Year Zero: The making of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Ajax, 2002/03)
As a player with 31 footballing honours, it's a strange quirk that Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s real breakthrough season was one that finished without a major trophy.
Throughout his career, the charismatic Swede has won the Eredivisie, Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1 and most recently the Europa League. Yet he won just the season-opening Dutch Super Cup during the 2002/03 season; the year he truly made his name on the European scene.
The coach didn’t talk to me. He didn’t talk to anyone
Even in that Super Cup game, Ibrahimovic only came off the bench for 15 minutes, having failed to fully establish himself in a mixed campaign with Ajax in 2001/02. That was his first season in the Netherlands following a transfer from hometown club Malmo for 80m Swedish krona (£7.2m).
During his 2001-02 Dutch debut, Ibrahimovic barely resembled the man who would go on to score more than 400 goals for Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, as he struggled with tactics and his new surroundings after leaving Sweden for the first time. “There was a lot of new stuff, and I didn’t understand the language and the culture – and the coach [Co Adriaanse] didn’t talk to me,” the striker says in his autobiography. “He didn’t talk to anyone.”
Things had started improving when Ronald Koeman arrived at the Amsterdam Arena to replace Adriaanse, and 2001-02 did end on a high, as Ibrahimovic came off the bench to score a goal which won the Dutch Cup final. Still, he was far from a permanent fixture in the team when the 2002-03 season began.
Zlatan hits the big stage
I was next to Zlatan. Then: ‘Bang!’ Mido had thrown a pair of scissors with all his strength, hitting the wall as Ibra ducked, missing his eye by a whisker
It was not until September 2003 that Ibrahimovic would get his chance in the first XI. Indeed, if it was not for injuries to key players and a dressing-room row, the legendary striker may not have even played in the game in which he displayed his talent on the biggest stage. At the start of the season Mido – the Egyptian striker who went on to play for Tottenham, Middlesbrough and West Ham – was preferred down the middle.
After he was benched for a match with PSV Eindhoven, however, Mido lost his temper with the rest of the squad, and particularly with Ibrahimovic. “They kept arguing all the way down the tunnel,” defender Andre Bergdolmo said. “They were sat opposite each other in the dressing room. I was next to Zlatan. Then: ‘Bang!’ Mido had thrown a pair of scissors with all his strength, hitting the wall as Ibra ducked, missing his eye by a whisker.”
“We all stopped. Zlatan’s face went white, his eyes turned black and he just flipped out. Other players and I jumped at him, trying to avoid a fight. If we hadn’t been there, anything could have happened.”
The incident has become legendary. “I still have those scissors in a draw! I knew this was something special,” club coach David Endt recalled. “The next day, we arrived for training more than a little worried. And who was sat there together but Zlatan and Mido, with their arms around each other? Mido laughed: ‘I could have killed you.’ And Ibrahimovic laughed with him. They solved the problem like hard lads in the street, with respect and understanding. They have that similar uncontrollable personality.”
Mido would rightly receive the harsher punishment – a fine and club suspension ahead of their opening Champions League game against Lyon. With Ajax’s star player Rafael van der Vaart sidelined through injury, Ibrahimovic was the only viable option up front. It would be his first full Champions League game – and an opportunity he grabbed with both hands.
While Ibrahimovic had struggled for consistency in the Eredivisie, he took to the European stage almost immediately. Receiving a pass from club legend Jari Litmanen, the Swede seemed to have run himself into a dead end as he approached the byline with two defenders in pursuit. Squaring up to them, he used his quick feet to poke the ball past the pair and squeeze through the tight gap, before unleashing a pinpoint shot past Gregory Coupet in the Lyon goal.
It was the kind of magic we would get used to seeing regularly later in Ibrahimovic’s career, and a goal the Swede himself would later describe as: “Not just a goal, but beautiful too.” No small praise considering the piledrivers and acrobatic efforts he would put away as his career unfolded.
Yet there was no time for Ibrahimovic to congratulate himself in the moment. Minutes later, Ajax team-mate Victor Sikora presented him with a much more straightforward chance, cutting the ball back after some fine work on the right flank for the striker to score into an unguarded net. The Dutch side held on for a 2-1 win despite going down to 10 men – and with a brace on his Champions League debut, Ibrahimovic had announced himself.
Thriving in Europe
While he had wowed on his European debut, Ibrahimovic still struggled for game time in the league, as Van der Vaart and Mido were often preferred. In the same month as his Lyon brace however, the Swede did manage to score his first league goals of the season, against RBC Roosendaal and NAC Breda. He also scored a vital equaliser for his national team – knocking himself out in getting the decisive touch to earn a valuable point against Hungary.
“I was gone for five or 10 seconds and when I woke up, the players were standing in a circle around me and I didn't understand anything,” Ibrahimovic said. He was beginning to win over the Swedish fans.
It was the Champions League that seemed to agree most with the 6ft 5in forward, however. After his explosive opening match, he was able to keep his spot for European games, and repaid Koeman’s faith with a series of impressive performances. These included netting a crucial goal to help earn a draw against Rosenberg at the end of October – a point that ensured Ajax pipped Lyon to qualification for the next round.