After his three-match suspension for elbowing Tyrone Mings, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will return to action for Manchester United on Tuesday as it faces Everton, whose manager, Ronald Koeman, was head coach at Ajax during the Swede’s turbulent time there between 2002 and 2004.
Ibrahimovic got on reasonably well with Koeman, but he hated the club’s sporting director, Louis van Gaal. He has never hidden the fact that he sees his present manager and Van Gaal's successor at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho, as a far greater influence on his career.
As Ibrahimovic contemplates whether to commit to United and one of his favorite coaches for longer or perhaps take his career to the United States and MLS, it's worth looking at his foundation and casting an eye on how he became the person and talent he is.
Here are the six greatest influences over the duration of Ibrahimovic's career.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic throughout his storied career
Instead of going up for a bicycle kick, Zlatan Ibrahimovic rides bikes during a July 2001 photoshoot in Amsterdam upon signing for Ajax from hometown Swedish club Malmo.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic clashes with Rio Ferdinand in Sweden's friendly vs. England at Old Trafford in Manchester, England on November 10, 2001.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores for Ajax during a Dutch Eredivisie match between Willem II and Ajax in the Koning Willem II Stadium on February 2, 2003.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his early days playing for Ajax in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates one of his goals for Ajax on October 3, 2003.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates his goal against England in a friendly in Gothenburg, Sweden, on March 31, 2004.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic takes on questions at a press conference during Euro 2004 in Portugal.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic removes his helmet after a go-cart race in Gimo, Sweden, on May 26, 2004, prior to Euro 2004 in Portugal.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores a famous goal for Sweden, a flying back-heel vs. Italy in Euro 2004 in Porto, Portugal.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates during a 4-0 rout of Empoli in a September 11, 2005, match in Serie A.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates at the end of the last Serie A match of the season between Juventus and Cagliari on May 29, 2005. Despite Ibrahimovic was enjoying the club's league title, it was later stripped because of the club's place in a massive match-fixing scandal that rocked Italian soccer.
Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic stop Lazio's Igli Tare during a Serie A match on April 22, 2006.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic kicks Germany's Christoph Metzelder in the head while going for the ball in the 2006 World Cup's round of 16 in Munich on June 24, 2006.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his Swedish teammates celebrate qualifying for Euro 2008 after a match vs. Latvia in Stockholm, Sweden, on November 21, 2007.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic inaugurates 'Zlatan Court,' the newly renovated gravel pitch where he used to play in the Rosengard neighborhood of Malmo, Sweden, in October 2007.
Inter Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic signs an autograph in front of a hotel in Moscow on October 22, 2007, on the eve of their UEFA Champions league qualifying football match against CSKA Moscow.
Marco Materazzi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dejan Stankovic celebrate Inter Milan's victory over rival AC Milan at Milan's San Siro on October 28, 2006.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic leaps onto Inter Milan teammate Adriano after a goal against Fiorentina on January 21, 2007.
Valencia's Santiago Canizares of Valencia squares up to Inter Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic during the second leg of the UEFA Champions League last sixteen on March 6, 2007, at the Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, Spain.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is mobbed by fans on at Parma's Tardini Stadium after Inter Milan captured the Serie A title on May 18, 2008.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic challenges Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard during a Champions League knockout match on March 11, 2008, at the San Siro.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring for Sweden against Greece in Euro 2008 in Salzburg, Austria.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic shows off his athleticism while training at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles on the eve of a friendly against Chelsea on July 20, 2009.
Lionel Messi is congratulated by Zlatan Ibrahimovic after scoring during a UEFA Champions League match between Barcelona and Dynamo Kiev at Camp Nou on September 29, 2009.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lionel Messi mimic each other in training at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper on November 27, 2009, two days before a Clasico against Real Madrid.
Star Barcelona teammates Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thierry Henry laugh during a training session at UCLA in Los Angeles on July 30, 2009.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring against former club Inter Milan on May 6, 2012 at the San Siro in Milan.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring the opening goal during a Serie A match between AC Milan and ACF Fiorentina on April 7, 2012 in Milan.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic hits a bicycle kick for AC Milan against Bologna FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Serie A action on April 22, 2012.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is honored with his name at the Walk of Fame of Sports at the Stadium Square in his home town of Malmo in southern Sweden, on September 9, 2012.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring a famous goal for Sweden vs. England in a friendly in Stockholm, Sweden, on November 14, 2012.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates PSG teammate David Beckham after scoring during a Ligue 1 match against Brest on May 18, 2013 at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris.
PSG's Zlatan Ibrahimovic holds the Ligue 1 trophy on the podium at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France, on May 14, 2016.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic leaves the pitch with his sons Maximilian and Vincent (wearing jerseys with 'King' and 'Legend' written in the back) after scoring his second goal vs. Nantes and setting the Ligue 1 record for goals in one season on May 14, 2016 in Paris, France.
