By Tom Dean
So Zlatan Ibrahimović is to reprise his role as the main man at AC Milan, having been part of the last team to stop Juventus from winning Serie A almost a decade ago.
Speculation about the 38-year-old’s next move had been swirling since leaving LA Galaxy in November but it has now been confirmed that he will once again become an AC Milan player, until at least the end of this season.
When things didn’t work out at Barcelona, the Swede was loaned to the Italian giants for the 2010-11 season and was handed the number 11 shirt which, coupled with a new ponytail hairstyle and goatee combination, became iconic immediately.
Ibrahimović helped AC Milan win the Serie A title that year and a second season saw him top the goalscoring charts with 28 in just 32 league games. However, Juventus narrowly came out on top and Ibra moved on to Paris Saint-Germain.
Given the stature and the sheer volume of the clubs he’s played for, Ibrahimović has done incredibly well to secure himself a conventional striker’s number for the vast majority of his career. That won’t be the case this time around as the prolific striker will wear 21 for the Rossoneri, but he has even turned that to his advantage by claiming that he is doing it to show that he is three times the player Cristiano Ronaldo is!
Born and raised in Malmo, Sweden, it was at his home-town club where it all took off for the teenager, who idolised Ronaldo and Gabriel Batistuta growing up.
He was given the number 27 shirt for his debut in 1999 but the young man could not save his boyhood team from relegation – it would only go upwards for him from there though.
In 2000 he adopted, the number 9 shirt and set in motion a chain of events that would see him go on to wear iconic shirts at some (most) of the biggest clubs in the world.
Arsène Wenger unsuccessfully invited Ibrahimović for trials at Arsenal, and even had a number 9 Gunners shirt made up with the Swede’s name on it, but he ultimately joined Dutch giants Ajax when he left Sweden and was handed the 9 there – no audition required for that.
The striker joined the likes Rafael van der Vaart, Jonny Heitinga, Mido and Maxwell who, like so many before them, were all laying the foundations of their careers with the Dutch giants.
Three seasons yielded 48 goals in 110 games, including an incredible Maradona-like solo effort against NAC Breda in 2004 but a falling out with the club resulted in a sudden sale at the beginning of the 2004-05 season.
It was probably about this time that Ibrahimovic decided to wisely invest in a trophy cabinet.
At that time, Serie A was perhaps the most competitive and exciting league in Europe and an environment that perfectly suited Ibrahimović as he slotted seamlessly into the gold-embossed number 9.
While at Ajax, the Swede was surrounded by developing players but at Juventus he found himself kicking it with world-class ballers who were in the prime of their careers. Pavel Nedved had just won the Ballon d’Or, Alessandro Del Piero was the captain and strike partner you dream about and Gianluigi Buffon was unbeatable in goal and so Ibra thrived.
However, their back-to-back Serie A titles were stripped after accusations of match-fixing and one of the finest teams ever assembled was relegated to Serie B.
For Ibra, the solution was simple – sign for the next-best team, the team he later revealed to have supported as a child, and turn them into the best team in Italy.
And he did it all with the number 8 on his back – it’s a matter of opinion of course and if you’ve got one on the subject, you probably feel the same about Wayne Rooney’s early days at Manchester United – but it looked great.
Unlike Rooney however, a more befitting number never became available as Julio Cruz occupied the number 9 for the duration of his stay – and so Ibra, his hairband and 8 became iconic in the blue half of Milan.
Just as he did at Juventus, Ibra looked right at home among some of the greatest players in the world and ended up forming a lucrative strike partnership with Brazilian Adriano that resulted in three successive Serie A titles.
Whatever form of Ibrahimović you prefer, his football at Inter was exquisite and earned him a lucrative move to Barcelona for the 2009-10 – the worst move of his career.
The agreement between the two clubs saw Samuel Eto’o move the other way and Ibra inherit the number 9 shirt the Cameroonian had just scored 130 Barcelona goals in. Incidentally, Eto’o took 9 at Inter, with Cruz having departed.
The plan was to make Ibra, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry the most deadly strike-force ever compiled in the history of the sport – quite a good plan in theory. Unfortunately, manager Pep Guardiola and the 6′ 5″ striker never saw eye to eye and the situation became untenable meaning there was only to be one season at the Nou Camp.
Despite it being the most turbulent season of his career, Ibra has previously waxed lyrical about playing in one of the best teams of all time, he scored 22 goals and won a La Liga medal.
The solution to the problem was for the Swede to be loaned out to AC Milan at a time when Samba stars Robinho, Ronaldinho and Thiago Silva were all on the club’s books.
