Soccer star, controversial, winner, legend, inspiration
JO CHRISTIAN WELDINGH
Zlatan Ibrahimović is a Swedish soccer player who currently plays for Italian club AC Milan. His former clubs include Paris Saint-Germain, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, and Los Angeles Galaxy. He is a former captain of the Swedish national team and has the national team’s all-time goal scoring record (62). His career has been dominated by plenty of goals and club changes, and he is one of the most honored soccer players in the world with 31 trophies. At 6 feet, 5 inches, the 39-year-old literally stands above the competition. He has succeeded on two continents and is a Swedish legend.
Zlatan seems to want to portray himself as a bad boy and is no stranger to controversy, especially in his younger years. In 2004, he injured his own teammate after a tough tackle in an international friendly match. His teammate accused him of trying to injure him on purpose, to which Zlatan answered, “I didn’t injure you on purpose, and you know that. If you accuse me again, I’ll break both your legs, and that time, it will be on purpose.”
Zlatan is an unlikely Swedish success story. Born into a poor family of immigrants in a crime-ridden area of Malmö, Sweden’s third biggest city, Zlatan did not seem destined for success when he got his first soccer shoes at age 6. According to the documentary Who is Zlatan? from 2014, his mother used to beat him with a wooden spoon until it broke. When things were difficult at home, he would seek refuge on a nearby soccer pitch. In the same documentary, author David Lagercrantz is asked to describe Zlatan and states, “On the one hand he is a strong, warrior type who knew he had to be very tough to survive. So, he takes on fights all the time because he has always had to. But another part of him is vulnerable. He’s a guy wounded by his upbringing, who uses all that to create strength for himself.”
When Zlatan was in his teens, he was a regular at his hometown club FF Malmö and signed his first contract with the club in 1996. His technical qualities on the pitch and in-your-face attitude off the pitch quickly made him the club’s biggest profile and one of the most sought-after youngsters in European soccer. Arsène Wenger, the legendary manager of Arsenal, once invited him to London for a trial, but Zlatan rejected the offer and famously said, referring to himself in the third person, “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions. You either want me or you don’t.”
In 2001, Zlatan accepted an offer from Ajax Amsterdam. In Ajax, a club famous for its ability to develop younger players, his career accelerated. He scored 35 goals in 74 matches before moving to Italian club Juventus in 2004. After his time in Juventus, Zlatan had successful seasons at Inter Milan, FC Barcelona, and AC Milan before signing for Paris Saint-Germain in 2012. In Paris, he had his most successful seasons to date, scoring 113 goals in 122 matches. When his contract with Paris ran out, he played two moderately successful seasons in Manchester United before traveling over the Atlantic to Major League Soccer and the Galaxy in 2018.
It is common for European soccer players to play a few seasons in MLS toward the end of their careers, so most soccer officials and fans assumed Zlatan’s career in European soccer were over with the transfer to the Galaxy. When Zlatan signed a one-year deal with AC Milan ahead of the 2020/2021 season at age 39, experts and pundits were doubting if he still had what it took to play at the very highest level. Thirty-seven games and 25 goals later, Zlatan had proved them wrong. He has also made a comeback on the Swedish national team and was planning on playing in this summer’s European Championship but got ruled out with a knee injury in May.
There was some doubt whether he would put on the yellow jersey again because of his criticism of management. National team manager Janne Andersson visited Zlatan in Milan. In a March 17 article in Svenska Dagbladet, Zlatan put to rest the doubts. “We went through everything. In short: Draw a line over everything that has been and look to the future,” he said on the Swedish Football Association’s YouTube channel. “We spoke with respect for each other. He was very straight, direct and the person I met was a winner, a mentality that wants to win. I recognize that mentality in myself. To have the chance now at 39, to represent my country —again—it feels unreal.”
Zlatan Ibrahimović is the best Swedish soccer player to ever play the game. His story has inspired many. He has 7.4 million followers on Twitter (he follows 10), and he has become a symbol for people born into difficult circumstances by proving that there is a way out.
This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.