He stalked the Lansdowne Road turf on a drizzly night in September. He threaded the decisive ball for Anders Svensson to score Sweden’s winning goal that ended Ireland’s 2014 World Cup qualification hopes and ultimately Giovanni Trapatton’s tenure as manager.
His every touch was met with whistles and jeers from the Aviva stadium crowd. A sure sign the watching Irish fans were aware of the Swede’s imposing threat. He jogged languidly around the Dublin arena but was able to pull the strings and dictate the Swedish attacks. His frame towered over the Ireland defenders with only the battle-hardened Richard Dunne looking like he could take on the 6ft 5in striker.
He is a winner. He is a champion. He is Zlatan.
The son of a Bosnian Muslim father and Croatian Catholic mother began his career at hometown club Malmo FF before moving to Ajax of Amsterdam. Zlatan Ibrahimovic won his first league title when Ajax claimed the Eredivisie in 2002 under coach Ronald Koeman. The Swedish captain has captured league crowns wherever he has played; two Eredivisie titles with Ajax, the Serie A with Juventus, AC Milan and three Scudettos in a row with cross city rivals Internazionale. He won La Liga after one season in Barcelona and has won three Ligue 1 Championships with current club Paris Saint Germain. He divides opinion but wherever he has played, Ibrahimovic has been a winner. His transfer to Barcelona from Inter Milan for €46 million with Samuel Eto’o going in the opposite direction was the start of a difficult period at the Nou Camp club. In many ways it was seen as a way for Pep Guardiola to off-load a player he viewed as troublesome from his dressing room. The Cameroonian had a formidable record for the Blaugrana and the astronomical fee for Ibrahimovic added on to what was effectively a swap deal for Eto’o, raised the eyebrows of many in the football world.
Ibra’s ego and Lionel Messi’s humble nature made for headlines that the little Argentine and the giant Swede did not get on. Ibrahimovic was relegated to the wing while Messi became the main man when the Catalan club adopted a 4-5-1 in favour of the 4-3-3 formation.
The Scandinavian’s perceived arrogance seemed to precede him. Zlatan was covered in tattoos. His boot sponsor Nike even had a custom made jacket tailored to include replications of his inked artwork on the back. Lionel Messi had only one tattoo at the time. Of his mother. Messi and Ibrahimovic’s opposing images did not sit well side by side and the two only played in the same team for one season before Zlatan went back to Milan. This time to the Rossoneri. He would go on to have a great season for AC, winning the Serie A Footballer of the Year award amid comparisons with club legend Marco Van Basten by both the media and the great Dutchman himself.
Ibrahimovic holds a black belt in Taekwondo since his teens. He has even managed to use his martial arts techniques to score some gravity-defying goals including his incredible 30 yard bicycle kick against England, which won the 2013 FIFA Puskás Award.
While at Barcelona, Zlatan claimed that his relationship with Pep Guardiola had deteriorated and the coach had not spoken to him in months. The Barca philosophy of Tika Taka football was winning admirers around the world at this time and the Swede did not seem like a good fit for this system. His prickly persona and Pep’s reputation as one of football’s nice guys meant many viewed Ibrahimovic as an egotistical bad boy, a reputation that seemed to follow him around Europe his whole playing career. He claimed that the World Cup in Brazil would not be worth watching without his presence. His autobiography is called simply, “I am Zlatan”.
Ibrahimovic is supremely confident and this trait is often seen as arrogance, but it is this extraordinary self-belief that has driven the striker to become one of the best footballers in the world today.