Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to his home club Malmo in the Champions League
On Wednesday night, supporters will pack into the stands of Malmo's sold-out Swedbank Stadion, but the stadium's 24,000 seats won't nearly be enough. At least another 10,000 fans will fill the city's main square, Stortorget, which has been specially reserved for the night, fitted with giant screens so more locals can catch a glimpse of the city's most famous resident in action. The arrival of Paris Saint-Germain in southern Sweden for the Champions League matchday five means Zlatan Ibrahimovic will take the same pitch as his boyhood club for the first time since he left in 2001.
Nobody wants to miss it. Ibrahimovic is arguably Malmo's greatest-ever player, and almost a decade and a half after his departure from Swedish football, the memories of his breakthrough performances in the sky-blue shirt remain vivid. "Wherever I go, I'll always represent Malmo", he told the club's official website ahead of this week. "I feel like a real Malmo kid. It's my club. There's no other one for me. I follow MFF".
With his sublime talent and cocky attitude, Ibrahimovic burst onto the scene in 1999 against a backdrop of predictable, subpar players who were miserably failing to stop one of Sweden's giants from being relegated to the second division for the first time in 64 years. The former European Cup finalists desperately needed a hero, and they found it in the most unlikely of figures, a son of Yugoslavian immigrants raised in the social housing projects of Rosengard.
"Word had spread that there was this talent in the academy with a new, international approach", Malmo fan Jan Dahlqvist says. "He was only about 16 when I heard about him, and his attitude was completely different. He didn't respect the older players in the normal way. It was refreshing, because the A team ... badly needed rejuvenation."
"The fans loved him from day one" Jan says. "Finally, Malmo had a player from the academy with huge talent. I've never seen a footballer like him in Sweden, and probably never will again."
The rest of Sweden soon took note. Still rooted firmly in the 4-4-2 based, physical football that was brought to the country by the likes of Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton in the 1970s and '80s, Ibrahimovic's tricks and flicks quickly earned him a reputation. As did his love of a one-liner.
"Everyone soon knew who he was because he stood out on and off the pitch", Swedish journalist Alexandra Jonson says. "He wasn't the typical Swedish footballer -- he was a kid who was used to playing football in the streets with his friends. He liked dribbling, challenging opponents, going for it".
In his early years with Malmo, Ibrahimovic was asked by Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter to describe his best traits. The detail of his response suggested it wasn't the first time he had pondered the question. "When I'm on the pitch I see a picture, something that happens in the blink of an eye. I can freeze that picture and find a solution. All of that happens in a tenth of a second. I have imagination", he said.
In the early days Zlatan's imagination also threatened to get him into major trouble. In January 2001, while driving around Malmo with a friend in the middle of the night, Ibrahimovic spotted what he thought was a man attempting to solicit a prostitute. His reaction was to shout out to the driver that he was a police officer, demanding that he should stand still. Instead, the man ran, and "officer" Zlatan decided to pursue. Unfortunately for him, by this point the real police had been called, with the footballer soon having to explain that his antics were a joke. He was let away with a telling off, but only after being informed that the person he had chased was a Pentecostal priest who worked with disadvantaged people in the area. The mix-up would make the national news after local photographers captured images of a grinning Zlatan trying to explain what had happened to the authorities. He wasn't exactly flying under the radar.
Inevitably, Ibrahimovic's overtly counter-cultural style led to a backlash in some sectors. Not least from the same teammates who had failed to stop Malmo's decline. "He wasn't popular among them, because he was 16,17 yet still wanted to keep the ball", Jan notes. "Some of his teammates openly said he was too cocky", says Alex. "They were very bitter, because he didn't follow the unwritten rules".
The unwritten rule in Sweden is that people are expected to be humble. Ibrahimovic "saw himself as the best and would say it. Some people found that quite difficult," says Alex.
His fiery temper didn't help either, the methods of protection that he learned on the street not always translating well to the pitch. "The fact that he was physically small led to him being aggressive to compensate his weakness," Jan recalls. "I remember hearing a story that he got into a fight in training which resulted in the other parents asking for him to be taken away from the club."
Ibrahimovic would soon drag Malmo out of their second division hell. In 2000, coach Michael Andersson threw his weight behind the then 18-year-old, starting him in the majority of Malmo's games in the Superettan (second tier). The forward delivered, finishing the season as the team's top scorer with 12 league goals that secured the club's return to the top flight.
It also helped secure Ibrahimovic's departure. Before the 2001 Allsvenskan season kicked off, and before he had even started a game in the Swedish top flight, Ajax saw enough to agree to sign the player, but only after he managed to drive the price up to help his club. "At the time the money was needed a lot, and he knew it. He done everything to make his signing as expensive as possible", says Alexandra.
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Long after his departure, the forward's childhood team have continued to reap the rewards of his talents. "Ajax paid around 85 million Swedish Krona for him, but as he joined when he was 13 and left before he was 20, the club gets money every time he signs for a new team", explains Alexandra. FIFA's solidarity mechanism law ensures that any club that contributes to a player's education as a youth will receive compensation every time he is subject to a transfer in the future.
When the player in question has raised around a combined €171.1 million from transfer fees over the course of his career, the small slice of the pie that Malmo get each time Zlatan moves is a valuable asset. In comparison to their dire situation when he left, they are now playing a second consecutive season in the Champions League, their budget significantly larger than domestic rivals, and their home a new, modern stadium that his transfer compensation helped to fund. Ultimately, Ibrahimovic's sale helped make Malmo meeting him on Wednesday night at the Swedbank Stadion possible in the first place.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.