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The Career Of Zlatan Ibrahimovic


The Career Of Zlatan Ibrahimovic

In a season that has seen so many of this generation’s greatest footballers retire, there is unfortunately one more name to add to that list. Because on Sunday, legendary Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at the age of 41, announced his retirement from the beautiful game.

The announcement brings to an end a glittering and remarkable career that has taken the 6ft5ins striker to seven different countries, winning league titles in five of them, scoring over 500 career goals in the process and picking up over 30 winners' medals. He truly was, certainly of this generation, one of the greatest to have ever graced a football pitch, and here, we are going to take a closer look at the career the Swede has had…

His Distinguished Career


Zlatan was born in Sweden’s third-largest city of Malmo in October 1981, with a childhood that was punctuated with parental problems, serious poverty and crime. But it was this tough environment that would be key in building up the Ibrahimovic character that we all know and love today.

He would sign his first contract with his hometown club in 1996, and would make the move to the first team in 1999, making his debut against Halmstad towards the end of that season. Albeit through no fault of his own, it would be a rare campaign to forget for Ibrahimovic as Malmo suffered an uncharacteristic relegation, with Ibrahimovic making just six substitute appearances that season and scoring just one goal.

But, being relegated to the second division worked in Zlatan’s favour, as it gave him the opportunity to lead the line for his side. As such, he made 23 starts in Malmo’s first season in the second tier, scoring 12 league goals and two in the Swedish Cup. Those dozen league goals were to be the first few of many, and they certainly got the attention of some of Europe’s top clubs. That is what gave us the iconic “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions” quote, said in response to Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger offering the teenager a trial at Arsenal instead of a straight contract offer.

Malmo were promoted back to the top-flight, and Ibrahimovic added three more goals to his personal tally. While not a flattering return, Dutch side Ajax had seen enough from the youngster and tabled a bid which was accepted by Malmo, with Ibrahimovic leaving his boyhood club for a fee of around €8.7m.

Ibrahimovic’s Big Break

He would spend three years at Ajax, with his first year being the most successful as he won the first major honour of his career. Ajax won a league and cup double as Ibrahimovic scored a disappointing nine goals in all competitions, although he did score the winner in the cup final.

Ibrahimovic’s second year in Amsterdam was better - Ajax failed to win any silverware except the Johan Cruyff Shield, but for Ibrahimovic personally, it was one to remember. 21 goals in all competitions, with a memorable solo effort against Lyon in the Champions League one of his best. He had finally arrived.

He carried on this form into what would be an injury-hit 2003/04 campaign, scoring 13 league goals as Ajax picked up the Eredivisie once again. But it was also the first time we would really get to see the acrobatic goals and flicked assists using his long legs that we later go on to become famous for, with a scorpion kick against AZ Alkmaar and a cheeky backheel flick against ADO Den Haag sticking in the mind. His performances throughout the campaign also scored him his first-ever Ballon d’Or nomination, with Ibrahimovic eventually finishing 20th in the voting, an incredible feat at the age of just 21.

2004/05 was Zlatan’s last year at Ajax, with the Swede leaving the club for Juventus just three games into the season following interest after his Euro 2004 performances (where he scored that almost-impossible flick against Italy), but also after a reported feud with Ajax teammate Rafael van der Vaart.

Ajax would go on to finish the season trophyless, but Ibrahimovic certainly left the Ajax faithful, and all football fans, with something to remember in his penultimate game for the club. Yes, that goal against NAC Breda. In a 6-2 win over the minnows, Ibrahimovic scored what is considered to be one of the greatest solo goals of all time, in what was a show of pure footballing artistry and skill.

Collecting the ball as he held off a defender, Ibrahimovic initially looked as if he had lost the ball with his poor first touch, but did well to recover and get it back. A feigned shot just outside the box took one Breda player out of the equation, but there was still plenty to be done. Another feigned shot flat-foots the next defender, with Ibrahimovic’s quick shimmy enough to get past him before he also skipped past the thunderous sliding challenge of a third Breda player. Finally making it into the box, the Swede cuts onto his right and looks to finally shoot before unleashing yet another fake shot to leave the defender on his back, before coolly slotting home. Exquisite. What a way to score your final goal for a club.

The Start of the Serie A Love Affair

Ibrahimovic would spend only two years at the Old Lady, winning the Scudetto in both 2004/05 and 2005/06. He would score 16 goals in his first season and earned himself another Ballon d’Or nomination (finishing 14th), but his second year in Turin was one of, if not, the worst of his career. He scored just seven goals in the league and ten in all competitions, but this is widely attributed to manager Fabio Capello using him in a different position and asking to get more involved in build-up play.

