No doubt about it Ajax have been the surprise team in this season's Champions League. After three years away from Europe's leading club competition, few expected the Dutch champions to reach the quarter-finals at the expense of other, wealthier sides such as Arsenal and Roma.
The irony is not lost on Ajax's Swedish striker Zlatan lbrahimovic. "We've surprised everybody, including ourselves," he says. "At the start of the season, we were just happy to be playing in the Champions League; now we've made it to the quarter-finals. Nobody expected it; it's fantastic."
lbrahimovic, known universally as Zlatan, has been the top scorer in an Ajax team which, although admired for their one-touch football, have acquired a discipline and sense of purpose under coach Ronald Koeman that had been lacking in previous campaigns. "We've been enjoying our football this season," says Zlatan. "You have to remember that in the Dutch League, Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord are on another level from the other teams. A lot of Dutch teams win all the time in the Dutch competitions but then don't show anything in Europe. But we have shown also that we can do it in Europe."
Zlatan dismisses the charge that the current Ajax side lack the attacking verve of previous generations. "We are a traditional Ajax team," he insists. "We play good football, one-touch football. We have traditions and we have always played like that." Nor should the role of Koeman in Ajax's progress this season be underestimated. "He has made us better as a team and as individual players," says Zlatan. "He has given us confidence and the opportunity to play his style of football."
It was the chance to develop as a footballer with Ajax that first attracted Zlatan to move to Amsterdam from Malmo, then of the Swedish Second Division, in summer 2001. "It wasn't my plan to move to Holland, but when I heard from contacts that Ajax were interested, I was like 'Yeah, of course!' It's a perfect place for a young player to come."
Though still a teenager, Zlatan arrived in Amsterdam with something of a 'history', having already clashed with Malmo team-mates in training and felt the strong arm of the law following an incident in Malmo's red-light district. He remains a fiery character - according to the official UEFA figures, he has been the dirtiest player in this season's Champions League, committing 38 fouls - but his footballing progress this term is undeniable.
Koeman must take much of the credit for harnessing Zlatan’s talent to the benefit of the team, who are reaping the rewards of his application on the training field. As club captain Cristian Chivu acknowledges: "lbrahimovic works like a slave - he knows that raw talent will only take you so far and that you need to really sweat, every day, to make the most of it. He knows that plenty of talented players have fallen by the wayside."
The contrasting fortunes of Zlatan and Egyptian team-mate Mido are a case in point. While the equally talented Mido has been packed off on loan to Spain's Celta Vigo after a series of bust-ups with Koeman, Zlatan has cemented his place as Ajax's first-choice striker. He says: "I feel I have developed a lot and I am still getting better. " Despite his height (1.96m), Zlatan is comfortable with the ball being played to feet. He acknowledges that "not every player can play at Ajax. Ajax have a traditional way of playing, and for some players it's difficult to fit in. You learn a lot from the Ajax system and it's difficult to move from another team and get used to it. But I like technical football. I'm comfortable with the ball at my feet. And that's the way Ajax play."
Zlatan, whose father is Bosnian and mother Croatian ("they met in Sweden long before the war"), fits comfortably into the cosmopolitan set-up at Ajax. He is one of a number of foreign youngsters in the Ajax first team - Chivu, Steven Pienaar, Maxwell, Petri Pasanen - who have blended in alongside products of the club's youth system such as Rafael Van der Vaart and Andy Van der Meyde. Zlatan says: "Chivu, for me, is the best defender in the world. And we have lots of other great players, you know- Rafael (Van der Vaart), Maxwell, the Brazilian. But we are also good as a team." Although a commitment to youth has long been a tradition at Ajax, so, unfortunately, has the tendency for the club's best players to depart. Zlatan acknowledges that the likes of Chivu and Van der Vaart are coveted by clubs in wealthier leagues. "That's always a worry," he says. "But we need to keep this team together. I hope we can stay together as we can do great things together.”
Zlatan's own position is more straightforward. Despite reported interest from Roma and Tottenham, he wants to stay in Amsterdam. "I am happy at Ajax. I have a contract until 2006 and I want to see it out. As I said, Ajax is a great place for a young player to develop and I am still young. I am happy at the club." He strikes a note of caution when asked about the Champions League quarter-final against Milan. "We have to watch out. Milan are better than Inter, who we played in the first group phase. We will have to concentrate and be on our guard." Real Madrid remain the team to beat, though. "They have been the best team," he says. "The funny thing is that if you look at Ajax, we have maybe 15 top players who can play in the Champions League. But if you look at Real Madrid, they have 30 top players!"
Zlatan, though still only 21, is never short of an opinion on other teams. He feels Arsenal, who Ajax pipped to a quarter-final berth from the second phase group, are "a good team, but you have to be good in every game in the Champions League, and they did not manage that. " But Arsenal striker Thierry Henry would still be his choice as player of the year. "He has scored some brilliant goals and shown what a good player he is." Not that other opposition has been more forgiving. Zlatan says: "In the Champions League, every opponent is tough, it is on another level from the Dutch League. "It's been a tough season, playing so many games. The travelling, the games, the training -it takes something out of you, not just physically, but also mentally." But it should come as no surprise that Zlatan lbrahimovic looks like coming through with flying colours.This article originally appeared in the March 2005 edition of World Soccer Magazine. You can subscribe for a ridiculously low sum by clicking here.