"When you first got here, I was like, 'oh we've got to have this guy on the show'," said the late-night chatshow king. "And then I was looking at the LA Times and you took out an advertisement. A lot of athletes will take out a full-page ad: you see it when they leave, they thank the city for everything. But you took one out just as you got started and it said, 'Dear Los Angeles, you're welcome.'"
With this audacious local advertising campaign in a city home to some of entertainment's biggest stars, Ibrahimovic was serving notice that He had arrived. A bubbling cauldron of ego and athletic excellence who could change everything, even in a city as used to charismatic leading men as Los Angeles. After conquering Europe piece by piece and leaving his mark on each of the countries which became his home following his debut with Malmo in 1999, Zlatan was now graciously informing everyone that he had America firmly in his sights.
But what of the continent he left behind? What is his legacy in Europe? What impact did he have on our cities and our clubs? On our countries? We invited a group of writers to reflect on what Zlatan meant to their particular corner of Europe, with a collection of personal essays.
1. The new Sweden
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden is mobbed by team mates as they celebrate after the UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier Play-Off
Image credit: Getty Images
I represent the new Sweden. I put Sweden on the map. That’s not arrogance, those are facts.
These words spilled from the mouth of Zlatan Ibrahimovic during his very first press conference as an LA Galaxy player. Three years previously, when Sweden’s Under-21 side became European champions, it was no coincidence that they did so soundtracked by a theme song called 'New Sweden'. It spoke of a new generation of players, confident and multicultural. In terms of its attitude, this was a team built in the image of the man who changed Swedish football, and Sweden, forever. And even though Zlatan’s effect on Swedish society as a whole has been huge, the importance of Zlatan for the country's immigrant population is even more significant.
"Zlatan stands for a new Swedishness,” says Aftonbladet journalist Johanna Franden. "There were many generations of immigrants before him, but he became the symbol for people with an immigrant background. He represents a big group, who are raised in Sweden, who speak other languages than Swedish at home and who had problems identifying themselves with Sweden prior to Zlatan’s breakthrough. Zlatan, even though he was born in Sweden, has become the immigration story in Sweden; his success, personality and charisma have made him the symbol for many things in Swedish society and this is the most important legacy that he leaves behind."
Zlatan Ibrahimovic trains during his time with Malmo
Image credit: Imago
'I am Zlatan' sold more than a million copies in Sweden. It didn’t only create a sense of recognition among those who shared his background: it also created a sense of understanding for those who didn’t. It brought the reality of life in the Swedish suburbs to the masses. "His circumstances in Rosengard were explained to people who weren't familiar with that environment before,” says Franden. "This created an understanding for how life can be growing up in a reality where everything is a battle and where food on the table isn't taken for granted. This knowledge has helped employers to understand people from the Swedish suburbs better, which has made it easier for people from the Swedish suburbs to become part of society.”
By 2015, Sweden's poorest suburb was Rosengard, where Zlatan grew up. Police classified the area as a hotspot for crime and social problems but Zlatan's success required another story to be told: that even people from the poorest neighbourhoods can dream of life as a professional footballer. "It's hard to dream when you feel that your dream is impossible to reach,” says Eurosport expert Henok Goitom, a former Sweden U21 international of Eritrean descent. "Zlatan's way to the top had made the word 'dream' change its meaning. Zlatan has definitely brought the great European stadiums closer to the kids in the suburbs, where I come from.”
In the list of the 20 most capped players for Sweden, Zlatan is one of only two men with two immigrant parents. In the list of the top 20 goalscorers, Zlatan is the only one. With 116 games and 62 goals for his country, his is a unique place in the history of the national game. And as well as redefining the horizons of Sweden’s immigrant population, Zlatan has also changed the very nature of what it means to be Swedish.