The miserable season was compounded when it emerged that Juventus would be stripped of their two league titles due to their role in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Juventus were also relegated to Serie B as a result, and Ibrahimovic decided to make a swift exit.

Inter Milan

Ibrahimovic’s next move wasn’t to another country and league; instead, he made the short journey to the city of Milan, joining Inter for a fee of around €24m. And many argue that this is when Ibrahimovic truly joined the world-class bracket of footballers, as he played a huge role in Inter winning three consecutive Serie A titles in 2006/07, 2007/08, and 2008/09. Alongside the 15 goals in 25 league starts, Ibrahimovic also picked up the Supercoppa Italiana in his first year at the club.

The following year saw Inter win the Scudetto again, but they failed to make a mark in any other competitions, although Ibrahimovic’s contributions were key as he scored 17 league goals in 22 starts, with his last two goals sealing the title for Inter on the final day after being out injured for the previous two months. His third and final campaign in Milan was a repeat of his first, with Inter once again winning a Scudetto-Supercoppa Italiana double, this time under the management of Jose Mourinho. Under the guidance of the Special One, Ibrahimovic hit 25 goals for the first time in his career, which helped him to a 9th-place Ballon d’Or finish.

A long-range free-kick against Fiorentina, a sumptuous lob against Reggina, trademark back-heels against Atalanta and Bologna, all manner of goals were in the striker’s catalogue that season. Year by year, Ibrahimovic had been growing into a better player, and with the clinical goalscoring, power and speed that had been on display this season, it seemed like he was reaching that next level. Could he now, under Mourinho, go on and finally win the trophy that had eluded him up to this point – the Champions League?

Well, he didn’t get to. He was sold to Barcelona for a reported fee of £50m plus Samuel Eto’o in a player+cash deal that summer. ten years since his debut season, and he was now on his fifth club. But he was joining a side that had won the treble just the season before, so things were looking promising.

When Zlatan Joined the Champions of Europe

Zlatan started off well, becoming the first player in Barcelona history to score in his first five games for the club. And it would only get better from there, with Barcelona going on to have a trophy-laden season. They won a La Liga-Supercopa de Espana double, and also a European double.

Yes, Ibrahimovic finally got his hands on continental silverware. The UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup were won by the Blaugrana following their successes the previous season, but no Champions League. Ibrahimovic and Barcelona were, in a funny twist of fate, knocked out in the semi-finals by the Swede’s previous employers, Inter Milan.

His silverware and 21 league goals saw him land another top-10 Ballon d’Or finish, but his time at Barcelona was to come to an end after just a season. He played just one game for the club in 2010/11 before departing on loan for AC Milan, with heavy friction with Pep Guardiola (with Ibrahimovic labelling the Spaniard as “a coward, he is not a man”) and to a lesser extent, Lionel Messi’s main-man status, being the central reasons why he left.

Ibrahimovic’s First Spell at AC Milan

Ibrahimovic won yet another Scudetto that year, helping AC Milan to their first league title since 2003/04 despite a surprisingly low personal tally of just 14 goals. What will sting is that parent club Barcelona would go on to win the Champions League that season, while Milan exited at the round-of-16.

But at Milan, he was undoubtedly the main man again. The following season would see Ibrahimovic have the best goalscoring season yet of his career as he bagged 28 goals in Serie A, but for the first time in many years, he would not end the season with a league title, as Juventus took top spot by just four points. Milan would pick up just the Supercoppa Italiana that year, but for Ibrahimovic, his personal catalogue of beautiful goals was continuing to grow – a fantastic free-kick against Cagliari, stunning long-range efforts against Lecce and Chievo, and fine individual finishes against Inter and Catania were all added to his collection.


Zlatan then somewhat unexpectedly joined newly-moneyed PSG in the summer of 2012, starting off a 4-year stay in the French capital. It was in Paris where he continued to add to his personal trophy and beautiful goal collection, with the Swede hitting arguably the best form of his career during this time. Across four seasons with the French club, he would score 156 goals and lay on 61 assists, finishing every season as the club’s top goalscorer in the league.

Ibrahimovic won the Ligue 1 title in every season at the club, and won a treble of Ligue 1, the Coupe de la Ligue and the Trophee des Champions in his second. In his third and fourth seasons with the Parisians, he would win a domestic quadruple, contributing a total of 80 goals in all competitions across his final two seasons. But still, there was just one thing missing - the Champions League.

