After his adventure with Juventus, Zlatan Ibrahimovic set foot in Milan; hallowed ground for two of European football’s most storied factions, divided by contrasting colours - rosso e azzurro: red and blue. The moment the black and blue shirt graced his shoulders, he belonged to the historic Lombardy rivalry.
Inter were desperate to put to bed a 17-year stretch without a Scudetto. As a fierce competitor in world football, the duty fell on Ibrahimovic. Owner Massimo Moratti called on the tenacious forward to take up a leadership role; shake-up the locker-room and be the talismanic general. His first assignment was to transform the dynamic of the squad by dismantling the collective Argentine and Brazilian cliques. If the club’s intentions for the year were legitimate, the separatism needed to be eradicated.
Early season pundits and media casted the revolutionised Nerazzurri as favourites to lift the league trophy, due in large part to the fallout of the Calciopoli scandal, which left Juventus in Serie B, and AC Milan and Fiorentina bearing significant point deductions. The advantage was a huge bonus for Inter coach Roberto Mancini, although his side were nothing short of a powerhouse. Patrick Vieira, Fabio Grosso, Maicon, Luis Figo, and their fearless leader Javier Zanetti formulated a cast of stars that - together with the ‘Big Swede’ - were destined for glory.
On 9 September 2006 in Firenze, Ibrahimovic christened the club with a masterful debut against Fiorentina. A nifty turn and lay-off by Zlatan opened up Esteban Cambiasso’s account, but the Argentine, sitting on a double, took a brief backseat to the new number 8. In the 61st minute, Cambiasso lofted a lovely ball into the penalty area, exposing Alessandro Gamberini and Dario Dainelli’s slight lapse in positioning. Calmly, Ibrahimovic struck a superb half-volley into the far post, beating the outstretched Sebastien Frey for his side’s decisive third goal in a 3-2 victory.
Zlatan’s self-righteous ego, often difficult to stomach for the purist, was fully embraced by the Inter supporters, who opened their arms to Ibrahimovic after his premier under the Tuscan night. Football fans can be quite intimidating, especially the Ultras - the voice of the club. Be that as it may, you won’t find a more loyal group. Affectionate and showing solidarity with their star, the supporters presented Ibrahimovic with a banner on his San Siro debut; “Benvenuto, Maximilian!”, an ode to his newborn son. This immediately struck a chord. Ibrahimovic began to settle and felt at ease.
The date was 28 October 2006, and Ibrahimovic would etch his name into Derby della Madonnina history, scoring his first goal versus AC Milan at San Siro in a 4-3 victory. Inter, off and running, hotwired a stellar campaign with a record-breaking run of 17 consecutive victories in Serie A. Evident in their form, they were shatterproof, rolling on a remarkable 32-match unbeaten run, a streak eventually broken at the Giuseppe Meazza on 18 April 2007 by Luciano Spalletti’s Roma. It was merely a footnote in an otherwise irrepressible charge for the title. Days later, a 2-1 win over Siena secured their first Scudetto on the pitch since 1989, a lofty 97-point sum acting as a symbol of their dominance.
Ibrahimovic closed the book on his debut campaign with 15 goals. On the European stage, the performances failed to align with the domestic successes of a Scudetto and Italian Super Cup, but one thing was clear: order had been restored and the club was on the brink of a truly special era.
Whispers of Real Madrid interest echoed around the summer for the demonstrative striker. Moratti, at the mercy of Mino Raiola, knew he could ill-afford to watch his superstar walk. Ibrahimovic parlayed his superlative debut campaign into a new contract, which paid out a salary on par with Europe’s elite footballers.
In the 2007-08 campaign, Ibrahimovic’s Italian romance continued, albeit with a few minor hurdles to clear along the way. Inter topped their Champions League group, and the Swede ascended into the upper echelons for his position. His grinta (grit), however, could not stave off an inflamed knee tendon, a contributing factor to Inter’s 2-0 defeat in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie against Liverpool.
All treble hopes hung in the balance, and league rivals Milan and Roma crept ever closer. Since arriving, Zlatan had acted as Inter’s engine, the source of all strength and momentum. It seemed they’d only go as far as Ibrahimovic could take them. Gambling with his long-term future fitness, he inserted himself back into the starting XI for the return leg at home to Liverpool. But toughness eventually surrendered to the pain, as he walked off the pitch to opposing jeers in a losing effort. The UEFA Champions League trophy always eluded the striker. It was his ‘White Whale,’ which is why his fixation with winning it burns deep today.
The harmony and early-season optimism for a treble had evaporated. Inter, out of Europe, moved towards retaining the Scudetto, except their run would be disrupted. Mancini threw the club a curve ball, announcing his resignation in the midst of a title race, only to be retracted hours later. These actions threatened to derail Inter, and initially, they did. Their nine-point lead in the table was cut to just one entering the final match-day, where Inter travelled to the Stadio Ennio Tardini to face Parma. A wounded Ibrahimovic – off the bench - sealed the title with a second-half brace.