PSG's Zlatan Ibrahimovic shares a light moment with Eurosport's Olivier Dacourt before a post-match interview on May 21, 2016.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho stand prior to kickoff of the Community Shield match between Leicester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2016, in London.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates as he scores for Manchester United in the 2016 EFL Cup final against Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London.
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic was 9, his father was granted custody of him while his elder sister Sanela lived with his mother. Sefik, a Bosnian Muslim, had been a bricklayer in Bijelina before moving to Sweden where he worked as a caretaker. He doted on his children and was fiercely protective of them, but he drank heavily and Ibrahimovic describes in his autobiography how he would often come home from school and search vainly for food in the cupboards before pouring some of his father’s beer away to try to ease the problem.
Sefik’s influence on Zlatan, though, is clear. He was ferociously stubborn–on one occasion, he dragged a bed several miles home from Ikea rather than pay the delivery charge–skeptical of authority and had a romantic attachment to the former Yugoslavia expressed through folk music. He also inspired Zlatan’s fascination for martial arts, through an obsessive interest in boxing and the films of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, something that seems to have developed after his brother, Zlatan’s Uncle Sapko, who had been a champion boxer in Yugoslavia, drowned while swimming in the Neretva River. And it was Sefik who, when he gave up on his idea that Zlatan should be a lawyer, persuaded him to join Malmo FF at the age of 11.
Ibrahimovic impressed at Malmo, helping the club to promotion back to Allsvenskan and generating significant publicity and the interest of a number of clubs. It was Ajax, though, that pursued him most relentlessly, in the person of its then-sporting director, Leo Beenhakker. The cigar-smoking former Real Madrid manager saw Ibrahimovic score a brilliant individual goal in a friendly against the Norwegian side Moss in a friendly in La Manga and immediately impressed Ibrahimovic with his hard-man attitude: “If you f**k with me,” he told him in their first conversation, “I’ll f**k you two times back.”
Ibrahimovic was 19 and joined Ajax for a Swedish record fee of 85 million kronor ($9.5 million).
Ibrahimovic was sitting outside Malmo central railway station waiting for his brother to leave the bureau de change when he first noticed Helena Seger. She was getting out of a taxi and was clearly furious about something. Immediately, he was taken by her attitude. Then he saw her in Stockholm at the Café Opera and, as a conversational gambit, asked if she was from Malmo. From then on, he kept on seeing her around Malmo, driving her black Mercedes SLK. He managed to get her number and texted her. They would meet for lunch and chat.
Then, during Christmas 2002, Ibrahimovic fell ill and felt he couldn’t deal with his family. He rang Helena, she invited him to go to hers and nursed him back to health. As his career at Ajax ran into difficulties, she was there to support him. She is 11 years older than him and, it’s clear from his autobiography, made him grow up and accept responsibility. They’ve been together ever since and have two children.
Ibrahimovic first met Mino Raiola during the 2003-04 season in the sushi restaurant at the elegant Okura Hotel in Amsterdam. The agent was not what the forward had expected, just “a bloke in jeans and a Nike T-shirt–and that belly, like one of the guys in The Sopranos.” But Raiola understood Ibrahimovic and, when he was going off the rails at Ajax, persuaded him to get rid of his Porsche Turbo (he gave it to Raiola) and knuckle down in training. In the summer of 2004, Raiola secured Ibrahimovic a move to Juventus, and he has negotiated all his transfers since.
Capello was desperate for Ibrahimovic to join him at Juventus, so much so that when the club president, Luciano Moggi, sad that Ibrahimovic and David Trezeguet couldn’t play together, he publicly disagreed with him. Ibrahimovic liked the sense of authority he projected and under him became far more consistent than he had been at Ajax. He also changed his style of play, becoming far more of a box player–in part because Capello made him watch a video of Marco van Basten, a striker to whom he’d been repeatedly compared.
Capello also insisted that Ibrahimovic bulk up, getting him to work in the gym and be far more careful about his diet. Without that, it’s doubtful he’d have been able to play at such a high level into his mid-30s.
Ibrahimovic has no problem with strict coaches, providing they don’t start talking about philosophies or systems: he needs to feel he can express his individuality. He has been scathing about both van Gaal and Pep Guardiola–“the frightened little over-thinker”–but he adores Mourinho, “a guy I was basically willing to die for.”
Mourinho coached him for only one season at Inter Milan, but that was enough to leave an impression. No matter how many brilliant goals Ibrahimovic scored–and he was Serie A’s top scorer that season–Mourinho would look on dispassionately, something that drove the striker to greater and greater heights trying to impress him.
Their reunion at Manchester United was something both men wanted.