Failure to win the tournament was following the Swede around like a bad smell, and that continued throughout his stint at PSG, with the club making it to the quarter-finals during every year of Ibrahimovic’s stay but failing to progress any further. But Ibrahimovic did add to his personal haul of successes, with 10th, 4th, 13th and 11th-place Ballon d’Or finishes during his time in Paris, alongside more stunning goals. Free-kicks against Nice, Sochaux and Stade Brest, fancy flicks against Bastia and Marseille, Panenka penalties against Lyon and St-Etienne, alongside that thunderbolt against Anderlecht in the Champions League.

At this point in his career, Ibrahimovic had 11 league titles with 5 different clubs to his name, and had scored countless stunning goals. But arguably the best moment of his career came in a meaningless international friendly against England just a few months into his first season at PSG, with the Swede scoring all four of Sweden’s goals in a 4-2 win over the Three Lions. It is his fourth goal that is the focus here, with Zlatan turning into peak Zlatan.

Running away from goal, he did the unthinkable and attempted an unfathomable, barely-believable overhead kick from 35 yards in stoppage time that confirmed a stunning win for Sweden in the most insane way. It was a goal, that in my opinion, is within the 10 greatest goals ever scored in the history of the game, and FIFA responded in due course by awarding the effort the 2013 Puskas Award for Goal Of The Year.

When Ibrahimovic Announced His Own Transfer

Now ahead of the 2016/17 season, Ibrahimovic would then make the move to England, signing for Manchester United as a free agent - even announcing his own transfer by tweeting the club emblem on his Twitter account. His first season in England was a memorable one, with Zlatan scoring the winning goal in both the Community Shield and the final of the EFL Cup, and also winning the Europa League with the Red Devils as well.

Unfortunately, his season was cut short by a serious knee injury, but Ibrahimovic still ended the season with silverware and new personal records, the most impressive being that at 35, he became the oldest player to score at least 15 Premier League goals in a single season, ultimately finishing on 17 goals. At 35 years of age! Ibrahimovic would stay in Manchester for one more season, before making the move to the MLS with the LA Galaxy.

Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome

And in typical Ibrahimovic fashion, he arrived in the most spectacular of ways. A full-page advert in the LA Times newspaper in the form of a letter was released, with Ibrahimovic signing the letter as such: “Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome”. And then on his debut, he scored a brace to help his side to a thrilling 4-3 win over city rivals Los Angeles FC. His first goal was typical Ibrahimovic, volleying the ball home from all of 40-yards to level the game. And then in stoppage-time, the Swede stepped up to score the winner in the form of a header and hand all three points to his new side. Absolutely inevitable. Only Zlatan could do such a thing.

He would go on to score 51 more goals for LA Galaxy, while also contributing 15 assists. One of those goals would go on to be his 500th professional career goal, and in typical Zlatan fashion, it was an acrobatic effort from the big man against Toronto FC. In December of 2019, he brought his MLS adventure to an end, and announced his departure with “You wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues… now go back to watching baseball”. His next move saw him opt to rejoin AC Milan, and as we now know, it would be the perfect way to end his career.

The Return of the King

He joined a Milan side in disarray, and who hadn’t won a league title since he initially left the club back in 2011. But this is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and that was about to change.

He made his second debut for the Rossoneri in January, coming on as a substitute against Sampdoria, and scoring his first goal against Cagliari. That strike meant that Ibrahimovic had now scored a goal in each of the last four decades, while his goal against Inter in February meant that he became the oldest goalscorer in Derby della Madonnina history.

Making 18 appearances in his first season back, Ibrahimovic would end up scoring a very respectable ten goals. His second season saw him bag 15 in 19 Serie A outings, and then we go on to the 2021/22 campaign – last season. Ibrahimovic would score just eight goals in 23 league outings, with injuries keeping him out for portions of the season. But still, he kept on breaking records, with his goal against Lazio making him the oldest non-Italian player to score a goal in Serie A history, at 39 years and 344 days.

His goal against Bologna in October made him the fourth Serie A player to score a goal past the age of 40, while his brace against Fiorentina made him the oldest player to score a brace in the division. The club’s stellar performances, assisted by Ibrahimovic’s experience and leadership, saw Milan catapulted into a title race as they tasted defeat just four times until February.

