Zlatan Ibrahimovics career started when he was playing professional football with the Swedish club Malmö FF in the 1999 season (Allsvenskan, the Swedish top division, begins in spring, not in autumn like in Central and Southern Europe). During his stay at the club, Arsène Wenger tried to persuade him to join Arsenal but Malmö did not allow the transfer. This was the start of Zlatan Ibrahimovics career which would be both long and great.
Other than Wenger, Leo Beenhakker also showed interest in Zlatan after observing him practicing in La Manga, Spain. Watching Zlatan score an amazing goal in a training game against Norwegian side Moss, Beenhakker became convinced of Zlatan’s talent. He went back to Amsterdam and on March 22, 2001, a deal between Ajax and Malmö regarding Zlatan’s transfer to Amsterdam was announced and in July of the same year, he joined Ajax for record-breaking €7.8 million. The deal is by far the most lucrative any Swedish side has struck and it really kicked off Zlatan Ibrahimovics career.
Under manager Co Adriaanse, Zlatan received little exposure. Adriaanse was sacked in November 29, however, and Zlatan’s fortune started to change with the arrival of Ronald Koeman. Following Koeman’s arrival, Zlatan was consistently chosen in Ajax’s starting lineup. Ajax then went on to win the Eredivisie.
The next year Zlatan Ibrahimovics career took of further as Zlatan had a major breakthrough at the biggest stage of European football, UEFA Champions League. In his first game ever in the Champions League against French Champions Olympique Lyonnais, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored two goals, including a true masterpiece when he dribbled past Brazilian Edmilson before shooting past the goalkeeper from a difficult angle. Zlatan helped Ajax make it all the way to the quarter-finals where they were narrowly beaten by eventual winners A.C. Milan.
The Champions League success however took its toll in the domestic league and Ajax finished second behind PSV. In the 2002-2003 season, Ajax was back at the top of Eredivisie, though. Zlatan continued to do well both in the league and, in particular, in the Champions League, scoring a new spectacular goal against Celta Vigo. In a Group H match against Milan on September 16, 2003, Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso was sent off late in second-half injury time after backhanding Zlatan in the face. Unfortunately, Ajax did not advance past the group stage.
After a fine season Zlatan was well prepeared for Euro 2004 in Portugal, and joined a fine Swedish team featuring Celtic star Henrik Larsson and Arsenal winger Fredrik Ljungberg. Zlatan did well, scoring a penalty goal against Bulgaria and rounding off a fine performance against the solid defence of Italy by scoring an amazing overtime equaliser. He jumped up in the air and kicked the ball one-and-a-half meter above the ground with his backheel into Buffon’s top corner. Zlatan is well known for his agility and his ability to score goals with his feet high up in the air, and perhaps this stems from the fact that he practised taekwondo as a youth. The taekwondo training as a youth has really helped Zlatan Ibrahimovics career.
The tournament ended, though, with Sweden losing to Holland on penalties in the quarterfinals. Zlatan was one of the Swedes who missed a penalty.
The next season started brightly for Zlatan, though. On August 22, he scored an incredible goal against NAC Breda which was eventually voted the best goal of the year by Eurosport’s viewers. Maradona-like, he dribbled past more or less the entire defence before beating the goalkeeper and calmly putting the ball in the back of the net. On August 31, 2004, the final day of the summer transfer window, Zlatan moved from Ajax to Juventus for a €19 million transfer fee. Surprisingly, he made it rather quickly in to the starting eleven and Zlatan Ibrahimovics career took yet another big step forward. This was due in part to the fact that the team’s top scorer,David Trezeguet was injured, in part to Zlatan being one of coach Fabio Capello’s favourite players (Capello had tried to get him already at Roma), but mostly thanks to Zlatan’s fine performances. He scored 16 goals, and this in a league that is considered to be very hard for strikers, especially foreign striker. Juventus eventually won a second consecutive Scudetto, but were later stripped of both as part of the verdicts of the summer 2006 match-fixing scandal.
Near the end of the Serie A season Juve reportedly rejected a €70 million bid for him from Spanish power Real Madrid. This later proved to be nothing more than a PR stunt initiated by Zlatan’s agent in order to raise his market value. Nonetheless, he was voted the player of the season in 2004-05 by the fans of Juventus. Zlatan was nominated to the 2005 FIFA world player of the year along with thirty other top players and finished as number eight. On November 14, 2005, he was awarded Guldbollen, a prize given to the best Swedish footballer of the year.
The following season was a more turbulent one for Zlatan Ibrahimovics career. He had always had problems with Swedish journalists and these problems mounted as Zlatan’s success (and, wicked tongues say, his ego) grew. During autumn, Zlatan’s role in Juventus attack changed, and he became less of a goalscorer. He moved more and more to the sidelines, taking much part in the build-up play, especially as a target player, where he could use his exceptional physical strength. He thus started to make more assists than goals.
Even though he played well, arguably the best football of Zlatan Ibrahimovics career, criticism against the lack of goals started to increase. And in spring, when Zlatan lost most of his fine form in the game outside the penalty area as well, criticism rose to a thunderstorm, both in Italy, were fans and journalists preferred Juve icon Alessandro del Piero, often sidelined for Zlatan’s benefit, and in Sweden. Even so, Zlatan retained his place in the starting eleven and Juve eventually won Serie A again. Zlatan was also considered arrogant and troublesome, especially in Sweden where these feelings were strengthened due to several incidents between Zlatan and Swedish media.
Zlatan’s performances had been a major reason why Sweden qualified to the 2006 World Cup. Both Sweden and Zlatan was though to under-achieve in the tournament, though. Zlatan was substituted at half time in one game, against Paraguay, and did in another, against England, due to a groin injury. How much his performances in the other games was affected by this is hard to know. Sweden was knocked out in the 2nd round by Germany.
In the summer of 2006, Juve and Zlatan lost the league titles of the two previous seasons, due to the excessive cheating initiated by General Manager Luciano Moggi. Juve was also relegated to Serie B. The new staff tried to persuade Zlatan, and other top players, to stay in Juventus, but Zlatan and his agent was adamant to move. Mino Raiola even threatened legal action in order to extricate Zlatan from his contract. He signed a four-year contract to Inter Milan for € 24.8 million on August 10, 2006.
Not long after his awaited transfer to Seria A giants Inter, Zlatan was called up to the Sweden squad to face Liechtenstein in the European Championship Qualifiers. While the squad was gathered at the players hotel, Zlatan and his teammates Christian Wilhelmsson and Olof Mellberg decided to break the squad curfew by going out to a nearby nightclub. Notable is that none of the players stated above had anything to drink. The Swedish Football Association was quick to ban the three players for their unprofessional behavior and when both Mellberg and Wilhelmsson instantly apologized for their misconduct, Zlatan demanded an apology from the Association, stating that the punishment had been too harsh. When not given the requested apology, Zlatan declared that he wouldn’t be playing for the Swedish national team and therefor was withdrawn from the squads upcoming games against both competent Iceland and group giants Spain.