Traditionally, Sweden is a country where the collective rules: both in football and in society, the group is an important foundation pillar. In a nation ruled by the Law of Jante – the doctrine that individualism is not only undesirable, but inappropriate – Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the outlier, an individual who has fundamentally affected both his people and his sport. "Before, the collective was the most important thing and you couldn't take a big space (individually); if you did so, you could be seen as a problematic person,” Goitom says. "Instead of helping kids with big personalities who walked their own way, it was easier to get rid of that kind of person. Zlatan changed this. Thanks to Zlatan it's much easier to make individualists a part of the collective and after Zlatan’s performances people with an immigrant background have had an easier way into the Swedish national team.”
(Image: All the goals Zlatan scored across Europe)
This individualist streak brings baggage with it. Even though Zlatan has carved out a fantastic career since leaving Malmo for Ajax in 2001, he has always divided opinion wherever he has played. Many see him as arrogant. "It's a part of Zlatan's personality to be a bit cocky,” says Franden. "I don't see him as a humble and misunderstood guy. The arrogance and the quick answers are a part of his personality, something that he hasn't been slow to capitalise on.” When you analyse Zlatan's life and career he will always stir up impassioned debate for this reason, just as his countless goals and titles will fire up his biggest advocates. But in amongst all his great performances and soundbites, we can locate the most important thing Zlatan Ibrahimovic will leave behind.
Zlatan, the young player from Rosengard who became the global voice and face of his country. Zlatan, the man who created a new way of being Swedish, who gave people from an immigrant background a compelling reason to identify with Sweden. Zlatan, the superstar who brought the great European stadiums closer to the suburbs and transformed dreams into tangible realities for a whole generation.
- Malmo 1999-2001: 47 games, 18 goals
- Sweden 2001-2016: 116 games, 62 goals
Siavoush Fallahi - @SiavoushF
2. Netherlands: Pizza, chips and Zlatan
Zlatan celebrates winning a trophy with Ajax
Image credit: Imago
It’s late summer and after a hard day’s work the staff at an Italian restaurant on the Herengracht, one of Amsterdam’s prettiest canals, are just closing up. Then, a group of men enter. The staff members take a closer look: it’s Ajax striker Mido followed by three boisterous friends.
The beautiful houses on the Herengracht are owned by the ultra-rich. Think of Kensington in London, or central Manhattan in New York. For this reason, this particular restaurant is often visited by celebrities, including former and current Ajax footballers. Frank Rijkaard was a regular. Mido and his friends sit down and order water, pizzas and a couple of plates of chips. Chips as well as pizza? Yes, the waiter is surprised too. But we’re talking Mido here, a guy who had been enjoying life to the full ever since he first arrived in Amsterdam in 2001. To name just one example, there was the time he supposedly threw a pair of scissors at the young player he was battling it out with to become manager Ronald Koeman’s first-choice striker: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
We now know that Mido and Zlatan’s career paths would diverge significantly. But back in 2001, Ajax fans were genuinely wondering if either of them was good enough to wear the famous shirt. One thing they weren’t aware of, however, was that Zlatan was staying well clear of beautiful canal-side houses, Ferraris and restaurants. In fact, Zlatan was living in Diemen.
Only five miles away from Amsterdam’s historic city centre, Diemen is as far removed from Amsterdam’s splendour as you can possibly imagine. Grey, industrial and boring, Diemen is a tower block while Amsterdam’s city centre is a stately home. Zlatan lived there because Ajax had arranged for him to live there. Despite it being the least attractive part of Amsterdam imaginable.
Leo Beenkahher presents a shirt to Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Image credit: Imago
In his memoir, Zlatan recalls he was often bored to tears in his house in Diemen. Fun was only had when Maxwell, the young Brazilian left-back, came over to play video games. Most Ajax players at least get a place in Amsterdam’s Oud Zuid district, which is within walking distance from the famous Museum Quarter, home of the city’s Rembrandt paintings and star restaurants. So what was going on in the mind of Zlatan in Diemen? It’s tempting to say that Zlatan’s time there was all about buckling down, working hard and avoiding pizzas with side orders of chips - and that pure dedication turned him into the amazing footballer we now know and love. But that would be nonsense. The honest truth is that we don’t know. The honest truth is that for Ajax, Zlatan’s mind was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, with a question mark put on top.
