Long read: The making of Zlatan – friends and foes reveal the rise behind the legend

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Manchester United

To some people he’s a cult icon; to others, a perpetual self-parody. FourFourTwo speaks to those who know him best in an attempt to understand who Zlatan really is – and whether he can help the Red Devils to rule again 

Additional reporting: Marcus Alves, Arthur Renard, Alberto Santi

Manchester United’s players trudge across the training ground’s manicured lawns to the sanctuary of the changing rooms. But on this nondescript Lancashire morning, the squad’s newest foreign recruit doesn’t join them. Instead he approaches the manager, who’s under pressure to deliver domestic success after another limp campaign.

“I need two players,” he tells his boss, a greying disciplinarian well known for his all-encompassing desire to win.

“What for?” comes the manager’s perplexed reply.

“To practise.”

HONOURS

  • 1998-99 Malmo: None
  • 2001-02 Ajax: Eredivisie, KNVB Cup
  • 2004-05 Juventus: Serie A (Later revoked due to match-fixing scandal)
  • 2006-07 Inter: Serie A, Supercoppa Italia
  • 2009-10 Barcelona: La Liga, Supercopa de Espana, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup
  • 2010-11 Milan: Serie A
  • 2012-13 PSG: Ligue 1

Two keen-as-mustard youth-teamers are soon dispatched to deliver crosses for the newbie, who spends the next half-hour smashing volleys past a helpless goalkeeper with unerring regularity. Word reaches the dressing room, who have already heard about their new team-mate’s reputation as a fierce trainer.

The following day, he has company. It’s the same the day after that. And the next day, and the next day, and in every session for the rest of the season, until the Red Devils lift the Premier League – their first top-flight title since 1967. They’d win three of the following four championships. The one year they didn’t, that fearsome, natural-born winner with the aloof shrug was suspended for a karate kick.

The God of Manchester

Eric Cantona’s impact on Manchester United should not be understated. His arrival in November 1992, at a club that had stagnated since their glory days in the ’60s, inspired nothing short of a revolution. Training had a new zip. Alex Ferguson’s squad had a new belief. Old Trafford had a new king.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Manchester United needed to inject more blue blood into a listing giant. Jose Mourinho knew he had to redress the dour sterility of Louis van Gaal’s reign. Like Ferguson in 1992, he needed a winner with attitude. He needed Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

“I won’t be King of Manchester,” said the 35-year-old Swede with typical bombast, after Cantona had offered the role of prince to his stylistic successor at Old Trafford. Instead: “I’ll be God of Manchester.”

Really, Zlatan? Does someone in the autumn of their career, who has won league titles in four different countries, still have the stomach for the fight to back up his narcissistic caricature? Can one man really turn underachievers into title contenders?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ibrahimovic has contributed 18 goals in his first 30 appearances for United

Tough beginnings

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a far better footballer than he was a thief. Growing up on the notorious Rosengaard estate, east of Malmo, he would pick bike locks for fun because it made him feel alive. One day, young Zlatan and a friend went to Wessels department store, halfway between Rosengaard and downtown Malmo. Immediately raising suspicions by wearing Puffa jackets in the middle of summer, they were caught stealing £120 worth of goods, including four table tennis bats. Ibrahimovic escaped a colossal telling-off from his father, Sefik, but only because he intercepted the letter that had been sent home to inform Sefik of his transgression.

A macho bricklayer-turned-caretaker, Sefik spent most of his time drinking beer and listening to music from his Yugoslav homeland, but he bonded with his son over Jackie Chan movies and old boxing bouts involving Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Mike Tyson. Sefik and Zlatan’s mother, a cleaner named Jurka, had split up when the boy was two years old.

Small, thin and with a big nose, he hated going to Sorgenfriskolan school, largely because he had a lisp and found the idea of having a speech therapist humiliating

“My dad was never there,” Ibra recalled of his early days playing for local side FBK Balkan, populated mainly by immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. “I looked after myself. Maybe it did hurt. I can’t really tell.”

