As part of a new series, we use the power of photography to tell the stories of the greatest and most influential footballers in the world. This time we look at Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ glittering career from his days in the immigrant neighbourhoods of Malmö to his success in Milano, Paris and Barcelona.
A 17-year-old Zlatan in his Malmö home. Zlatan was born in Malmö to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother. He grew up in the neighbourhood Rosengård where mostly immigrants lived. Out on the streets is where Zlatan honed his skills. As you can see, Ronaldo is Zlatan’s hero growing up, and it’s interesting that he would go on to play for three clubs the Brazilian also represented.
After making his debut in 1999, aged 17, Zlatan established himself in the first team over the coming two seasons. His performances earned him a first call-up to Sweden’s national team, and in 2001 it was announced Zlatan would join Dutch giants AFC Ajax. Zlatan scored 16 goals in 40 league matches for Malmö FF before moving to Amsterdam.
Zlatan’s move to Ajax saw him link up with the likes of Rafael van der Vaart, Christian Chivu, Andy van der Meyde, Steven Pienaar and Maxwell in a highly-talented Ajax team. In his first season, Ajax won the Eredivisie title and the KNVB Cup, which meant Zlatan started life on the continent with a double. His taste for titles didn’t end there.
The second season wasn’t as successful as Ajax went trophyless, but Zlatan’s third at the club saw him finish top goalscorer and saw Ajax reclaim their Eredivisie title. After a strong Euro 2004, Zlatan would leave Ajax having scored 48 goals in 110 appearances. His legacy also left long-standing spats with the likes of van der Vaart and Louis van Gaal.
After going to the 2002 World Cup without making a mark, Zlatan definitely announced himself to the world during Euro 2004 in Portugal. He scored in the opening 5-0 crush of Bulgaria, before netting a remarkable back heel against a star-studded Italy in the second group game to earn a 1-1 draw. Sweden would go on to the quarter-finals where they lost out on penalties to Holland, with Zlatan missing one of the penalties, but Zlatan’s profile was raised and he was signed by Italy’s biggest club, Juventus.
The move to Juventus in August 2004 meant Zlatan joined one of the best teams in Europe, containing the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon, David Trezeguet, Pavel Nedved and Fabio Cannavaro under the guidance of Fabio Capello. Zlatan would hit the ground running with a goal in his debut against Brescia, and would go on to score 16 Serie A goals in his first season, which culminated with Juve lifting the Scudetto as Italy’s best team.
Ibrahimovic’ second season at the club proved less successful personally though. Zlatan only managed seven Serie A goals in 35 appearances, but Juve won the league again. The club were later stripped of both their league titles in 2004/05 and 2005/06 due to their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. Juventus were relegated and Ibrahimovic looked for the quickest way out of Torino. That proved to be the motorway to Milano, and Inter.
Ibrahimovic signed for Inter and Roberto Mancini’s team had become Italy’s strongest seemingly overnight due to the implications the scandal had for Juventus and AC Milan. Inter would go on to win Serie A twice in a row under Mancini, and Zlatan was the key man as he turned into a prolific goalscorer. Despite domestic dominance, president Massimo Moratti wanted European success, and hired Jose Mourinho to replace Mancini in the summer of 2008.
Under Mourinho, Zlatan produced his best season so far with Inter winning the league for a third time in a row and with Zlatan winning the Capocannoniere as Serie A’s top goalscorer with 25 goals. Inter was knocked out by Manchester United in the Champions League round of 16 though, and because of Zlatan’s will to win Europe’s premier competition, he thought he had to leave Inter.
He joined the Champions League holders FC Barcelona in a mega-money deal which saw Samuel Eto’o move in the opposite direction. Zlatan had now played at two of Ronaldo’s club, as the Brazilian also represented Inter.
Zlatan started well at the Camp Nou, and can be seen here celebrating his winner in the 2009 November Clasico against Real Madrid. However, as the season wore on, Zlatan’s relationship with manager Pep Guardiola deteriorated and he often found himself on the bench towards the end of the season.
As fate would have it, Barcelona drew Inter in the semi-final of the Champions League, which pitted Zlatan against his former manager Mourinho. This iconic image was created in the second leg at the Camp Nou, when Guardiola was giving Ibrahimovic instructions and Mourinho joined them from behind. Inter would go on to win the tie 3-2 on aggregate and booked their place in the final against Bayern München where they would also triumph. In total they won the treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. Heartbreak for Zlatan who joined Barca to win the Champions League only to see his former club win it without him. He could comfort himself with the La Liga title Barcelona did win.
The fraction between Ibrahimovic and Guardiola concluded with Zlatan joining AC Milan, first on loan and then permanently. Back in Italy and Milano, Zlatan scored 14 Serie A goals which helped Milan to the Scudetto under manager Massimiliano Allegri.
A champion again. The second season was terrific on an individual basis as Zlatan scored 28 goals in 32 league matches, but Milan finished second to a brilliant Juventus, revitalised by their new coach Antonio Conte. As Milan’s economic difficulties was made apparent, Zlatan had to be sold.
Zlatan would therefore join PSG and their “project” of becoming the biggest club in Europe. Zlatan’s four seasons at the club was a resounding success, as PSG won the Ligue 1 on all four occasions and added numerous cups. Disappointingly, the Champions League title eluded them, and Zlatan, as they couldn’t get past the quarter-final stage under either Carlo Ancelotti or Laurent Blanc.
In his final season, Zlatan would get to play against his hometown club Malmö FF in the Champions League. PSG were obviously too good for the Swedish champions, and Zlatan scored, but it was a nice homecoming for the city’s most loved son. For Malmö’s home match, Zlatan famously rented out the entire Malmö square called Stortorget so even those who couldn’t attend the stadium could watch the game.
While Zlatan was definitely considered one of Europe’s best strikers in his time in Italy and Spain, it was at PSG where he reached the individual heights of his career. He left PSG as their highest ever goalscorer, despite only playing at the club for four years. His goalscoring at the club in all competitions over his four years reads 35, 41, 30 and 50, including an insane 38 goals in 31 league games in his final season. As he put it himself while announcing his decision to leave: “I came like a king, left like a legend”.
Zlatan’s international career has also been remarkable from an individual standpoint. He spent 15 years representing Sweden at both World Cups (2002 and 2006) and Euro’s (2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016) and retires from the national team as his country’s top goalscorer with 62 goals in 116 appearances. He has also been named Sweden’s best footballer a record ten times, including nine in a row. Zlatan’s legacy in Sweden is much greater than as an insanely talented footballer, he has united immigrants and natives and shown that everything’s possible as long as you work hard enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re born in Malmö, Manchester or Madrid.
Of course, this article wouldn’t be complete without this image. When Sweden inaugurated their new national stadium Friends Arena in 2012, England were the invited guests. Zlatan Ibrahimovic marked the occasion by scoring four goals in a 4-2 win, including one of the greatest goals ever seen in Sweden. Acrobatically, Zlatan scored an outrageous overhead-kick from approximately 40 yards to send the ball over Joe Hart. Magical.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has now signed for Manchester United and is therefore reunited with José Mourinho. It remains to be seen what will happen with the two in Manchester, especially with Pep Guardiola as the manager across town. It promises to be exciting though, and the ever-winning Ibrahimovic will be looking to add the Premier League trophy to his impressive trophy cabinet.