Back in 2001, Zlatan was a slightly strange and gangly-looking teenager who did not really seem good enough for Ajax. A year or two later, he was the best player the club had seen in years, and like most good players in the Eredivisie, he had to be sold to a bigger club in a bigger league - in this case Juventus. Did this happen because he worked harder than his rivals, such as Mido? Perhaps. But it goes way beyond that. Because even after all these years, Ajax fans look back on the early 2000s and wonder what on earth hit them.
Remember that goal against NAC? Remember how he mugged off Ajax captain Rafael van der Vaart and manager Ronald Koeman and people loved him? That was Zlatan being Zlatan, and the fans in Amsterdam lapped it up. We now know that the kid living in Diemen was an unstoppable force, who would embark on a tour through Europe’s football capitals, collecting trophies along the way to superstardom. But we had no idea at the time.
Mido, handing out a meagre tip to waiters, had no idea. The people of Diemen and the Herengracht had no idea. We were all just living our lives. I was a young student working as a waiter in the evenings and weekends: the guy who took the pizza and chips order from Mido. We were all mere mortals, while on the outskirts of the city, a soon to be demi-god sat on his sofa, played video games with Maxwell and wondered what to have for dinner. And now, even after all the amazing talent we’ve seen at Ajax, we feel intensely lucky and proud to have had that gangly teenager in our midst for three years. Even though we really didn’t have a clue at the time.
They should turn that house in Diemen into a museum.
- Ajax 2001-2004: 110 games, 48 goals
Elko Born - @Elko_B
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3. Italy: The absolute boy
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's idea of the Absolute is a dynamic concept, one of continuous change determined by the dialectic process: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. If Ibrahimovic attained almost god-like status in his career then it is precisely because he was subject to this kind of constant challenge, constant change.
The enfant terrible from Rosengard, who became the next big thing at Ajax, was progressively exposed to new environments and new cultures, all of which shaped one of the great modern careers. But the most influential proving ground was Italy. It was here that a two-way dialogue opened up: Italy changed him and he changed Italy. It was in Serie A where Zlatan became Ibra, where he built the foundations of his own Absolute. Assimilating, dominating and contaminating in his turn. An authentic dialectic process.
Juventus Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic reacts after scoring a goal against AS Roma
Image credit: Getty Images
"I am taking the Ajax out of you". The welcome Ibrahimovic received in Serie A in 2004 was reminiscent of the famous brainwashing scene from A Clockwork Orange. The scientist inflicting the Ludovico Technique on a young arrival from Johan Cruyff's old club was Fabio Capello, the representative of a coaching school that prefers goals over dribbles; tough tackles over pleasant passing moves; results over aesthetics. The hardline Capello was the extreme manifestation of the Bianconeri motto: “winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that matters.” This was a club in the final throes of the ‘win at all costs’ Luciano Moggi era, before everything came crashing down in Calciopoli.
For an awkward 22-year-old, it was a huge culture shock. Zlatan still closely resembled the street footballer who loved playing for the sake of the spectacle, to shock and amaze people. It required a drastic readjustment in style. But there was also a deeper dialogue at play during his time at Juventus: not just that between Capello and Ibrahimovic, but between a culture – Italy – and the striker’s subconscious. A dialogue which urged Zlatan to ignore the usual trappings of fame enjoyed by footballers – the fast cars, money and everything else that cloistered world endows on its inhabitants – to instead pursue a primal need for personal fulfilment. It could only be achieved by becoming a goalscorer and a winner, a man striving for perfection.
