It cost Ajax a lot of money to get him from tiny Swedish club Malmö. And he was scoffed at in his first season for the club from Amsterdam. Apparently, in training he did things with a ball no-one had ever seen before, but nothing went his way in matches. 'Failure', they wispered. The tide has changed. Midway through his second season in Amsterdam, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has become the first choice as Ajax's leader in attack. 'World-class striker', the initial sceptics wisper more and more often about the tall Swede with the inimitable moves.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic does not know himself where those moves come from. ,,When I was little, I was always playing with a ball. But those moves, they just come to me. Despite my height, I am not so good with my head, but with my feet.''
Coach Ronald Koeman has repeatedly said that 'the dime has dropped for Zlatan'. Pointing at the fact that these days the Swede uses his skills within the teamplay and the efficiency of his actions increases. According to Koeman, Ibrahimovic now knows what it takes to be the number 9 of Ajax. Abroad, the admiration for the forward knows no limits. When Ajax play for the Champions League, the club's press office is flooded with requests for interviews with Ibrahimovic. Even against Arsenal (Zlatan: ,,I did not play well but we won a point, that's what counts'') the English supporters were lyrical about the striker.
,,I never doubted that it would be alright'', Ibrahimovic says. ,,The step from Malmö to Ajax was difficult one. I was young, alone and I went to a big club, who always have to win. I kept training hard and now I play more within the team concept. I have always known that once I got the feeling, it would go really well. Right now, I feel light and I play with a lot of confidence.''
Zlatan Ibrahimovic owes much of that to his coach Ronald Koeman. ,,He talks to me a lot and he is very honest. His way of coaching makes me feel good.'' Occasionally the striker gets advice from a famous predecessor, Marco van Basten. ,,He is a legend'', Ibrahimovic says. ,,And you can have fun with him. Van Basten is a very funny guy.''
That good feeling translates into excellent matches for Ajax. The Champions League game against Arsenal meant the first time in a long line of matches without a Zlatan goal. ,,It's going well. I thought the games against PSV and Feyenoord were two of my best, but the most important thing is that there is a steady line in my performance.''
,,Scoring is a bonus'', thinks Zlatan, who as an hommage to his Bosnian father and Croatian mother want to go through his professional life as Ibrahimovic. ,,But I did predicted that I would score fifteen goals this season. I mainly want to play good football. When you play for Ajax, you have to be good at everything. ''
To reach his peak, the Swedish international welcomes pressure. ,,There has to be competition. It keeps you sharp.'' Playing important matches does not have a paralysing effect either. ,,It is better for me if there is some pressure. I can handle it and if not, we help each other in the team. The best teams are always relaxed in a good way.''
The possibilities seem limitless for Ibrahimovic. ,,I want to be as good as I can. With Ajax we already won all the trophies in Holland. Now I want to see how far we can go. I have to bring in trophies. With Ajax and with Sweden.'' The fact that the current Ajax is very young, does not form an obstacle. ,,We win, don't we? I think we can really go far with this team. It is important that we keep a professional attitude. To win, you have to be focussed. People have respect for Ajax again. When we come out to play, we expect to win. It's necessary to think that. That's the winning instinct.''
The 21-year old centre forward thinks his team has a good chance to go a long way in this year's UEFA Champions League. ,,We have two more home matches in this round and at home we're even stronger than away. You have to be a bit more careful in an away match. Arsenal did not respect us that much in advance, probably because we have such a young squad. But we play well and get the results.''
The spirit within the team is good, Zlatan thinks. ,,There is great friendship among the guys. We trust and support each other.'' Ibrahimovic leads his team into battle nowadays. Opposing defenders know by now they have a tough game ahead of them with the Swede as Ajax's centre forward. He does not fear his opponents. ,,I have played against good defenders, but I haven't been in a situation where I thought: that guy is really hard to play.''