Such independence gave rise to a disrespect for authority that has never deserted him. Small, thin and with a big nose, he hated going to Sorgenfriskolan school, largely because he had a lisp and found the idea of having a speech therapist humiliating.

“I’ve been at this school for 33 years and he is easily in the top five most unruly pupils we have ever had,” Agneta Cederbom, Zlatan’s headmistress at Sorgenfriskolan school, once said. “He was a one-man show – completely outstanding in his field, and a prototype of the kind of child that ends up in serious trouble. I think things could have gone horribly wrong if it hadn’t been for the football.”

Yet football he had, earning his place at Malmo as an 11-year-old after his father had encouraged him to try out.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that he played eight hours of football each day,” Ola Gallstad, Ibrahimovic’s coach at Malmo from 14 until 18, tells FFT. “He was living the dream. He barely missed a training session. He would go home and play at the concrete court by his house.

“He wasn’t exactly someone who got you to think, ‘Oh wow, this guy they must have brought down from heaven.’ Actually, another young guy called Tony Flygare got more attention at the time. It wasn’t until he was 16 that Zlatan really started to stand out.”

Troublemaker

CLUB-CHANGER: - Alfredo di Stefano (Real Madrid)

  • Signed from Colombian club Millonarios after a complicated tug of war with Barcelona, the Blond Arrow established Real Madrid as the world’s greatest club side, able to buy the finest talent. He also opened the floodgates for more South American players to move to Europe, something that soon became commonplace.

Previously, he’d stood out for other reasons. Two parents tried to eject Zlatan – one of only two players of non-Swedish extraction – from the club for shouting at one of his team-mates. Then headbutting him.

“He came from a hard environment out in Rosengaard where you had to stand up for yourself,” Gallstad recalls. “Many have an image of him as ‘the bad guy’ but I don’t think Zlatan was a troublemaker – quite the opposite, in fact. When he was fired up, he’d be the one defending his team, standing up for his mates.”

Gradually, Zlatan became Malmo’s hottest prospect, and it was because of, not in spite of, that anti-Swedish mentality. Most Scandinavians are brought up on the concept of Jantelagen – a social democracy that roughly means everyone is the same – yet Ibra had always been fascinated by Brazilian football’s individualism, especially the brand of it displayed by Ronaldo. Even scoring a goal mattered less than a trick, a flick or a piece of skill.

In 2000 Malmo were at their lowest ebb, relegated to the second tier for the first time in their 90-year history, and Zlatan got his first-team chance. That season, film-makers Magnus and Fredrik Gertten were making Vagen Tillbaka (‘The Road Back’), a documentary about Malmo’s attempt to return to the top flight at the first attempt. Ibrahimovic, who’d made just six first-team appearances, was only 18 years old but already something of a cult hero. He fascinated them.

“We couldn’t use a lot of the Zlatan footage for the documentary, but we kept the tapes in our basement because it was so interesting,” Magnus tells FFT. “After Zlatan wrote his autobiography, we decided to release it. When we met him in those early years, we were really close to him. He was spontaneous and open to us.”

The footage is extraordinary. It perfectly captures a glorious mixture of adolescent bravado and uncertain angst at the future. Ibrahimovic is yet to properly fill out and carries himself like the gawky teenager he is. Shoulders hunched, he’s always irritated, and bounces from unintelligible mutterings on camera to excitable exclamations. Though the confidence is clearly there to see in his on-pitch dribbling, this figure is a million miles away from the uber-confident demi-god we see today.

The footage captures a glorious mixture of adolescent bravado and uncertain angst at the future. Ibrahimovic is yet to properly fill out and carries himself like the gawky teenager he is

“I can be difficult to get along with,” he says in one video. “Sometimes my team-mates get mad at me. It’s part of the game – it’s no fun if you can’t dribble. Football is supposed to be fun. If it isn’t, what’s the point?”