Ibrahimovic’s Hegelian thesis revolves around his will to win, embracing the spirit of Juventus and the essential idea of Italian football. The same spirit that once it was inflamed, could not be contained. When Juventus were relegated for their role in Calciopoli, with their two titles in two years rescinded, Ibrahimovic had to leave. Waiting is impossible for someone who has that holy fire inside them. Regret is a foreign concept for those absorbed in the mission of winning.
Inter Milan forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic reaches for a ball as he trains at the Rose Bowl on the eve of their game against Chelsea
Image credit: Getty Images
In geographical terms, Turin’s antipodes are located in open sea close to New Zealand. In football terms there is nothing further away, nothing more opposite, to Juventus than Inter. And yet this is where Ibrahimovic landed in the summer of 2006, inflaming a country already divided by the corruption scandal engulfing its national sport. AC Milan had prepared a contract for him as well, but a special mission convinced Zlatan to take on the monumental pressure of switching Juve for Inter.
That mission was to bring the Scudetto back to the team where his idol, Ronaldo, had played. The Brazilian great never managed to win the league title with Inter – here was a chance for Zlatan to outdo the player whose face adorned the posters on his wall and the books he read as a youngster at Malmo. To do so, he would have to make a war machine out of a team who represented the other side of the Italian soul: moody, unreliable, incapable of sustaining the role of the favourite. Overrated. Disappointing. Just as Zlatan had been perceived by some critics before his move to Italy.
After two years in Turin, though, he was a changed beast. His iron will had been complemented by a burning desire to win. Time was ticking and Zlatan knew it. He found a divided dressing room at Inter and told president Massimo Moratti that winning under such conditions would be impossible. The president imparted this message to the rest of the squad in forceful terms, demanding change. And just like that, Ibrahimovic did to Inter what Capello had done to Ibrahimovic. He changed the soul of the club, becoming the leader of a Scudetto-winning machine. He effectively took ownership of the league itself, winning three titles in three years - five in five including the Juventus trophies which were stripped away - before Barcelona came calling in 2009.
Maybe it’s because Inter won the treble the year after he left; maybe it’s because the idolatry of Zlatan was replaced by the idolatry of Jose Mourinho; maybe it’s simply due to the passage of time; but it seems like our sense of Ibra’s Inter is slipping away. The new essence he brought to the club was, after all, the pure antithesis to Inter’s soul. And because of this, their passion could only be overwhelming and short.
Synthesis: AC Milan
AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after winning the Serie A title at the end of their match against AS Roma
Image credit: Reuters
It’s a chilly night at the beginning of October, the warm-up before a Serie A match. Ronaldinho, in between nutmegs and jokes, is having fun by trying to dink a shot against the bar. Ibrahimovic looks at his Brazilian colleague, takes the ball and, without moving off his spot, hits it as hard as he can. The ball smacks into the bar with a satisfying clang and Ronaldinho’s smile slides off his face. Ibrahimovic’s impact on AC Milan can be effectively summed up by this moment.
Milan sprung him from his Catalan prison to help them re-establish the local dominance they squandered when Ibrahimovic was busy making Inter into the best team in Milan and Italy. Upon leaving Barca, he found a team deep in crisis but his power and charisma ensured Milan were the latest club to fall under his spell. During moments of emergency in ancient Rome, when huge political and social changes were needed in a short space of time, states often turned to dictators. In 2010, Milan found their own in Ibrahimovic. He perfectly embodied the Rossoneri spirit, infusing it with the winning mentality he learned at Juventus and improving it with the leadership he learned at Inter. Veni, vidi, vici.
As he led Milan to the Scudetto in 2011, the club – if only briefly – reconciled with their glorious past. But Italy also reconciled with Ibra. The bad boy whose faults you could overlook because of his winning pedigree. The last truly elite player to feature on the pitches of Serie A. The man who came to Italy to learn, and who left for PSG in 2012 having reminded us of the greatest facets of Italian football history.
