It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The European stage of his career has come to a close not with the roar of a lion but rather with a whimper.
Manchester United confirmed on Thursday that they had reached an agreement with the Swede to terminate his contract with immediate effect. It was hardly a great surprise given his inability to leave a mark since making a hasty return from ACL damage in November.
His United spell had begun in the same vein in which he had enjoyed much of his career. He was the figure-head forward, the go-to guy who thrived under pressure. On his debut he netted the goal which won the 2016 Community Shield, and a week later would drill home a shot from distance on his Premier League bow. That was only the start.
He would bag 28 goals by April in his first season at Old Trafford, including two in the EFL Cup final win over Southampton. The same voices which had claimed for the best part of a decade that he would never be able to cut it in England were left falling over themselves in the bid to praise Zlatan the loudest.
While his performances had not necessarily been reflected in United’s results, he had been the best version of himself even at the age of 35. Until, that is, he picked up the first serious injury of his career when taking an innocuous step backward during the Europa League quarter-final clash with Anderlecht.
It was hailed a miracle recovery when he stepped onto the field within seven months, but in truth he never looked as sharp and it was clear that he was never going to be the same Zlatan again.
Thankfully, he will be remembered across the continent for the things he was able to achieve time and time again rather than for his injury-blighted finale. A phenomenal haul of 12 titles in 13 seasons across the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France with a total of six different clubs showed the winning mentality he helped to inject wherever he went.
He hit 20+ goals in 10 successive years for Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and United, shattered the Swedish national record for goals scored with 62, and gained admirers wherever he turned. Sure, he was brash, cocky and arrogant, but most of it arrived with that cheeky glint in his eye. In a modern footballing world in which true characters are in short supply, Ibrahimovic has been a wonderful exception.
Many will point to his short-lived spell with Barcelona as a potential negative, but the man himself never let the experience bother him. He admitted later that he was not a fan of Pep Guardiola but refused to rule out working with the Catalan again at some point. And those who suggest his lack of a Champions League title is a stain on his career ought to remember that few can match his tally of 33 winners’ medals, including 13 league titles.
He still refers to himself as a lion rather than a human, and his courage will surely stand him in good stead as he looks to write a new chapter with the LA Galaxy in the coming months. The after-effects of his knee surgery will doubtless still take a little time to get over, but if we have learned one thing about Zlatan it is never to write him off.
A man with a character every bit as enormous as his gigantic frame has now been lost to the European game. Given the way his career has been marked by huge achievements, monumental transfers and outlandish quotes, it would have been far more fitting had he gone out on a huge high.
But however it has ended, we should just be pleased we got to enjoy one of the modern game’s great characters for as long as we did.