Three colours of Zlatan, Part I: Juventus

“I want out of here!” barked a young, egoistic Swede to his agent.

In that case, you can move to Turin.”

After a heated volley of curse words and slurs, Mino Raiola uttered a magic word that, in an instant, captured the curiosity of Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Juventus.

It’s August 2004 and the climax of the summer transfer window; a time of tension and urgency throughout Europe as clubs scour the market with aspirations of landing influential players capable of assisting a championship run. Already a renowned star, Ibrahimovic’s exploits in Amsterdam under Ronald Koeman had garnered considerable praise.

In mid-August, familiar foes revisited in a friendly match as Sweden sought revenge over the Netherlands, who had dealt them a knockout blow in the Euro 2004 quarter-finals. Receiving the ball at the edge of the penalty area, Ibrahimovic was met by four Dutchmen, one of which happened to be Ajax teammate Rafael van der Vaart. Powering his way through a barrage of defenders, Ibrahimovic identified an unmarked Mattias Jonsson, who’d given Sweden the 1-0 advantage. In his rear view mirror laid van der Vaart, lying in agony having suffered a torn ankle ligament inflicted by Zlatan.

Koeman’s stars battled in the wake of the incident. Zlatan pleaded his innocence, but van der Vaart was having none of it. This run-in scuppered any plans Koeman had for the pair playing together up front in the upcoming campaign. Favouritism amongst supporters visibly aligned with their golden boy van der Vaart.  Ajax fans labelled their Swedish hotshot a villain, but that was before the mastery and magic that took place inside Amsterdam Arena on 22 August 2004.

Distractions often expose the human element of your average footballer, but Ibrahimovic is no ordinary footballer; he marvels under scrutiny and pressure situations. And, in the wake of the rift, NAC Breda became the latest victim of his brilliance. Dribbling past what seemed like an entire opposing 11, he christened the home crowd with a world-class ensemble, a classic goal resembling that of a Diego Maradona strike. Ibrahimovic won over his biggest critics at Amsterdam Arena yet, in that moment of artistry, the virtuoso’s stunner felt secondary to what would follow shortly after.

The following night, Ibrahimovic and Raiola attended a Dutch soccer gala in Amsterdam to honour team-mate Maxwell for receiving an award for the league’s best player. Rather than enjoying the festivities, Raiola frantically worked to bring Ibrahimovic to Italy. After much stress, panic and heavy pressure from Zlatan to meet his demands, a transfer came to fruition.

On the back of a €16 million move to Juventus, Ibrahimovic had plenty to prove in Italy. Most would feel the weight of wearing the black and white of the ‘Old Lady.’ Zlatan, however, embraced the pressure that came with the territory. His arrogance, rooted in a difficult upbringing, laid the foundation for success. The cockiness and overconfidence he so overtly demonstrated was his ticket out of the Malmö ghettos.

Juventus boss Fabio Capello’s coaching style always emphasised toughness and strict player management. ‘Il Sergente di Ferro,’ as Zlatan described Capello in his autobiography, converted the Swede from an architect to a brutish enforcer. On the pitch, Ibrahimovic’s football would be tailored to suit Italian football, yet his self-indulgent attitude remained intact.

Zlatan beats to his own drum. He does things in his own way, no matter who may be offended in the process. Early on, learning the Italian language did not feel all that necessary, not because he didn’t find it beneficial to his adaptation, but rather because he preferred learning on the pitch itself, where it would come most naturally to him.

On 12 September 2004 Ibrahimovic made his debut in Bianconero. Starting from the bench, he replaced reigning European Player of the Year Pavel Nedved – also a Raiola client – after the break. To Capello, Ibrahimovic’s 6’5”, 185-pound physique met Italian football standard, and in the 69th minute, he resisted several Brescia defenders and struck the back of the net.

Sparked by several outstanding performances, Capello did the unthinkable and the unpopular: he benched “Il Pinturicchio”, Alessandro Del Piero, for the Swedish striker. In most cases, dropping a club icon like Del Piero would enrage tifosi. This time, however, the hype for the former Ajax man was well and live. Inside the Stadio delle Alpi, roars of “Ibra! Ibra!” echoed in the Turin air. Ibrahimovic’s domination of Italy was off and running, captivating the hearts of the Bianconeri faithful. In January, however, he fell into a sudden state of obscurity, going scoreless in five consecutive matches.