That season, Ibrahimovic established himself as the club’s first-choice striker, finding the net 12 times as the 1979 European Cup runners-up returned to the Swedish top flight. His Malmo team-mates, however, didn’t necessarily buy into Zlatan-mania.

“He has started to think he’s above the team – he’s not the star yet,” sighed captain Hasse Mattisson at one point. “If he starts juggling by the corner flag then all of a sudden he’s the new Diego Maradona. Well, we can do that, too, but we don’t.”

Magnus believes it is that same Swedish mistrust of difference. “Zlatan didn’t accept the hierarchy of how the first team worked,” he says. “I remember someone from another club saying, ‘Who does he think he is?’ I think there was some prejudice against him as well. Perhaps some players thought that Zlatan wouldn’t be smart or strong enough to make it at the top level.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ibrahimovic returned to Malmo while playing for PSG in 2015

Amsterdam calling

Ibra wants to win in every training session, every practice match, and it was one such game that secured his move to Ajax

By the end of that promotion-winning season, 19-year-old Ibrahimovic would be sold to Ajax for €8.7 million. Dressing-room footage shows skipper Mattisson stunned after reading the newspaper, saying only: “Well, I guess I will have to congratulate him.” Grinning from ear to ear, Zlatan bursts into shot with a look on his face that screams: “I told you I was brilliant.”

“I don’t think Mattisson, who I know well, meant anything bad with it,” says Malmo youth-team coach Gallstad. “If a teenager comes in and is a bit tough towards those who are 30, then it’s natural they give him the eye. Not that Zlatan really cared about that.”

Ajax knew what they were getting: a radical, yes, who would always follow his own path, but also a born winner. If Ibrahimovic’s troubles with his older Malmo team-mates signify anything, it’s his unshakable desire to achieve – something reflected in his domestic record. Since leaving Malmo in 2001, he has won 13 of the 15 domestic league titles on offer during his time with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain. The path is pretty clear: wherever Zlatan goes, success inevitably follows.

This is no coincidence. Ibra wants to win in every training session, every practice match, and it was one such game that secured his move to Ajax. Malmo played a friendly against a semi-pro side in March 2001. The goal he scored that day – a solo run past three defenders, capped with a delicate finish – is still on YouTube.

“After watching for 15 minutes, I’d seen enough,” Leo Beenhakker, former Real Madrid and Netherlands manager who at that time was Ajax’s technical director, tells FFT. With Zlatan also on the radar of the club’s Scandinavian scout, John Steen Olsen, for at least 12 months, the Dutch side moved quickly to beat off competition from Roma while Fabio Capello awaited his chairman’s approval.

Beenhakker continues: “When we’d concluded the deal, I told him jokingly, ‘If you f**k me, I f**k you.’ But he looked at me and said, ‘No worries – I’ll not f**k you. I’ll make it happen.’ He showed unquenchable ambition and he had such willpower, like: ‘I will and must succeed.’”

After watching for 15 minutes, I’d seen enough

- Leo Beenhakker, ex-Ajax

Beenhakker wouldn’t be left disappointed. “From the start, he trained very well and busied himself securing a place in the pecking order. I like that. Give me 11 of those personalities and you’ll win titles. They might be difficult off the pitch, but on it they will give everything for you.”

Talk to any of Ibrahimovic’s former team-mates or coaches and they will offer similar training stories. “He’s always been very serious during training,” Roberto Mancini, who managed Ibra at Inter from 2006 to 2008, tells FFT. “He knows he’s the best, and he’ll tell you that, but he’s the go-to guy if you want to win. He can be a tough player to handle, but I never had problems with him because he will make the difference. Every great player wants to win, and Zlatan’s no different.”

“He’s really boring,” laughs ex-Inter left-back Cesar Rodrigues. “You need to watch your every move around him because he’s so demanding. He wants everything to revolve around him; to be the centre of attention.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ibrahimovic "made the difference" at Inter, according to former manager Roberto Mancini