Ibrahimovic void could be felt for a long time
Not everyone quite ‘got’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swedish striker, who retired last week at the age of 41, almost trademarked arrogance during his long and distinguished career, and for some, that may have created a target on his back.
Ibrahimovic, of course, would actively seek that conflict out. And yet, even if you couldn’t stomach him, it is impossible not to respect him. Until he joined Manchester United in 2017, he had won a league title in every season during his career, emerging at Malmo, cutting his teeth at Ajax, thriving in Italy with Juventus, Inter and Milan, and gaining immortality at Paris Saint-Germain. Even his season at Barcelona, often billed as his dream move that turned into a nightmare, saw him net 19 La Liga goals in the way to lifting the title, including the winner in El Clasico against their bitter rivals Real Madrid.
That inner confidence was obvious from a young age. Ibrahimovic famously refused to show Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger what he could do after talks over a move when he was 21.
“I didn’t have a trial – I came for talks with Arsenal,” he said.
“But Wenger wanted me to do a trial and I said: ‘I don’t do trials. You know who I am.”
Perhaps the most crucial point in his caress with regards the acceptance of his quality on a more universal scale was when he moved to Old Trafford. Call it what you will, but there is an undoubted sense within the English football discourse that proof you can ‘do it in the Premier League’ is a prerequisite to greatness. Not everybody adheres to it, but Ibrahimovic who that when he reunited with Jose Mourinho, whom he’d played under at Inter, he had to quieten a few critics.
His demeanour and perceived lack of impact against English teams in the Champions League had created a reputation for being overrated. An incredible bicycle kick in a match for Sweden against England turned a few heads, but it wasn’t until he scored 25 goals and helped the Red Devils to win the EFL Cup and Europa League, at the age of 35, that really turned the tide. He was initially released after a cruciales ligament injury but returned; most players would have retired then and there, but he came back.
Yes, his return came in Major League Soccer with LA Galaxy. Many assumed he was winding down then, only for him to return to Europe with Milan and add another title to his collection. He’s been under appreciated for much of his career, but very few players can match his consistency levels and ability to face down adversity like him. That arrogance that he has made part of his brand has been about much more than marketing; it has given him the drive to succeed where few others have. Not many players reach their late thirties but Ibrahimovic went into his forties without ever really slowing down. Such an achievement may take some time to get the kind of credit it deserves, but surely propels him right into the conversation of modern footballing greats.
It is a conversation that is particularly pertinent this summer. With Lionel Messi leaving Europe to join Inter Miami and Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante joining Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudí Arabia, there is a greater sense that an era is ending than normal this season.
Football is moving on from strikers, in a sense. Perhaps Erling Haaland holds the keys to a bright future for number nines, but many of the best in the world over the past ten years are the same names and they are approaching the end or have already retired. Finding a player with Ibrahimovic’s skillset; he was tall, strong and physical but contained the technique and control of someone much more diminutive,
After years of being criticised and put down, the void he will leave could be felt for a long time now.