- Juventus 2004-2006: 92 games, 26 goals
- Internazionale 2006-2009: 116 games, 66 goals
- AC Milan 2010-2012: 85 games, 56 goals
Mattia Fontana - @mattiafontana83
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4. Spain: A flight that changed the path of history
Lionel Messi (R) of FC Barcelona strands flanked by his teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Image credit: Getty Images
In an unknown coordinate in the airspace between Donetsk and Barcelona, a plane carrying Joan Laporta takes an unexpected detour. The Barca president and his delegation have travelled to Ukraine in the summer of 2009 to tie up the signing of Shakhtar defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy - but they will return with another deal on the books too.
After all, a request from Pep Guardiola to the club’s board has not yet been satisfied. Despite winning the treble in his first season in management, Guardiola wants to shake up his attack and get rid of Samuel Eto’o. A new centre-forward is the coach’s priority and the shortlist has narrowed to three contenders: Atletico Madrid’s Diego Forlan, Valencia’s David Villa, or Inter Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Somewhere in the stratosphere above central Europe, a decision is taken. The aeroplane carrying the Barcelona top brass starts tacking for Milan at Laporta’s behest and a call is put in to Massimo Moratti. An invitation to the Inter owner’s house follows and a deal is swiftly done: €60m plus Eto’o for the best striker in Italy. Guardiola has the No.9 he desires and the Ibrahimovic signing will prove extremely consequential – just not in the way anyone expects...
This was a febrile moment in Spanish football. Just one month before Ibrahimovic was introduced to 50,000 fans at the Camp Nou, Florentino Perez had returned as Real Madrid president with a desire to re-establish the Galactico project. Kaka joined for a world record £56m, Cristiano Ronaldo quickly followed, setting the bar even higher at £80m, and Karim Benzema was added for another £30m. Winning La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey with seven La Masia graduates in the season just gone could have been viewed as a validation of Barcelona’s own, distinct philosophy, but Laporta wanted a showpiece signing to match those on offer in the capital. And Zlatan answered the call.
Ibrahimovic was supposed to be Barca’s answer to Ronaldo but it soon became apparent that they had one already: Messi. Guardiola first deployed Messi as a false nine to devastating effect in a 6-2 win over Real Madrid in May 2009 but it was not until the following season, Ibrahimovic’s first and only in Catalunya, that Guardiola became fully convinced by the strategy. After lusting after a new centre-forward all summer, the signing of Ibrahimovic only managed to convince the coach that Messi didn’t need a No. 9 to play off. He would be far more effective interpreting the role in his own way.
Ibrahimovic’s tactical inflexibility meant he could not emulate Eto’o and drift out to the right wing, so by the end of 2009-10, Guardiola preferred to use Bojan Krkic. A stunning demotion. Ibrahimovic was hardly a flop, his goal in the Clasico at Camp Nou was a big factor in beating Manuel Pellegrini’s Madrid to the title, but Barca eventually worked out he was one signing too many. So accidentally, and unexpectedly, Ibrahimovic played his part in validating Barca and Guardiola’s La Masia project. He was the final push Guardiola needed to install Messi in the position which would allow him to become the greatest player on the planet. And from this moment the germ of the all-conquering 2010-11 team, Guardiola's best, was born.
Even as the second most expensive player in history, Zlatan was sacrificed for the historic genius in Barca’s midst. A maverick at odds with the scholastic environment that Guardiola had fostered, and Messi thrived in, Ibrahimovic gave his coach the withering nickname of ‘the Philosopher’. He probably would have been a better fit in Madrid, with Jose Mourinho as his coach and Ronaldo as his foil. He probably would have had more fun too. But that wasn’t what fate decided when Laporta’s plane changed its flight path all those years ago.
