ON the 1st July 2016, an enormous billboard in Manchester city centre displayed Zlatan Ibrahimovic with outstretched arms on a red background. It read, “Manchester, Welcome to Zlatan”.
That was the moment when Manchester United fans from around the world rejoiced as months of speculation concluded with the mercurial striker moving to the red side of the city on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain. When leaving PSG, he said, “I came like a king, left like a legend” and truly so, as he became their all-time leading goal-scorer after only four seasons in the French capital.
But despite all that, there were reservations among sections of the critics, media, and fans alike, regarding how well a 34-year-old striker could perform in the highly taxing Premier League. This month, he signed for LA Galaxy after mutually terminating his contract with Manchester United. He left after scoring 28 goals from 46 appearances in his debut season, being one of only 8 players in the history of the giant club to do so.
While Jose Mourinho’s battle to construct a world-beating United side continues, I began to question what made Ibrahimovic such a successful signing and among so many other ‘what ifs’ that plague the mind of a football fan, one more found its place – what if United had signed him in 2012?
To answer this question, I needed to delve into the complex psyche of Zlatan. He was born to a Croatian mother and a Bosnian father, both of whom had immigrated to Sweden, where they had met. As a child, he had a tough childhood, with his family being torn down the middle, as his mother got custody of his sister while he continued to live with his father.
His sister Sanela liked it better with his mother, while he found it more comfortable to reside with his father. Till this day, he shares a close bond with his sister. At his father’s, the kitchen counter would be strewn with beer cans, while the old man would hiss at Zlatan’s friends whenever they would come to ask him to play.
When he would come home hungry, he would be met with a loaf of bread, a can of milk and a few Carlsberg’s in the fridge. Sometimes, Carlsberg would be the only thing left. Years later, after marrying Swedish model Helena, he would ask her to always keep the fridge stocked.
He described his father as a ‘weekend-dad’, somebody who would buy him hamburger and chips but could only spend time on the weekends, as he would be bone tired during rest of the week. Nevertheless, his love for the old man didn’t seem to fade and he continues to argue for him, saying that he understood how hard it was for him and that he would die fighting, for his kids.
Whether by death or by separation, when a child loses the influence of one or both parents from his/her life, he starts to become his own parent. Seemingly, that’s what happened with Zlatan. He started to make decisions for himself, feed himself and protect himself.
In order to move around, go to school or his football club, he started stealing bikes. Even while at Malmo FF; the club where he was first noticed by European giants Ajax, he once unknowingly stole the bike of an assistant coach. Only to confess later and bring it back to him.
While he continued to build walls around him with anger, he continued to struggle with internal pain from the lack of a family, lack of money and a lack of love. Instead of crying for it, he decided to fight for it. So, everywhere we went, he fought. When he played on the pitch, he fought his coach, his teammates and last but not least, his opponents. When parents of other children would complain, he’d simply switch clubs and start playing for another one. Unknown to him, football was a way out.
Ironically, he didn’t choose the sport, rather it was the only choice left to him, since it didn’t cost as much as others, like Hockey.
It’s not even that he fell in love with the game, but pangs of emptiness inside of him propelled him to crave that “wow” whenever, he pulled off a dribble or scored a back-heel goal. It gave him that little bit of life, which he needed but never acknowledged, lest it grew hold of him. His propensity to take the centre-stage saw him being dropped to the bench while at youth teams since he didn’t pass the ball. Why would he? For him, the pitch was somewhere that he could finally achieve something.
But that drive for more, for winning, gave him his first league title, with Ajax, one of 32 major trophies in a career spanning 19 years. His temper did not mellow over the years, but he became more adept at using it, whether on the football pitch or off it.
During his time at FC Barcelona, Pep Guardiola wanted him to conform to the ways of the Blaugrana. He told him that at Camp Nou, no one brought Ferraris and Porsches to training. Zlatan described it as a school. He mentioned that without his rage and anger on the field, how would he be Ibrahimovic?
The reason why his fury and rage is so central to being Zlatan is down to the fact that that’s how he learned to play. While others fell in love with the game, for him it became a playground to enforce it. His fury protected him and made him the warrior that he is today.
He once claimed that for Mourinho, he would willingly lay his life down on the field. He wasn’t the first one to say it, but it shows the mentality that Zlatan brought to the United dressing room and wherever else he played (barring Barcelona perhaps).
In 2016, Manchester United and the fans were reeling from possession-hungry football played by Louis Van Gaal’s side. The team seemingly didn’t know what to do with the ball, once they had it. The Dutch coach was brought in to play the same brand of football that lit up the 2014 World Cup, but United during his years there were far from it.
The Red Devils’ last title was in 2012-13 and after the great Scott retired, fans were left with poor football and disappointing results. Their only silverware until 2016 was an FA Cup triumph, Van Gaal’s legacy at the club.
Only Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick remained of the stalwarts that had helped Sir Alex Ferguson rebuild the European giant. United missed the arrogance, brashness and fearlessness on the pitch that Giggs, Scholes and co displayed. The club needed a change and in came to serial winner Jose Mourinho.
With him, he brought back Paul Pogba and introduced the Premier League to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede scored on his professional debut for the club, against Leicester in the Community Shield. During his short time at United, he propelled the team to a Europa League quarterfinal (which they went on to win), EFL Cup and the Community Shield.
His debut season was cut short by an injury that stopped him from being the first player to score more than 30 goals in a single season in United shirt, since Robin Van Persie. While his aggression on the pitch was there for all to view and the cameras to capture, very few would have known why Mourinho loved United and more importantly, why United needed Zlatan.
He wasn’t just a goal-scorer or a marksman. He fired up the dressing room and showed character on and off the pitch. During his time at Malmo, he once flew into a rage and head-butted an opponent. Later, he stole a cycle to visit the player and apologized to him.
While he was recuperating during his first season, United offered him full wages, but Ibrahimovic refused. It might be that Mourinho and the United senior management, saw more than just numbers when they re-signed him. Maybe, they saw the perfect role model for the dressing room.
He came from the same mould as Roy Keane and Eric Cantona, and while they all won trophies galore at the club, the Swede’ career-ending injury deprived him of the league title and Champions League glory that he craved.
He brought back that which was missing from United’s game in the last few years – that anger, that rage, and that passion, which drove him from being a poor bike thief in Malmo to a legendary footballer for the world to remember. When you strip away the funny quotes, TV interviews, Instagram stories, you’ll find a footballer, who was perhaps, the best signing United have made since Van Persie. He was built to fight and United had been lacking the fight for some time.
On the face of it though, he didn’t fit the bill. His reputation preceded him and he was thought to be too much of a risk for the Premier League. He was rightly the Odd-Perfect Signing.
Had United signed him in 2012 before PSG tempted him, Manchester United could have had a different history. Had his debut season not been cut short by that gruesome and unfortunate injury, his legacy at United could have been very different.