Club legend Filippo Inzaghi was also seeing out his final days as a player in the number 9 at that point and midfielder Gennaro Gattuso was more conventionally wearing the number 8 – so it was to be a foray into pastures new with 11 on his back.
Having missed out on the opportunity to lift the Champions League trophy with both Inter and Barcelona, Ibra stated upon joining that it has was his main aim to do so with Milan.
However, after his new side were eliminated by Tottenham he would end up watching Barcelona win the competition without him – although yet another Serie A title will have helped soften the blow.
Milan made the signing permanent and Ibra repaid them by finishing as top goalscorer in the league with 28 – not enough, however, to keep Juventus from sealing the first of what would end up now tallying as eight consecutive titles.
The 2011 Qatari takeover at Paris Saint Germain had begun to take hold by the 2012-13 season and the new owners decided that they would make Ibrahimović their landmark signing. The next four years, in both monetary and goalscoring terms, was largely a numbers game and was to be the first time he would wear the number 10 shirt for a club.
Ibrahimović had always preferred to wear the number for Sweden but was yet to don it at club level. He would have to wait until halfway through his first season, when the departure of Nenê freed it up. Prior to that, Ibrahimović wore 18 and Uefa rules meant that he had to wear that for the remainder of the season in Europe.
As PSG’s arsenal of stars grew, so did Ibra’s status as one of the most feared strikers in Europe although many would argue that he was playing in a sub-standard division during the peak of his powers. The Qataris made it well known that their main aim was to win the Champions League while taking the Ligue 1 title became a formality each year.
In just four years, he became the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, which has since been surpassed by former strike partner Edinson Cavani, and made his final appearance for the club in May 2016 having won 12 trophies all in all – none of which were the coveted European crown.
By now, Ibrahimović had built a persona for himself that many perceived to be based on arrogance and unfounded due to the league he was playing football in.
His answer was to join Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in a shock move and despite question marks over his age and never having played Premier League football – he became Old Trafford’s new number 9.
And the 2016/17 season could barely have gone better for him, netting 28 times on his way to winning the Europa League and EFL Cup while also becoming the oldest player ever to score more than 15 goals in a Premier League season at 35 years and 125 days.
His season was however cut short by a bad injury and looked to have condemned his Manchester United career with the striker only committed to a one-year deal.
After a summer of speculation it was announced that the Swede would re-sign. Romelu Lukaku had joined and taken the number 9 shirt but 10 was free, with Wayne Rooney having returned to Goodison Park. After eventually recovering from injury, Ibra made history by becoming the first player to represent seven different clubs in the Champions League but it would be his last achievement at Old Trafford as his contract was terminated in March 2018.
Like many high-profile players before him, it was time for the big man to do it in America and announced his arrival at L.A Galaxy by placing a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times entitled: “Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome.”
With fellow former Barcelona man Giovanni Dos Santos already occupying the number 10, Ibrahimovic quickly became their 9 in shining armour. Just as they had in Paris, the goals rained down in California and Ibra was celebrated (mostly by himself) as the saviour of the MLS.
However, 2018 was the first year he had ended without a trophy since 2002 and 2019 so having had his fun with the Americans, he decided to call it a day in November 2019.
At 38 and with so much smoke and mirrors going on, there was much uncertainty around his next move. But with such a close affinity to Italian football and Milan’s ongoing crisis, reuniting makes sense – although it is hard to imagine things going back to the way they once were.
His old number 11 shirt is currently, and unimpressively being worn by Fabio Borini while the other frequently favoured 9 and 10 jerseys are both occupied by Krzysztof Piątek and Hakan Çalhanoğlu respectively.
Goal.com reported that Ibrahimović would therefore wear the number 21 when he retured to action at the San Siro and so it proved, with the number’s similarity to his ZI initials also believed to be a factor. Whether he will switch if his stay in Milan extends beyond the summer is something to look out for.
Zlatan Ibrahimović – the prodigal son of Swedish football – probably not many out there that would disagree with that, unless you’re a Henrik Larsson or Tomas Brolin fanatic.
He scored his first goal wearing the number 16, played in his first World Cup wearing 21 but by the time Euro 2004 came around he had cemented himself as Sweden’s number 10 and that’s the way things would stay.
After a turbulent start to life with the national team, that included being sent home from camp and a two-year goal drought, Ibrahimovic was eventually able to combine his skill and experience to become captain ahead of Euro 2012.
His four goals against England in. 2012, including a Puskas Award winning 35-yard overhead kick, was perhaps his most impressive display in a yellow and blue shirt but he was ultimately unable to lead Sweden to the dizzying heights of major the major tournament finals during the 90s.
After a disappointing Euro 2016, he announced his retirement having played 116 times and scored a record 62 goals for his country.