Two nervy wins followed by two draws kept them in contention, but a 1-0 win over Napoli on Matchday 28 in March was key. It propelled Milan up to first place, and they never looked back. From then until the conclusion of the season, Milan dropped points just twice and didn’t lose at all, confirming that the Scudetto would be back in the Rossoneri’s hands for the first time since 2011.

It was somewhat of a miracle, and Ibrahimovic’s role in it cannot be understated. It emerged that the mercurial Swede had played through the pain of another knee injury during the campaign, with an Instagram post afterwards detailing the horrendous pain Zlatan had gone through to keep playing and pushing Milan forward.

He reportedly took more than 20 injections a month, had to take painkillers every day and had to have his knee operated on every week to keep him as fit and available as possible, with the pain making it difficult to sleep. And in the end, was it worth it? Ibrahimovic would most certainly say yes. That warrior-like spirit, forged in his tough upbringing and stints as a young kid against the world in Amsterdam and Turin, had led him and AC Milan to a long-awaited title, which ensures his place in Milan folklore.

But Ibrahimovic’s efforts meant that he would now need proper surgery and a long recovery period to be back in playing condition, with the end of the season providing a welcome break. But this campaign, Zlatan would manage to make just four appearances. His body had just simply had enough. It was time to finish.

How Will He Be Remembered?

And so last Sunday, that is what happened. Bringing an end to an astonishing 24-year career is what Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced he was doing, in a proclamation that shocked and saddened many football fans. He was expected to play at the top level for maybe one or two more years at least, but it was just not to be.

But of course, in typical Ibrahimovic fashion, he had to go and break another record this year despite only playing four matches, with his goal against Udinese in March making him Serie A’s oldest-ever goalscorer at the age of 41 years and 166 days. And even his retirement speech was Zlatan-esque as well, proclaiming to the booing Hellas Verona fans that his retirement speech “is the biggest moment of your year”.

That speech brought an end to a career that began before this century and saw it end with 34 trophies, over 10 of which were domestic league titles. But as well as a legendary club career, Ibrahimovic will almost certainly go down as his country’s best player. 62 goals from 122 international matches supports that notion, as does his 12 Guldbollen (Swedish Player Of The Year) awards and his 15 Swedish Forward Of The Year awards, while he is the only Swede to score in three separate European Championships and helped lead his country to two consecutive World Cup round-of-16 finishes. Add all that to his Puskas Award, 11 Ballon d’Or nominations, mammoth catalogue of unbelievable goals and countless other honours, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is truly one of the greats.

What makes this all the more astonishing is his longevity, with Ibrahimovic being one of the rare few players to have still been playing in a top five league in his 40s. But with his age, his temperament that was so clear in his younger days seems to have disappeared slightly and he seems to have mellowed, allowing him to move into more of a leadership role that was so key in helping Milan to that Scudetto in 2022.

Quite literally the only black mark against Ibrahimovic’s name is the fact that he did not win the Champions League during his storied career, but he is part of a small yet elite group of other football legends including Ronaldo Nazario, Patrick Vieira and Gianluigi Buffon who failed to do so as well. Often, Ibrahimovic’s proclivity to switch clubs every two or three years hampered his chances of winning the Champions League rather than through any major fault of his own, (with his moves between Inter and Barcelona while each team would then go on to win the Champions League the following season a prime example).

Even without the Champions League, Ibrahimovic still has a medal haul that 99.9% of the footballing world does not and will not ever have, and that more than makes up for it. Further cementing his place in history is the fact that he kept his elite goalscoring numbers going well into his later years, with the striker having scored more goals since turning 30 years old (over 300) than he did in the years before his 30th birthday (232 goals). That astonishing statistic is a testament to the sheer talent, ability and determination that the Swede possesses, and is why he will go down as an all-timer.

A 6-foot-5-inch striker of his build should not have had the technical ability that Zlatan possessed, but alas, it only adds further to his legacy and brand that he had such a different dimension to his game. Many people will, and are, put off by his brash personality and comments that go well past the notion of arrogance, but to many others, it all adds further to the legend of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and makes him stand out in the memory that much more.

His footballing CV is incomparable to all but a few other players, and his collection of beautiful goals is unrivalled, goals that most other players would not come close to recreating in multiple lifetimes. He truly was the epitome of being not only a great goalscorer but a scorer of great goals. When once asked what he got his fiancée as an engagement gift, Zlatan Ibrahimovic responded with “What do you mean, present? She got Zlatan”. For all football fans, getting to watch the Swedish superstar play football for all these years was a gift.