1. Ajax 2-1 Lyon (Sep 17, 2002)
“Zlatan doesn’t do auditions” was the response, delivered with familiar cinematic bluster from the Swedish forward.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had just been asked whether there was any in reports that, as a suckling 17-year-old, he had turned down the chance to join Arsenal. It was a glimpse into the past that gave confirmation – if it were even needed – that Zlatan has always been something of a hero in his own action movie. As a youngster who was still making his way in the game, however, was anybody else watching?
It was a packed house at the Amsterdam Arena in September 2002 when the maestro-elect ignited his 13-year love affair with the Champions League; a sensational solo goal against Lyon when he cut in from the left to spin an outrageous drive off the gloves of Gregory Coupet. It was the first of two strikes for the Swede that wrapped up victory on his European debut and threaded the needle for the rich and sometimes baffling tapestry of Ibra’s journey into superstardom.
The game came after a period of being coldly ostracised at Ajax, with coach Co Adriaanse refusing to warm to the striker. Ibrahimovic’s response was dogged for a young man who'd been frozen out after moving abroad for the first time, showing that he was willing and able to put his footwork before the fanfare.
2. Parma 0-2 Inter (May 18, 2008)
By the time he skidded along the hopelessly waterlogged turf of Parma’s Stadio Ennio Tardini to meet Maicon's looping cross, Ibra was revelling in his hero status in the black-and-blue half of Italy's second city. As the ball dawdled idly in the air and Serie A’s leading goalscorer splashed serenely into the six-yard box, there was plenty of time to reflect on two years’ fine work in Milan.
His debut season at Inter had brought the title with a record-breaking points tally, after the Swede had walked away from Juventus following their banishment to the second tier after the Calciopoli scandal.
Inter – who only needed a point against Parma to wrap up a second successive Scudetto – led 1-0 when their Brazilian right-back's scooped delivery dropped onto Ibra’s left foot. The finish was worthy of any championship-winning celebration, a slick way to set the seal on six personal titles in seven stellar seasons.
3. Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona (Mar 31, 2010)
There was a time when Ibrahimovic’s reputation in England was not what it was in Europe; on these shores, he was the hot-headed and temperamental maverick who performed only when his humours were in balance and the occasion suited his tender sensitivities. The first 45 minutes of Barcelona’s visit to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal in the 2009/10 Champions League quarter-finals did much to cast that reputation in even richer tones, as chances for the much-maligned frontman came and went. His goal in the first minute of the second half would never have occurred had Manuel Almunia not abandoned his post in trademark fashion and raced into the full-back position, but the gentle finish into an unguarded goal was one that a less incisive marksman may not have managed.
Zlatan’s second was the work of a striker full of confidence, bamboozling a flat-footed defence with insidious movement and silencing those churlish enough to have dismissed him as a fair-weather loafer.
4. Inter 0-1 Milan (Nov 14, 2010)
When Ibra struck the winning spot-kick in this Derby della Madonnina in 2010, he did so from a penalty spot he knew well, and into a net he’d breached more than two dozen times before. The only thing different this time was the shirt on his back. Forty-one players have represented both Milan and Inter in the famous derby, but few have meant more to the two sets of fans than the Swede. Zlatan struck 66 goals in three seasons at Inter, and although he never threatened to match those numbers for the Rossoneri, he was still a popular figure among the club's supporters. This winning penalty, thrashed into the bottom corner with the certainty of a man who had foreseen the heavy cost of miscalculation, bore worthy testimony to Ibrahimovic’s broad shoulders and ability to perform under pressure.
5. Sweden 4-2 England (Nov 14, 2012)
If Sweden’s Friends Arena in Solna stands for a thousand years, it will always have Zlatan Ibrahimovic ingrained into its DNA. The stadium was just 20 minutes into its football-hosting life when Sweden’s captain delivered a baptising goal, an instinctive toe-poke from six yards out against England. It was what happened next, however, that elevated a great night in Swedish history to mythological status. It was a performance that illuminated Zlatan from every angle. His second goal, a deft cushion with the chest followed by a drilled near-post finish, brought no celebration, too concerned was the talisman with the injury he had accidentally inflicted upon England defender Gary Cahill in the build-up.
His third was a free-kick planted into the only part of the goal that it could possibly have reached, while his fourth defied categorisation: a flying scissor kick, the kind that even the world’s most iconic football stadia have never seen but which Solna had been gifted on the opening night.
Four goals which turned a special occasion in the history of his country’s football into an extraordinary event, a genuine ‘I was there’ moment for those of his countrymen fortunate enough to have witnessed it.
- 10 • 9 • 8 • 7 • 6 • 5 • 4 • 3 • 2 • 1
- The small print: how we chose the #FFT100 list
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