- Barcelona 2009-2010: 46 games, 22 goals
Adrian Garcia - @adriangroca
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5. France: Dreaming bigger
Paris Saint-Germain's Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic leaves a pitch with a trophy after winning the French L1 title
Image credit: Getty Images
Zlatan Ibrahimovic divided France. He divided everywhere else, of course, but especially L’Hexagone. It was France, after all, that Zlatan described as a “s**t country” following a 3-2 defeat to Bordeaux in March 2015. A country that, ultimately, could not deliver the Champions League title he so desired despite four attempts with a progressively more ambitious Paris Saint-Germain. His European disappointments are a good reason to qualify the boastful statement that he “left like a legend”, as he proclaimed when departing the club in 2016. But to try and qualify his talent or the domestic dominance he exercised with PSG would be wrong.
During four unforgettable seasons at the Parc des Princes, Zlatan left an indelible mark on the French championship. Despite being 30 upon his arrival, he enforced his dominance with incredible technique, athleticism and strength hewn from his love of martial arts. A kung-fu kick at the Stade Velodrome in 2012, a back-heel against Bastia in 2013: these are still clearly defined in the memory of French fans. On the pitch, it was though he possessed a special aura which invoked in his opponents a mixture of surprise and exaltation. Some of them seemed to let him play, star struck, while others fell into the trap of believing they were capable of stopping him. He was the undisputed king of Ligue 1; the kind of superstar that French football has so rarely had; the symbol of the new Paris-Saint Germain.
When Zlatan arrived from AC Milan in the summer of 2012, PSG had been under Qatari ownership for a year but had not secured their first championship: the 2011-12 title had been won unexpectedly by Montpellier. With Ibrahimovic in their ranks they won four successive titles and in the season after he left, Monaco took their crown. Ibrahimovic’s presence in Paris perfectly bookmarked a period of unbroken dominance. He also left the capital as the top scorer in the club’s history, with 156 goals, and even if this has now been surpassed by Edinson Cavani, statistics only illuminate part of the Ibrahimovic legacy in France.
With his ponytail, tattoos and quick one-liners, Ibrahimovic was more than just an elite athlete: he was a force of nature, pure charm and provocation. It was there right from the start, when his agent, the omnipotent Mino Raiola, introduced him to France by comparing him to the Mona Lisa. This was a player who started his reign in France with the opening line: "I don’t know much about Ligue 1 and its players, but they know me.” It was this larger-than-life persona which elevated him beyond sport. It was why he was immortalised in puppet form on satirical TV show ‘Les Guignols de l'info’, and why the verb ‘zlataner’ (synonymous with 'overwhelm') made it into the French dictionary. It was why his waxwork was displayed in the Musee Grevin in 2015. Zlatan may have annoyed some people, but many more were won over by his self-confidence. To be loved or hated, and nothing in between: this was the story of Zlatan’s time in France, even among PSG supporters.
Being the symbol of the Qatar project had negative connotations too. Ever since the marketing slogan "rever plus grand” (dream bigger) was adopted as the motto of the rebooted and newly ambitious PSG, long-time supporters have been suspicious of the new influx of fans who have been attracted to the club. To state a preference for Rai or Pedro Pauleta over Ibrahimovic is a badge of honour, proof of a deeper love and affinity with the club. Furthermore, there are PSG supporters who remember not only the domestic success Zlatan enjoyed, but the European disappointments too. His cocky attitude might have been more universally tolerated if he had the Champions League title to back it up.
But was Zlatan Ibrahimovic really so full of himself, or was he playing a character that progressively ate his real personality from the inside out? The question remains unanswered in France, where a Canal+ documentary, 'Ma part d’ombre' (My dark side) recently cast him in a fresh light: as a man, not just a star. In the film, Ibrahimovic talks about the racism he faced in Sweden and how it came to shape his personality. He also seems to be surprised at how much of a point of discussion he became in France: "You say I’m arrogant, but French people are famous for their arrogance. So I’m exactly like you - you should love me.” Was it the star or the man speaking? And which side of Zlatan was it that the public came to love, and hate?
