The talismanic striker’s youth team coach explains how he considered quitting while at Malmo
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s achievements in football put him among Europe’s most successful players.
The former Sweden captain has won league titles in Spain, France, Holland and Italy. He has been nominated for almost every individual award going and has claimed more than his fair share. But his is a career that almost ended before it began.
This interview, originally printed in our sister paper the Manchester Evening News, tells that story.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was ready to walk away.
Away from his dreams of following in the footsteps of his idol, Ronaldo. Of putting Rosengard, his deprived suburb in Malmo, on the map. Of buying a purple Diablo Lambrogini sportscar.
Life working on the docks, and that sense of camaraderie and adventure, seemed more appealing at 15 as Ibrahimovic went through a crisis of confidence on and off the field.
His mind appeared made up – until the fateful intervention of Malmo youth coach Johnny Gyllensjo at a training session in 1996.
It took a 90-minute conversation on the sideline to convince the fragile teenager that he could achieve his dream and make it as a professional footballer.
It would prove one of the most important moments of Ibrahimovic’s life, but Gyllensjo insists he just saw it as ‘part of my job’.
“He was not so keen to play football anymore,” the 64-year-old told MEN Sport. “As an amateur psychologist, I talked to him. I think he really liked to score some goals and he couldn’t do it and this was a problem for him.
“We could talk to each other and we had great respect for each other, and he started to move on in Malmo and play in the team. And so we are glad that we have a little bit of an influence in his career.”
Gyllensjo’s assistant, Ola Gallstad, took that training session while Ibrahimovic pondered his future.
The teenager had made a name for himself at the club’s academy for his hunger and spent up to eight hours a day honing his technique by playing street football on his estate in Rosengård.
And while there were others who stood out, such as the mercurial Tony Flygare, Ibrahimovic’s desire set him apart as Gallstad remembers.
“He would come home and play street football with his friends,” he said.
“The game would be on the Saturday and then he would be playing football on the Sunday in Rosengard. He played football every day.
“I think it’s the story of why he was so technical and successful in his career.”
In the days before his Volvo XC90, Ibrahimovic used to make the 5km journey to Malmo’s training ground on his bike.
Only it was not his bicycle. The teenager got a thrill out of picking bike locks with friends and even stole his postman’s military bike.
On one occasion, he made the huge mistake of ‘borrowing’ Gallstad’s as Ibrahimovic’s former coach remembers.
“I had a bike and got to training. When I went to go home, the bike had been taken,” he laughs.
“Maybe some player in the team thought, ‘I can take it and go home and go to training the next day with it’.
Zlatan quote: “You can take a men from Rosengard but you can’t take Rosengard from a men”
“He took the bike and the the next day I look out the window at training and see him arrive on it. ‘Oh, Zlatan!’ I shouted. ‘I’m so sorry!’ he said.”
Ibrahimovic would go on to fire Malmo back to the Swedish first division before spells at Ajax and Juventus, where he followed in Ronaldo’s footsteps in playing in Serie A.
The Turin giants ‘built a new Zlatan’, physically, in Gallstad’s eyes and he traces that fascination with Italy back to a tour of the San Siro as a teenager.
“He turned to me and said, ‘Ola, I think I will play here in maybe five years.’ Five years later, he played for Juventus. He had a dream and worked very hard for it.”
The rest was history but Ibrahimovic never forgot what his former coaches did for him, according to Gyllensjo.
“Me and Ola have contact with Zlatan today and we have been around Europe wherever he went in his career. It’s great to be a friend to him,” he added.
“We usually meet him once a year when he’s in Malmo if there’s an opportunity for a cup of coffee or something. He has a lot to do when in Malmo!
“The club Malmo and also the town of Malmo has been known by him. It’s huge PR for the town. He’s really put Malmo on the map.”