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Zlatan: A ‘Lion’s Career told through Football Shirts (1999-2023)

Zlatan ‘Ibra’ Ibrahimović can be considered no less than a footballing legend. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest strikers of all time – and with good reason!

Football is the playground for so many talents to showcase their skills on the world stage, but very few are able to achieve the longevity that makes a great player into a legend of the game. Despite this, one stands out from the crowd not only for their elite performance levels over multiple decades but their reputation as a PR dream (or nightmare). Yes, it could only be Zlatan.

How Good was Zlatan?

Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Zlatan referred to himself as a lion in reference to his age of 35 after leading Manchester United to 2017 League Cup glory vs Southampton with two fine finishes. Legend, king and god were just some of his other self–appointed nicknames.

However, these headline grabbing titles were justified regularly by his relentless form on the pitch. England fans in particular will hold not so fond memories of his outrageous overhead kick from 32 yards out which looped over Joe Hart in goal.

Sweden stunned the Three Lions on that day thanks to a lion of their own. Ironic, isn’t it?

International success was never quite within reach, but the same cannot be said for Zlatan’s domestic career. He tallied up 34 trophies with a contribution of 500 club goals spanning across three different decades and 8 teams. In this article, Hobby F.C. will attempt to bring this career to life by recapturing Zlatan’s most iconic moments through the shirts he achieved them in – and yes, there are quite a few!

Malmö FF (1999-01)

A budding, young striker that would go on to become one of football’s greats. Zlatan signed his first professional contract with boyhood Swedish side Malmö before progressing to their senior team in 1999. A keen admirer of Brazilian legend Ronaldo, as are we at Hobby FC – read all about it here.

Malmo offered a brief spell for Zlatan to fly under the radar, to learn and develop before he would be thrust into the European spotlight. However, he did catch the eye of little known Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who offered a trial at the age of 17.

Perhaps the signs of an outspoken and strong-minded individual were always there as he turned down the offer, later recalling the event with the famous line “Zlatan doesn’t do Auditions”.

The decision to stay in Sweden despite lucrative offers was perhaps not surprising. Zlatan was finally settled and surrounded by a close knit squad that would resemble a family. He openly admits his upbringing was turbulent with his mother reported to be a violent figure, his father a drinker.

His childhood is said to have shaped the personality he possesses today, a strong, warrior-like figure but with a hidden vulnerability and sense of inferiority. This perhaps explains his passionate, sometimes anger-driven performances on the pitch that would catch the attention of several European giants in the future.

Meanwhile, the sky blue colours of his Malmo shirt can look like a reflection of what his impending career would be. Nothing but bright skies and new horizons… and a little bit of dirt!

Ajax (2001-04)

Ajax marked the arrival of Zlatan in Europe’s spotlight, although not immediately. It was the technical director that pushed the move through after watching a friendly performance but there was little playing time available to the new signing until the arrival of a new manager.

It was the 02/03 season where he began to make his mark, scoring a double in his Champion’s League debut against then French-Champions Lyon. 

Soon after, mentions in the same sentence as legends would start to come. A dazzling solo run and finish in the league against NAC Breda would draw comparisons to the late Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane – quite the compliment for a new kid on the block! 

During this time, he donned one of the most recognisable and collectible AFC Ajax shirts of all time – shorting a thick, red strip down the centre of his frame, with white pillars towards the arms.

The away version had the same design and Adidas sponsor, but switched the colours for a navy midriff and a gold outline. Out of the two, it would appear that the current market prefers the second version as a general fashion piece – annoyingly the price is looking to reflect that. Click here to see what the current eBay listing world is looking like for this shirt.

Juventus (2004-06)

On to Italy, a productive yet turbulent time in Zlatan’s early career.

Injuries to forwards and some eye catching Ajax moments saw him solidify a spot in the Juventus starting 11 where he hit the ground running with 16 goals in the first season.

Despite a good return, Zlatan’s talent was beginning to open up financial opportunities for his associates. Famed agent Mino Raiola reportedly fabricated a reported rejection of a €70Million transfer bid by the club with the aim of increasing his player’s market value.

Raiola later admitted to making up the story himself but would play a key part in Zlatan’s next move as he struggled to adapt to a second season switch to a play-maker role.

This unfolded during the verdict of Juventus’ scandal in relation to bribery of referees, resulting in two titles being stripped and a relegation to Serie B. Zlatan decided to jump the sinking ship with his agent threatening legal intervention if he wasn’t released from his contract. 

Inter Milan (2006-09)

It was in black and blue that Zlatan’s career really gained traction. A four year spell saw him gain a reputation as one of Europe’s highest ranked players.

Perhaps the moment he reached this status was during the 2007 Milan Derby, his first taste of this ever-fierce battle. Unphased by the magnitude of the occasion, Zlatan dominated the goal scoring with a hattrick, but never forgot his abilities as a play-maker honed from back in his Juve days.

His shirt number 8 helped to cement that in Turin, and he kept that going at Inter, which had apparently upset a few ultras on the way who didn’t see him as a typical midfielder. But dropping deep in that royal blue and black silhouette became a sight for sore eyes at the San Siro.