- Paris Saint-Germain 2012-2016: 180 games, 156 goals
Simon Farvacque - @sporthinker
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6. England: Zlatan the Lionheart
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates victory with the trophy after during the EFL Cup Final
Image credit: Getty Images
Fossil records show that lions were roaming the plains of prehistoric England around 700,000 years ago. But it was in the 12th century that the lion was absorbed into the national identity when decorating the coat of arms displayed by Richard I. It is an enduring stylistic affectation which has echoed through the centuries: the reason three lions still embroider the chest of England’s footballers.
It was fitting, then, that the spirit animal Zlatan Ibrahimovic chose to adopt during his time in England was one of the most potent national symbols this country possesses. “I’m an animal. I feel like a lion,” he said after scoring twice in the League Cup win over Southampton in February 2017. “The lion is born a lion – it means I’m a lion.” Almost 900 years after Richard the Lionheart took a crossbow bolt to the shoulder during a castle siege in Limousin and contracted a fatal case of gangrene, here was Zlatan the Lionheart. And in the process of adopting a national emblem and making it his own, this greying alpha male punctured a potent national myth too.
As fate would have it, Zlatan moved to England one week after the nation voted to leave the European Union. A Swedish genius, born to immigrant parents, who thrived in Holland, Italy, Spain and France: Zlatan was a poster boy for cross-European integration and excellence arriving in a country which had shoved two sun-burned fingers up to such notions. The Brexit debate had shown England to be an insular, arrogant nation, one which apparently believed that increased exports of jam, tea and biscuits could compensate for leaving the biggest single market in the world. It was shown to be a nation wrapped up in visions of its own grandiosity while ignoring external realities. But here was an ponytailed harbinger of the realisation that English exceptionalism is the hollowest of conditions.
It was Zlatan, in fact, who diagnosed the problem back in 2012. After scoring a remarkable overhead kick in an international friendly between England and Sweden, he said: "That's the way it is with the English. If you score against them you're a good player, if you don't score against them you're not a good player." Even after his wonder goal, England stood in isolation as the only country still impervious to the sporting charms of Zlatan. Despite winning 11 league titles across four countries; despite rifling in 156 goals in 180 games for Paris Saint-Germain; Zlatan still hadn’t done it in England. A country which bullishly believes its own domestic league to be the most exacting testing ground in football still had to be won over.
Was there something special about the Premier League that would reveal Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be nothing more than a sophisticated self-publicist? Would a creaking 34-year-old be exposed by the unique demands of playing in the rarefied physical arena of England? No. As it happened, he enjoyed a season of historic proportions.
He scored on his debut in the 2-1 Community Shield win over Leicester City. He scored on his Premier League debut, in a 3-1 win at Bournemouth, and he scored in his first game at Old Trafford, a 2-0 win over Southampton. Between November 6 and January 15, he scored 13 goals in 13 games. In the end there were 28 in all competitions. He didn’t simply survive in England, he thrived. And when he scored against Leicester in February 2017 he became the oldest player to ever hit 15 Premier League goals in one season. A history-maker. “I went to England in a wheelchair,” Zlatan joked upon his arrival at LA Galaxy, referencing those perceptions of him as being well past his sell-by date. “I conquered England in three months.”
His second season by contrast was a non-event, wrecked by a serious knee injury sustained in April 2017, even if the powers of recovery which convinced United to hand him a new contract were attaining mythical status. “His knee is so strong that the doctors said they had never seen anything like it,” said his faithful agent Raiola. “Zlatan is so strong that the doctor wants him back after his career to research on him.” In truth, though, the myth could no longer be supported by reality. Zlatan made a handful of disappointing appearances in the winter of 2017, and in the absence of any stellar performances some of his self-aggrandising activity on social media grew tiresome. But by then his work in England was done. In a tweet announcing his arrival at LA Galaxy, bringing to a close a quite brilliant career in European football, a strutting Zlatan was joined by a lion walking tamely alongside him.
- Manchester United 2016-2018: 53 games, 29 goals
Tom Adams - @tomEurosport