Sunday June 4 is a day that many AC Milan fans will remember forever. It is the date that signalled the end of the 2022-23 season, but this was overshadowed by the farewell of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the greatest footballers of all time.
It was a very emotional night that ended with the entire San Siro and the footballing world in general shedding tears. Zlatan himself could not hold it in and showcased a side of him not many have seen before as he loves to always be perceived as an ‘arrogant’ person.
The love for the game and for the red and black colours even got the better of him as he got emotional in the middle of the pitch.
With the Swedish legend ending his career, it is only right to look back at everything he did for Milan.
Ibrahimovic has had two stints with the Rossoneri, first joining in the summer of 2010 and then in January 2020, just before the pandemic. He arrived in two very different situations.
The first spell
Back in August 2010, Ibrahimovic was signed initially on a loan deal after having a somewhat negative stint at Barcelona. He came back with the hunger to prove everyone once again of how great he was.
He joined a Milan side that were also coming off a disappointing campaign in which Inter won the treble. That Milan side had veterans like Pirlo, Seedorf, Nesta, Gattuso, Ambrosini and more. Ibra also joined at the peak of his powers during his ‘prime’ years.
Zlatan was unveiled during the opening Serie A game of the season, in which the Rossoneri won 4-0 against Lecce. During the unveiling, he famously stated that they will win everything, something that got the Milan fanbase excited after two disappointing seasons.
He made his official debut the game week after on the 11 September away at Siena, although this did not go as everyone planned as Milan went onto losing this game 2-0 and Zlatan missed a penalty.
Lots of players could have easily lost confidence if something like this happened on their debut but Ibrahimovic is not like other players. As Galliani once said: “Milan had 8 Ballon d’Or winners but nobody had the mental strength of Zlatan.”
It was that strong mentality got him to move on from that mistake very quick and he bounced back four days later as he scored a brace on his home debut in the opening Champions League game versus AJ Auxerre.
Following that brace, Ibrahimovic quickly became a fan favourite despite previously playing for both Inter and Juventus, as he made Milanisti love him with his goals and skills.
If that was not enough, on matchday 12 he won the hearts of every Milan fan when he won the derby by scoring the winner against Inter and then famously silencing the Inter Curva. At that moment, for many fans, Zlatan became one of our own.
He finished the first half of the season with 16 goal contributions in the league which gave Milan a boost to potentially win their first league title since the 2003-04 campaign.
He also contributed with four goals in the Champions League group stage which helped AC Milan qualify for the knockout round behind Real Madrid.
The second part of the season started off strongly too, with Zlatan contributing to another 10 goals in the league up until game week 29, which helped the Diavolo get closer to the title.
Among these goals, there was that famous strike away at Lecce where Ibra decided to take on a lob 40+ yards out. The result was one of the most iconic goals in calcio history.
Zlatan got two-match ban for punching a Bari player in the stomach, resulting in him missing the return leg of the Derby which Milan still won 3-0, and then he got another three-match ban for swearing at the assistant referee during a game vs Fiorentina.
Despite all this, his 14 goals and 12 assists in 29 Serie A games was crucial to clinch the 18th Scudetto in the club’s history which Ibrahimovic celebrated in typical style, by fly kicking Cassano’s head during the celebration away at Roma the day the triumph was confirmed.
His first year at Milan was all in all a success, he delivered what he said at the start of the season, brought back new energy into the club and reminded the entire world again who Zlatan Ibrahimovic is.
Following that successful first season, Milan decided to make his loan move permanent from Barcelona, signing him for €24m.
The Swede started the 2011-12 campaign in the same fashion, by winning the Supercoppa in early August against Inter. He contributed to that game by scoring the equaliser, moments before Kevin-Prince Boateng scored the winning goal.
Ibra took the entire team under his wing during his second season, finishing as the Capocannoniere (top scorer) of the division with 28 goals – his highest ever tally in a Serie A season – along with 8 assists.
This unfortunately was not enough for Milan to retain the title which was won by Juventus in a controversial way, with everyone knowing the infamous story of ‘the Muntari goal’.
He also once again got into some disciplinary mess during this season as he got sent off for slapping a Napoli player, resulting in another three-match ban. It was a sign of his irrepressible character and competitive spirit, which sometimes spilled over.
Zlatan finished the campaign with 35 goals and 12 assists in all competitions, making him one of the best players in the world as he finished in the top 10 in the Ballon D’or that year. However, Nobody could have predicted what was going to happen at the end of the 2011-12 campaign.
With many leaders leaving AC Milan that year, it was expected for Ibra and Thiago Silva to be the new leaders for the next decade. This was meant to be the case until Galliani and Berslusconi decided to sell both PSG.
It is understood this happened against the will of Zlatan who in 2018 revealed that Milan had approved his sale without letting him know as he found out through Mino Raiola.
“I said to Mino: ‘Listen, I’m not to talk to Leonardo because Galliani told me that I wouldn’t be sold this summer’. Then Mino said ‘Yeah, I know, but you’ve been sold already’,” the Swede revealed.
Ibra departed for the French capital in strange circumstances, and his time at Milan came to an end. Zlatan went onto conquer France while Milan fell into a dark era in which the owners lost the hunger to win and the club lots its identity.
Ibrahimovic spent four seasons in France, winning 12 trophies in which four were league titles, becoming the club’s top scorer of all time at the time and putting PSG onto the map as he helped them in their goal to become a European heavyweight.
During his time at PSG, Zlatan also scored that famous bicycle kick against England which won him that year’s Puskas award (2013).
After his spell in the French capital, Ibra decided to move to England on a free where he joined Manchester United and carried on winning more trophies, ending his first season with an odd treble as he lifted the Europa League, the EFL Cup and the Community Shield.
