titles and seen their own reputations enhanced by managing successful sides. Sides that would never have been so successful without Ibra’s will to win, Ibra’s goals; both straightforward and stunning and without his assists, a part of his game that is massively undervalued. He is a fantastic passer and possessor of great vision, an ability to see a gap before it develops and then thread the needle. Max Allegri at Milan is the current beneficiary of Zlatan’s immense talent and Ibra looks more at ease in the shirt of the Rossoneri than at any other time in his career. Despite a dressing room chock full of big reputations and big egos – Robinho and Cassano have caused almost as many coaches headaches as Zlatan has – Ibra has established himself as a leader. He still occasionally sees red, most recently a red card against Napoli for a petulant slap of an opponent, but these moments of madness are getting fewer and further between. Could it be that Zlatan’s tour of Europe’s top clubs has come to an end? Whether he stays at Milan or decides to move on at some point, it’s a good bet that the club he plays for will win the league. After all, winning titles is the real magic of Ibracadabra.

Il Capocannoniere

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to buy for a Kindle from Amazon for £4.27 inc VAT, and for a number of other formats including as a PDF, an online download and for Apple, Palm and Sony hand-held devices from Smashwords. With recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.