Rising from the shadow of then legends of the game such as Crespo and Adriano, he continued his emphatic form to take home the league’s footballer of the year award in consecutive seasons.

However, more significantly, it caught the eye of many fan’s pick for the greatest team and manager combination in history. So long as they got something in return…

Barcelona (2009-11)

A seismic transfer (which saw a club-favourite go the opposite way in return), a crowd of 60,000 fans to greet him, but this fairytale would not have a happy ending.

Zlatan picked up in typical fashion for Barca, a Club Word Cup to his name and a place in Uefa’s Team of the Year for 2009. However, injuries, red cards and fallouts would define his spell in Catalunya. Barcelona were defeated by who other than Inter Milan in the Champion’s League Semi Final.

This would see personalities clash as Zlatan, outraged by his role in the system lambasted Guardiola. He later revealed his words that day – “You bought a Ferrari but you drive it like a Fiat”.

The combination that promised so be a revelation ultimately ended in Zlatan returning to the Italian capital, but this time in different coloured stripes. Which quite a few players have done before.

AC Milan (2010-12 & 2020-23)

Back in Milan, but this time in the iconic black and red stripes. Crespo, Maldini, Kaka, Nesta. These are the stature of player that come to mind when you think of this shirt. Oh, and we’ve written a feature article on some of the most recognisable AC Milan shirts of all time, so make sure you check it out!

It is a must-have in any enthusiasts collectio. Personally it draws an instant connection to the poignant image of Rui Costa and Materazzi absorbing the chaotic scenes of the Milan Derby. Arguably the most iconic picture ever to be taken in the history of Italian calico.

The move represented a fresh start for Zlatan after his troubled time in Spain.

Signing after an initial loan period, he really started to rediscover his emphatic goal scoring form from his previous stint in Serie A. A winning goal in the Milan derby, a bicycle kick in true Zlatan fashion and a golden boot with 28 league goals were among his highlights with the club.

It was perhaps these memories that paved the way for a return in 2020, contributing to a first league title in 11 years, both of which Zlatan was a part of. At 41 years old, it was time to draw the curtain on a career that epitomises longevity at the highest level of football

So that shirt in particular – the one from his latest era – is one that represents the most favourable memories for Rossoneri fans. In the meantime, he had business to tend to elsewhere.

Paris Saint-Germain (2012-16)

PSG represented a new challenge in Zlatan’s career, but a move with every intention of competing for football’s highest honours. Fostered greatly by the presence of Mr. Eyebrow; Carlo Ancelotti.

He arrived in Paris to be a part of an up and coming project and he certainly made an impact with 30 league goals to take home another golden boot in his first season.

Significantly, PSG won their first Ligue 1 title since 1994 that year which would mark a momentum swing in France’s top division. Zlatan was able to back up his form with another title and golden boot in season two followed by a historic domestic quadruple the following year. Rather fittingly, he left the club as their all time top scorer, but by no means was he ready to call time just yet.

Manchester United (2016-18)

When a player has spent so many successful years in Europe, fans often call for them to come to the Premier league to truly prove their worth. And that’s something the ‘lion’ couldn’t really ignore.

Driven by the hunger to be the best, Zlatan finally arrived in England at none other than Manchester United. Another shirt that (in itself) draws memories from some of the Premier League’s most iconic moments, and Zlatan would add some of his own to that list. 

Fuelled by the doubters, he hit the ground running with a debut goal to win the Community Shield. He would also score on his league debut, hit a double to win the League Cup and play a vital role in the clubs run to Europa League glory. Putting one over on his previous club in the process.

There was almost an inevitability about the goals he notched up that season, despite some key games out with injury. His last year however, became plagued by some of his issues and perhaps he used the Chevrolet sponsor on his stomach as a source of inspiration for his last challenge.

LA Galaxy (2018-19)

“Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome”.

Zlatan Ibrahimović in the LA Times prior to his LA Galaxy transfer in 2018

It is not uncommon for legends of the game to take to the USA in the twilight of their career. As we mentioned in an article here about some of the most iconic MLS shirts available on the market. However, very few have had such a short term impact on the league as Zlatan managed.

He energised an otherwise average Galaxy side, memorably scoring two to overturn a three goal deficit in the inaugural LA derby vs LAFC. He even managed to be nominated for a Puskás award during his spell with a trademark acrobatic effort. True to his personality, he announced his departure from the club through twitter in a simply put message, “You wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues…Now go back to watch baseball”.

Conclusion

Thinking back to the most complete player careers of all time, it is difficult to find one that tops this. A career spanning more than 20 years across multiple different countries, countless goals and awards all at an elite level of competition.

Most impressive is Zlatan’s ability to pick up in the majority of his leagues as the target for everyone else to chase in terms of goals. There were whispers prior to his arrival in Manchester that he would not cope with the pace and competitiveness of the English game, but if anything at the age of 35 that was his most impressive form. 

It was a career fuelled by a challenging childhood, fighting for attention among multiple siblings in an underprivileged environment. The determination to rise from this brutal upbringing is evident in his route to the top. It has been a privilege to witness such a record-breaking career. The one outlier, international glory.

I wonder, is this something he will feel was just one success that was beyond reach?