During his second season at the English club, he suffered a serious knee injury which resulted in him being out for the remainder of the season and thus ending his time with the Red Devils.
Following this injury, many reporters said that there was a chance the striker was never going to play football again, but his determination and strong mentality once proved everyone wrong as he signed for LA Galaxy in the MLS. Then, he carried on scoring goals like he always did, reaching goal number 500.
The grand return
In 2020, Ibrahimovic came back to Europe from the MLS, something many thought was not going to happen. His decision was to go back to Milan, a broken team that lost its identity from the last time he was last there, but full of talented youngsters who struggled to fulfil their potential.
The Malmo-born forward come into a massive mess following the 5-0 loss away at Atalanta with the side sitting 11th in the league. He was aware of what he was getting himself into and what would be required of him, famously rejecting a €100m-a-year offer from China to return to the Rossoneri.
Even for someone like Ibra, reviving this Milan team at the time seemed an impossible job, yet he once again set about proving all the doubters wrong.
Along with Maldini and Pioli, Ibra accepted the responsibilities and unlike his last time here, he came in as the veteran ready to mentor the young Milan team. In a way it can be said what was planned for him after the 2011-12 season to do, he finally got to do that eight years later.
Ibrahimovic made his second debut on the January 6 coming off the bench in a goalless draw vs Sampdoria. He then got his first goal of his second spell five days later away at Cagliari, in a 2-0 win. This goal also made him the first player to score in four different decades, with his first goal coming in 1999.
With Zlatan back, the Milan team started to pick up some results and some of the youngsters started to show their quality with the added confidence. This was however halted due to the pandemic that happened in March 2020, which put not only football but life in general on hold.
During the pandemic, Ibra’s career once again looked to be over as initially it was stated he had an Achilles injury, but then more updates emerged stating that it was just a calf issue, and that the Swede would be back to end the season with the club.
That is exactly what happened and with Zlatan leading the line, Milan finished the season on a high, beating the likes of Juventus and Lazio and securing European football by finishing sixth, a big jump from where they were before Ibra come in.
The then-38-year-old finished the season with 10 goals and five assists in 18 games, but it was his leadership that made the real difference. He transformed the young Milan team and made them go on their best run of games in years.
At the of the 2019-20 season, Ibrahimovic famously said: “I’m sorry I came halfway through the season, If I was here from day one we’d have won the Scudetto.”
Ibrahimovic’s big impact resulted him in getting a contract extension for the following season and he started it well, scoring a brace in the first game at home against Bologna before testing positive for Covid, which resulted in him missing the next two league games.
Upon his return, Zlatan went into a very hot run of form, scoring eight goals in the next five games which included braces against Roma, Napoli and in the derby win against Inter, as well as an overhead kick goal in typical Zlatan style vs. Udinese. He was unstoppable.
Unfortunately, during the game against Napoli, Ibrahimovic sustained a serious injury which kept him out of the pitch for a lengthy period. Despite this, the Milan team looked to be different as they carried on getting results even without their leader.
All of a sudden this previously young, naive and timid bunch were fighting for the Scudetto, something nobody would have predicted at the start of the season, showing how a mentality of belief was imparted on the squad.
Upon returning from his injury, Ibrahimovic had an iconic moment in the Coppa Italia game against Inter. He and former team-mate Romelu Lukaku almost got into a physical altercation after things were said. This resulted in both getting a booking with Ibrahimovic getting sent off during the second half for a foul he committed.
Ibrahimovic scored in that game but unfortunately it was not enough as the Rossoneri bowed out of the Coppa Italia after losing 2-1, with Christian Eriksen’s late free-kick the winner.
After that game, Ibra kept on battling back and forth with injuries, getting four more league goals in the process, and ending the season with 15 goals and two assists in 19 games, enough to get Milan back in the Champions League after almost a decade.
Zlatan’s influence on the entire club was visible through results. This however was not enough as he wanted to win the scudetto again as he promised the fans upon his arrival.
The next season started very slow for him as he was dealing with multiple injuries but at this point the young cubs Zlatan inherited started to take more responsibilities.
Despite not playing much during the 2021-22 season, Ibrahimovic still contributed to some very important moments during Milan’s historic title win.
The equaliser against Udinese on the dying minutes, the free-kick against Genoa and the assist to Sandro Tonali against Lazio were all moments that played a big part in the league triumph, with the latter being the point that from many was what made the difference in the end.
Zlatan delivered what he promised when he came back in 2020. He ended the campaign with eight goals and three assists in 1,000 minutes despite all the injury issues he suffered during the season.
Upon winning the title, he famously made the speech in the changing room after the Sassuolo game: “Milano is not Milan, Italia is Milan”. Even to this day, that still brings fans goosebumps.
Following the title-winning season, Zlatan declared that he was not going to retire as he still felt he had something left to give. He had a major operation on his knee with the goal of returning to the field the season after.
Unfortunately, during the 2022-23 season, this did not happen much as he only played 144 minutes but somehow still scored a a record-breaking goal against Udinese (a favoured foe), becoming the oldest ever scorer in a Milan shirt
Ibrahimovic was then injured for the remainder of the season but did not tell anyone about his decision regarding his future until the day of his goodbye after the final game of the season, when he stated that it was time for him to hang up his boots.
He has done so much for this club, this sport and for many people. He revived the Rossoneri twice, both times in different situations. He saved Milan from a difficult era with his leadership and charisma, cementing himself in folklore.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a true legend of the game, someone who has been misunderstood by many during his career but someone whose ability can never be questioned. A lion with a huge heart, even bigger than his talent and trophy cabinet. There will never be another like him.