The Nomad Footballer Series: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Nomad: a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.

Clubs: Malmö, Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan (loan), AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, LA Galaxy, AC Milan

Countries played in: 7

Most professional footballers go through their whole career only having a handful of clubs. In fact, some manage to spend their whole career at one club. Being a one-club man is something than endears football players to a fan base and is generally seen as the ultimate display of loyalty. However, what about those players that don’t manage to settle. The players who don’t find a home in their short professional career and instead jump from club to club in a pursuit of challenges and success. This series looks at those players who are footballing nomads; wanderers.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Arguably the man with the biggest ego in football, Ibrahimovic’s career perhaps best reflects the belief he has in his ability to succeed anywhere. Ibrahimovic has played for ten different clubs and is currently in his third spell at Italian giants AC Milan at the spritely age of 39. He has been willing to challenge himself all over Europe for his whole career, as well as in America, and has been prolific throughout. He is also one of the most decorated active footballers, with 31 trophies to his name, however the Champions League trophy has always eluded the Swedish striker. Despite his advanced years, Ibrahimovic is showing no signs of slowing down, firing a resurgent AC Milan side to second in Serie A currently, with his 15 goals in 17 league appearances.

Ibrahimovic has played in seven countries in his career to date and has played for a number of the most prestigious cubs in Europe, including the three most famous clubs in Italy: AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus. With the exception of Malmö, where Ibrahimovic started his career, all the European clubs that the Swede has played for have won the Champions League; which makes this fact that he has never lifted the famous trophy all the more remarkable.

Ibrahimovic signed his first professional contract with hometown Swedish club Malmö in 1996 and was promoted to the first team ahead of the 1999 season. In what would be very inaccurate foreshadowing of how Ibrahimovic’s career would go, Malmö were relegated in Ibrahimovic’s first season for the first team, with the youngster scoring one goal in six appearances. However, they would be promoted at the first attempt, with Ibrahimovic’s 12 goals a large contributory factor towards this. It would not be long before the impressive young striker would leave his homeland, however, signing for Ajax as a 20-year old in 2001. Ibrahimovic’s early career could have taken a very different path, though. As a 17-year old the striker visited Arsenal with Arsene Wenger very keen on the prospect of signing him. Wenger’s mistake was to ask Ibrahimovic to have a trial, which is routine for many young players. Ibrahimovic did not take kindly to this, later claiming that: “Arsene Wenger asked me to have a trial with Arsenal when I was 17. I turned it down. Zlatan doesn’t do auditions”.

Ibrahimovic would have three successful years in Amsterdam, scoring 35 goals in 74 Eredevisie games after a slow start, winning the league title twice before departing to Juventus. After a positive first season in Italy, he would find himself played in a deeper role in his second season and was often accused of going missing in big games. The club would win the Serie A title in each of Ibrahimovic’s two seasons, but these titles would be revoked due to a match-fixing scandal that also saw Juventus relegated to Serie B. Ibrahimovic was understandably not keen on the prospect of playing it Italy’s second tier and moved on to fellow Italian giants Inter Milan.

At Inter Ibrahimovic would win three consecutive Serie A titles, meaning that he had won the Italian league five years on the bounce, not accounting for the stripping of the first two titles. The striker would conjure a remarkable strike rate of 57 league goals in 88 games in his three seasons at Inter and would win the league’s Golden Boot award, finishing on 25 league goals for the season. He would leave for Barcelona in 2009 and Inter would win the Champions League as part of a Jose Mourinho inspired domestic treble in his absence.

Ibrahimovic’s time in Barcelona would be short and not very sweet. After signing for a reported fee of £59 million plus Samuel Eto’o; who would be pivotal in Inter’s Champions League triumph. Despite a positive start, becoming the first player to score in their first five league games for the club, things would soon turn sour. Following Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final defeat to former club Inter, Ibrahimovic exploded at Pep Guardiola in the changing room, writing in his book that he yelled: “you haven’t got any balls” and that the manager could “go to hell”. The Sweden striker had already grown frustrated at his impact being limited due to Lionel Messi’s desire to play through the middle and having to accommodate the Argentinian magician, claiming that the club had bought a Ferrari but drove it like a Fiat. The relationship between manager and player had been damaged beyond repair and Guardiola would send Ibrahimovic on loan to AC Milan after one season in Spain. After the loan the deal was made permanent.

As he had done everywhere in his career, Ibrahimovic scored goals. In his loan season at AC Milan he managed 14 league goals and once he had made the move permanent he would repay his employers with 28 league goals, again winning him the Golden Boot. Even in his fateful spell at Barcelona he had still managed to score at a decent rate, managing 21 goals in all competitions in his solitary season. However, Ibrahimovic’s stay at AC Milan would be brief, and in 2012 he would sign for French club Paris Saint-Germain after just one permanent season at AC Milan.

Four devastating seasons followed, with Ibrahimovic scoring at a relentless rate. The six foot five inch battering ram of a centre-forward managed 113 goals in 122 league games; repeatedly showing all who watched just how good he was. Ibrahimovic added 12 trophies to his collection in Paris, but again the Champions League would desert him. Aged 34, and with many fans and pundits feeling it was too late, Ibrahimovic graced the Premier League with his presence. He signed as a free agent for Manchester United on a year-long contract with the option of an extra year.

Contrary to his time in Barcelona. Ibrahimovic’s time in Manchester was fleeting but enjoyable for all parties. In his debut season at the club Ibrahimovic registered 28 goals in all competitions, including two in the final of the EFL Cup, which United won. United would also win the Europa League that year, although Ibrahimovic would not feature past the quarter-final stage due to a serious knee injury. Many feared that, given Ibrahimovic’s age, this injury could end the striker’s career. However, United extended Ibrahimovic’s contract an extra year and he returned sooner than expected in November 2017. Soon after returning he became the first player to feature for seven different clubs in the Champions League.

Ibrahimovic would move on in March 2018 and join MLS side LA Galaxy, becoming probably the highest profile player to go to America since David Beckham famously made the move in 2007. Despite his advancing years he would take the MLS by storm, scoring 52 goals in 56 appearances before announcing he was leaving in 2019 via Twitter, saying: “You wanted Zlatan. I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues…now go back to watch baseball”. A return to AC Milan followed where he has been ever since, scoring as consistently as ever as the focal point of the club’s attack.

Ibrahimovic is a player who has always backed up his seemingly arrogant statements to the point that they are no longer viewed as arrogant, just fact. He will claim to do something and then he will proceed to do it. His constant referring of himself in the third person as ‘Zlatan’ gives him a God-like presence in football and it is one that he has no doubt earned, with over 500 goals in his career. His arrogance has made him difficult for teammates and opponents alike throughout his career, with the bullish striker having as many enemies as he does friends in football. Training ground bust-ups and fallouts with managers have been sides stories in a glittering career that is still going strong.

With the Sweden all-time record goal scorer recently coming out of international retirement in time for the delayed UEFA Euro 2021 tournament it would appear he feels he has unfinished business after five years away from the national team. After starting his career in the nineties, Ibrahimovic has scored in four different decades. A remarkable feat for anyone, but when you consider the level Ibrahimovic has been playing at for almost his whole career it defies belief. Don’t be surprised if he plays at the top level beyond the age of 40, and definitely don’t be surprised if he moves on to yet another club before his career ends.

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