Those who dared to shape Zlatan: Examining the key influences in Ibrahimovic’s career
After his three-match suspension for elbowing Tyrone Mings, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will return to action for Manchester United on Tuesday as it faces Everton, whose manager, Ronald Koeman, was head coach at Ajax during the Swede’s turbulent time there between 2002 and 2004.
Ibrahimovic got on reasonably well with Koeman, but he hated the club’s sporting director, Louis van Gaal. He has never hidden the fact that he sees his present manager and Van Gaal’s successor at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho, as a far greater influence on his career.
As Ibrahimovic contemplates whether to commit to United and one of his favorite coaches for longer or perhaps take his career to the United States and MLS, it’s worth looking at his foundation and casting an eye on how he became the person and talent he is.
Here are the six greatest influences over the duration of Ibrahimovic’s career.
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic was 9, his father was granted custody of him while his elder sister Sanela lived with his mother. Sefik, a Bosnian Muslim, had been a bricklayer in Bijelina before moving to Sweden where he worked as a caretaker. He doted on his children and was fiercely protective of them, but he drank heavily and Ibrahimovic describes in his autobiography how he would often come home from school and search vainly for food in the cupboards before pouring some of his father’s beer away to try to ease the problem.
Sefik’s influence on Zlatan, though, is clear. He was ferociously stubborn–on one occasion, he dragged a bed several miles home from Ikea rather than pay the delivery charge–skeptical of authority and had a romantic attachment to the former Yugoslavia expressed through folk music. He also inspired Zlatan’s fascination for martial arts, through an obsessive interest in boxing and the films of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, something that seems to have developed after his brother, Zlatan’s Uncle Sapko, who had been a champion boxer in Yugoslavia, drowned while swimming in the Neretva River. And it was Sefik who, when he gave up on his idea that Zlatan should be a lawyer, persuaded him to join Malmo FF at the age of 11.
Ibrahimovic impressed at Malmo, helping the club to promotion back to Allsvenskan and generating significant publicity and the interest of a number of clubs. It was Ajax, though, that pursued him most relentlessly, in the person of its then-sporting director, Leo Beenhakker. The cigar-smoking former Real Madrid manager saw Ibrahimovic score a brilliant individual goal in a friendly against the Norwegian side Moss in a friendly in La Manga and immediately impressed Ibrahimovic with his hard-man attitude: “If you f**k with me,” he told him in their first conversation, “I’ll f**k you two times back.”
Ibrahimovic was 19 and joined Ajax for a Swedish record fee of 85 million kronor ($9.5 million).
Ibrahimovic was sitting outside Malmo central railway station waiting for his brother to leave the bureau de change when he first noticed Helena Seger. She was getting out of a taxi and was clearly furious about something. Immediately, he was taken by her attitude. Then he saw her in Stockholm at the Café Opera and, as a conversational gambit, asked if she was from Malmo. From then on, he kept on seeing her around Malmo, driving her black Mercedes SLK. He managed to get her number and texted her. They would meet for lunch and chat.
Then, during Christmas 2002, Ibrahimovic fell ill and felt he couldn’t deal with his family. He rang Helena, she invited him to go to hers and nursed him back to health. As his career at Ajax ran into difficulties, she was there to support him. She is 11 years older than him and, it’s clear from his autobiography, made him grow up and accept responsibility. They’ve been together ever since and have two children.
Ibrahimovic first met Mino Raiola during the 2003-04 season in the sushi restaurant at the elegant Okura Hotel in Amsterdam. The agent was not what the forward had expected, just “a bloke in jeans and a Nike T-shirt–and that belly, like one of the guys in The Sopranos.” But Raiola understood Ibrahimovic and, when he was going off the rails at Ajax, persuaded him to get rid of his Porsche Turbo (he gave it to Raiola) and knuckle down in training. In the summer of 2004, Raiola secured Ibrahimovic a move to Juventus, and he has negotiated all his transfers since.
Capello was desperate for Ibrahimovic to join him at Juventus, so much so that when the club president, Luciano Moggi, sad that Ibrahimovic and David Trezeguet couldn’t play together, he publicly disagreed with him. Ibrahimovic liked the sense of authority he projected and under him became far more consistent than he had been at Ajax. He also changed his style of play, becoming far more of a box player–in part because Capello made him watch a video of Marco van Basten, a striker to whom he’d been repeatedly compared.
Capello also insisted that Ibrahimovic bulk up, getting him to work in the gym and be far more careful about his diet. Without that, it’s doubtful he’d have been able to play at such a high level into his mid-30s.
Ibrahimovic has no problem with strict coaches, providing they don’t start talking about philosophies or systems: he needs to feel he can express his individuality. He has been scathing about both van Gaal and Pep Guardiola–“the frightened little over-thinker”–but he adores Mourinho, “a guy I was basically willing to die for.”
Mourinho coached him for only one season at Inter Milan, but that was enough to leave an impression. No matter how many brilliant goals Ibrahimovic scored–and he was Serie A’s top scorer that season–Mourinho would look on dispassionately, something that drove the striker to greater and greater heights trying to impress him.
Their reunion at Manchester United was something both men wanted.