Zlatan Ibrahimović was always a fine footballer and no doubt a big personality too, but when he scored that goal for Ajax in 2004, Zlatan the character was born.
By most metrics, Zlatan Ibrahimović is not the sort of footballer who should ever have become a meme.
The Swede has long had the confidence of someone like Nicklas Bendtner, but the ability to pair that confidence with actual ability ought to act as a buffer.
Similarly, he has long shown an interest in advancing his own profile, in a comparable style to another former Arsenal man in Emmanuel Frimpong, but that profile ought to have enough of an association with actual football to stop the idea of the man overtaking the man himself.
Put simply, the transition from Zlatan Ibrahimović the footballer into Zlatan the character has arrived for one reason alone: the man himself bringing the willpower and hard work of his football career into a second life as his own publicist (alongside a similarly devoted team, of course).
As for when that transition began, some will point to his four-goal haul against England in 2012, headlined by a long-range bicycle kick, but that was just the Oscar-bait performance to cap an accomplished career. The making of the man came nearly a decade earlier.
The clincher against England wasn’t just good, it was cinematic, the close of the 10-minute monologue which the director (also Zlatan) later reveals was entirely improvised. And who are we to question the man who opened his own autobiography with a Shakespearean cast of characters?
However, when you’re the writer, actor and director you have a level of freedom which the supporting cast lacks. That’s not to take away from a once-in-a-lifetime goal, but there’s something more impressive about pulling off a starring performance where, not only are you not the main man but some members of the cast and crew are actively rooting against you.
Ahead of Ajax’s game against NAC Breda in August 2004, their number nine had reportedly fallen out with captain and golden boy Rafael van der Vaart.
“Rafael van der Vaart wasn’t speaking to me because he said I injured him in training on purpose,” he would later tell FourFourTwo, denying his team-mate’s claim.
In those circumstances more than any other, you might want to keep a relatively low profile. Well, most people might.
However, Ibrahimović knew he was close to completing a move to Juventus (he would move two weeks later), and wanted to give Dutch football something to remember him by.
Some late-blooming footballers will kick into gear after growing into their own bodies, but the goal against NAC shows Ibrahimović growing into his own confidence.
He would end this game with two goals and four assists in a 6-2 victory, and while he hardly struggled in front of goal in the previous two seasons, this was the sort of dominance we would come to associate with the man later in his career.
Indeed, this could well have ended up as another assist had his first touch been more composed and allowed him to feed the team-mate bursting through on his right.
Instead, with that avenue closed off, he ended up forced – by his own mindset if not position of his team-mates and opponents – to do everything himself.
When we rack our brains and try to recall the best solo goals, most begin with the goalscorer deep within his own half of the pitch.
Whether it’s the elegance and flair of George Weah against Verona or the pace and power of Gareth Bale against Barcelona, the classic solo goal always involves point A and point B being at least 40-50 yards away from one another.
In contrast, part of the beauty of Zlatan’s goal against NAC comes from the fact that his starting position and the place from where he shoots are just a short pass away from one another.
Strength and close control are a big part of many great goals, but it’s rarer for those two factors to be quite so visible.
Indeed, if you’re going to pivot from good footballer to comic-book superhero, a defender racing in to tackle you and bouncing off as if there’s a forcefield around you is as good an origin story as any.
From this point on, the Ibrahimović who took a heavy first touch is gone, and the Zlatan who recovered it has taken his place.
Those Ajax players who might have previously called for the ball have realised there’s no need to even make a run, such is his clear determination to finish the job he hadn’t even immediately been aware of having started.
His movement isn’t even especially subtle, yet it feels like his feet are calling out to the NAC defenders, telling them when they’re allowed to wave a leg.
Of course when that moment arrives he’s already long gone, but that’s not enough to stop him beating the same player for a second time, as if holding a pendulum in front of his opponent’s face.
Even with the final flourish, the moment at which you’re about to give a grudging nod and mutter “fair fucks” under your breath, he doesn’t even give you that luxury.
Just as you’re preparing to applaud the burst beyond two trailing defenders and calm finish, he reminds us that he’s still not ready to score the goal we thought he was going to score. Even watching the goal back now, more than 13 years on, that last-minute drag back can come as a surprise.
This may be in part because it’s not just unexpected but also unnecessary. The goal against England was extravagant but also, arguably, the most efficient route to goal from where he was stood.
This, instead, was a man knowing the simple finish was there but adding an extra step, perhaps to keep himself on his toes.
We’d be talking about the goal for years on end even without that moment, but its addition feels like a personal touch, an acknowledgement that he was in control of the narrative even more than we might like to admit.
By Tom Victor
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