For months prior, the Italian media had heavily criticised Inter and Ibrahimovic. As an individual with a knack for revenge, he sarcastically dedicated the title triumph to those detractors. Backing his prized striker, Moratti classified him as “the symbol of our struggle.” In winning the league award for best player, Ibrahimovic boasted exceptional numbers, most notably 17 goals and 11 assists in 26 Serie A appearances. Ibrahimovic was forced to sit out of the Coppa Italia Final on 24 May 2008 at the Stadio Olimpico, where Roma denied Inter a domestic-double. In any case, the 2007-08 season will likely go down as one of Ibrahimovic’s crowning achievements given the adversity he and the club overcame.
Mancini and Ibrahimovic shared a unique relationship in Milan. Respect was mutual, particularly after the pair managed to overcome the Italian tactician’s fiasco late in the campaign. It was that very instance which led the board to sack Mancini in the summer and survey other options. Moratti hired a unique personality to manage the club, and one capable of pulling off a heist like the treble. Moratti hired “The Special One.”
2 June 2008 marked the beginning of a new era at Inter, as the club welcomed former FC Porto and Chelsea boss, Jose Mourinho. Once a translator at Sporting Clube de Portugal, before becoming one of world football’s most brilliant minds, Mourinho had already carved out quite the career for himself. His impressive work in leading Porto to a UEFA Champions League title in 2003-04 – disposing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United along the way – ranks among the best achievements in the competition’s history. It was the one award that continuously evaded the Milanese giant, so Ibrahimovic naturally approved of the appointment.
Mourinho, a master manipulator, often gets the best out from his players. Sweden’s top export needed no motivational speakers or pep talks to extract his finest qualities, yet Mourinho cracked that individualistic persona. There were times during the 2008-09 season where Ibrahimovic himself was in awe after a stunningly executed goal or pass; that doesn’t happen often. Even in the moments where he’d exceed his own expectations, Mourinho remained emotionless. Stone-faced, hands in pockets, almost as if to say “Yeah, so what?” The two hubristic personalities gelled and Inter were destined for a third straight Scudetto, but yearned for much more in the form of European supremacy.
In the Round of 16, Inter had a date with the Red Devils. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United truly had all the qualities – top to bottom – to lift the trophy; Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and emerging young superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. The headlines practically wrote themselves. Over two legs, Mourinho’s men fought tooth and nail, but simply could not withstand United’s firepower, bowing out once again. Ibrahimovic knew the media would attack his European struggles, and he began to question whether or not Inter could quench his thirst for his most desired honour.
Once again coming up short in Europe, Ibrahimovic was tipped for an exit to Spain and Barcelona was considered his preferred destination. Behind closed doors, the Swedish star expressed his desire with Raiola, yet both knew any interest in leaving the club must not be made public. Regardless of his future, Ibrahimovic’s work was not yet complete in an Inter shirt.
On a personal note, Ibrahimovic’s hunger lay in the hunt for Serie A’s Golden Boot; the capocannoniere. Soon word spread across the peninsula that Ibrahimovic eyed a move out of Milan. Showered in supporter’s jeers and boos, he seized the roars of the home crowd on the final match-day versus Atalanta. In a tight race with Bologna’s Marco Di Vaio and Genoa’s Diego Milito, Ibrahimovic delivered a parting gift, almost comparable to his final flourish with Ajax; a majestic back-heel, capocannoniere-clincher. His 25th of the campaign even appeased Mourinho, who erupted at the scenes his Portuguese eyes had just witnessed.
Early critics were quick to attack his lack of goal-scoring prowess upon arriving in the peninsula, yet in that hour, Ibrahimovic became the only Swede besides Gunnar Nordahl to win the Serie’s top-scorer award.
In the summer, Real Madrid flexed their muscles, signing Kaka for €65 million and Cristiano Ronaldo for €100 million respectively. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona had to respond with a major splash of their own. And they did. Moratti gave in to Ibrahimovic and Raiola’s demands for a Catalan switch under one condition: to sell the Swede for more than what Madrid paid for Kaka. Sure enough, this final condition was met. Barcelona paid €46 million plus Samuel Eto’o (rated at €20 million). Ibrahimovic’s exit hit Mourinho especially hard, as he felt the profound impact the Swede’s departure had on his side. But, this was the move Ibrahimovic and Raiola dreamt about. A conscious effort to capture the ‘White Whale’ that always seemed to fall off the hook.
He waved goodbye to this part of his Italian adventure with a massive chip on his shoulder. Every ounce of his heart was poured into the Nerazzurri cause; the first league title in 17 years, 3 consecutive Scudetti and endless thrills. There was nothing left to prove to anyone but himself. The time had come to set out for pastures new with Barcelona and chase the one honour that forever seemed to slip through his fingertips.
Prossima Fermata: AC Milan (via Barcelona). Click to read 'Three Colours of Zlatan Part I: Juventus'
Words by Matthew Santangelo: @Matt_Santangelo
'Matthew is an Italian football writer who co-founded the blog, Milan Brothers. He is also an editor and columnist at Italian Football Daily.'