Capello’s personality rejected overconfidence. He built players up, but also knocked them down a peg, almost to ensure each individual stayed grounded, hungry and unsatisfied with the status quo. Ibrahimovic is not the kind of player to suffer prolonged slumps. Capello could have quite easily called on Del Piero to return as a starter during this spell, though instead, he used this time of struggle to teach Ibrahimovic a lesson.

“You remind me of a player I coached at Milan,” explained Capello who had served two separate stints as Rossoneri head coach. Marco van Basten was a comparison Ibrahimovic heard so many times that it almost became a personal insult to his own ego. “You’re not a new van Basten. You’ve got your own style,” Capello said. “Study his movements. Absorb them. Learn from them.”


Zlatan and Capello: Together at Juventus

From mid-January through to March, Zlatan found the back of the net once. Determined to break this funk, he harnessed his anger to ignite Juventus in a locking of horns with AC Milan for the Scudetto. In the final stretch of the 2004-05 campaign, he caught fire, scoring five goals in a span of eight days—a brace against Dino Zoff’s Viola at the Stadio Artemio Franchi and a trippletta at home against Brescia. Unfortunately for Juventus, Ibrahimovic could not lift the club in the Champions League, as they fell to Liverpool in the quarter-finals. Nonetheless, the ‘Old Lady’ forged ahead hoping to claim another Serie A trophy.

Stadio San Siro would set the stage to decide the championship on 18 May 2005, except Ibrahimovic’s appeal of a three-match ban for punching Internazionale’s Ivan Cordoba weeks prior was overruled. Juventus would have to carry on without him.

At the time, Milan were considered European royalty. They had defeated Juventus two years prior in the Champions League final and would eventually clinch a date with Liverpool in Istanbul. Despite this, and their star-studded line-up including the likes of 2004 Ballon d’Or winner Andriy Shevchenko, Kaká, Paolo Maldini and Pippo Inzaghi, Juventus found the match-winner courtesy of David Trézéguet. Later, a 2-0 win over Parma, partnered with Milan dropping points in late May, crowned Juventus as champions of Italy. As a Serie A debutant, Ibrahimovic finished with an impressive 16 goals.

The following season, he and Raiola wished to open talks over negotiating a new contract. Although he fell victim to the sophomore slump, (ten goals in 47 appearances through all competitions), and Juventus fell short once again for Champions League supremacy, Turin felt like home.

After the club lifted their second straight league title, director Luciano Moggi dodged these contract discussions, perhaps to protect Ibrahimovic’s career as a result of what would come. Calciopoli, a scandal scaring several Italian clubs, delivered a near fatal blow to Juventus. Along with having their Champions League spot revoked, they were stripped of both Scudetti, relegated to Serie B, and slapped with a nine-point deduction for the 2006-07 season.

Fearful for their respective careers, several prominent stars sought asylum from the controversy. Defenders Lillian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta moved to Barcelona. Fabio Cannavaro, who arrived the same summer as Ibrahimovic, packed his bags with Emerson to join Real Madrid, and Patrick Vieira linked up with Roberto Mancini’s Inter.

The winning skeleton once destined for a dynasty saw significant subtractions. Only the core of Gianluigi Buffon, Del Piero, Nedved and Trezeguet remained intact under new head coach Didier Deschamps. Valiant efforts to persuade Ibrahimovic to stay fell short of the mark.

Raiola began fielding phone calls from Inter president Massimo Moratti and Milan’s Silvio Berlusconi. Completely unnerved by the reality of playing in Serie B, Ibrahimovic’s activity with the club was limited to training, avoiding matches altogether. Revealed in “I Am Zlatan,” Deschamps even exploded at Ibrahimovic, who sat in the training room with his Playstation prior to the team’s travel for an away match.

Uncertainty and anxiety were finally laid to waste. Before Ariedo Braida, Berlusconi and Milan could ‘schmooze’ the superstar at Ristorante Giannino, Zlatan accepted Inter sporting director Marco Branca’s offer, agreeing to a 27 million euro transfer to swap bianconero for nerazzurro.

Ibrahimovic set off on his next adventure in Italy, prematurely cutting his Juventus chapter short as a result of doubt over his future.

Stay tuned for the Prossima Fermata: Milano

Words by Matthew Santangelo: @Matt_Santange lo

‘Matthew is an Italian football writer who co-founded the blog, Milan Brothers. He is also an editor and columnist at Italian Football Daily.’