There was a time, long ago, when the name Zlatan Ibrahimovic meant very little to any of us. Long before the tiresome Chuck Norris-esque jokes cropped up, prior to comparisons with lions and other animas of prey, and most importantly, before the big Swede got in on the act himself.
Some find him hysterical, others have grown weary of this cringey persona. But one thing cannot be denied – Ibrahimovic was, has been, and still is, an absolutely fantastic footballer. One of the greatest, most eccentric and naturally-gifted strikers of his generation, the Swedish star has been banging them in from all over the pitch for more than two decades now.
It was at Ajax where Ibrahimovic really rose into the public eye, demonstrating all the attributes of a clinical forward, with a tendency for the spectacular. And his fame largely stemmed from one breathtaking slalom against NAC Breda on 22 August 2004, when he scored one of the greatest goals in football history.
Have you ever played against someone much, much better than you at a football video game, so much so that you genuinely can’t get the ball off them? With an incredible amount of pent-up rage and anger you didn’t quite know existed, you dive into sliding tackle after sliding tackle, carefree whether you take the ball, man, both or neither.
Your opponent, possibly playing with only one hand, begins to twist and turn from side to side, making steady progress forwards as you scream at your useless little men on the TV screen.
That’s probably how those Breda defenders felt when trying to bring down Ibrahimovic on that day. This boy, in his early 20s, was teaching them a lesson.
Collecting the ball with his back to goal just outside the penalty area, the big Swede’s first touch unusually lets him down. But he shows the grit and strength of a solid centre-back to stick his boot in the line of fire, stopping the defender from hammering the ball away. Instead, it dies flat at his feet, and from that moment on, it’s forever under his spell.
Ibrahimovic promptly turns, now facing the Breda goal, defenders’ knees knocking all over the shop. He takes a couple of steps forward, draws two markers towards him, and with a classic feigned shot, he’s nipped inside and left them for dead. Still plenty to do, though.
Now steering the ball with his left peg and bearing down on the D, the ex-Barcelona man offers another dummy, but this time it’s a double bluff, returning back onto his weaker foot to completely bamboozle another two adversaries. Now in the penalty area, it’s panic stations for the Dutch opposition.
This is where the rash, flying slide tackles come into play. But Ibrahimovic is cooler than them all, darting beyond another wild hack, shimmying onto his right boot and finally releasing his effort at goal…
Only, he’s got one last trick up his sleeve. To the surprise of everyone, the striker rolls his right foot over the ball, watches as the last defender slides off screen, and calmly rolls the ball beyond a helpless goalkeeper into the far corner – all in one fell swoop.
A goal so good, even the cameraman had a tough job keeping up with Ibra’s spontaneity. It was art, it was poetry, it was blood, thunder, rage, lust, desire. It was a football first, never seen before. In shock, a breathless commentator utters the words ‘Maradona! Zidane!’ Nothing else is needed.
A moment of grace, poise, delicacy, magic, all combined with the heart and mind of a stone cold killer. Rarely has a player ever shown such audacity or creativity to pull out a goal from absolute nothingness.
And it was a sign of things to come.