Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been one of the most successful players of the last decade. He's won league titles with six different teams in four different countries and scored close to 400 club goals at the time of writing, as well as 62 for his country. In Monday's Euro 2016 game against Ireland, it was his cross into the box that forced an own goal and levelled the scores for Sweden. Set to leave Paris Saint-Germain this summer, his next destination will likely be another European giant.
This is all extensively documented. What's less well known is that the Swedish striker is also a Taekwondo black belt and many believe it is his martial arts background which allows him to score spectacular goals with such remarkable consistency.
During a career that has seen him represent Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona and latterly PSG, Ibrahimovic has scored all sorts of goals. However his signature move is the sort of wonder strike that seems straight out of the Shaolin Football movie; examples include his unforgettable bicycle kick for Sweden against England, and the Kung Fu volley for PSG against Monaco.
Ibrahimovic grew up in the Swedish city of Malmo and reportedly earned a black belt in Taekwondo at the age of 17. The only footage we could find of him hitting pads or sparring was uploaded to YouTube in 2010 and he looks a little out of practice, to put it kindly. While you could question the striker's credentials as a martial artist, there is credence to the theory that it has helped him develop something of a unique skillset on the pitch.
Taekwondo places a lot of emphasis on kicks and practitioners are typically encouraged to deliver them to the head or upper body. To effectively throw an axe kick, side kick or conventional roundhouse kick towards a high target requires tremendous flexibility and agility. Ibrahimovic has both in abundance which is highly unusual for a player of his size.
Let's look at the bicycle kick against England, which is probably Ibrahimovic's most famous goal, possibly because it came at the expense of the nation with the most hyperactive media in all of football. Taekwondo definitely doesn't give you the audacity to try such an ambitious strike, or the awareness to find the goal from 30 meters with your back turned. But what stands out most from watching the slow motion replay of that wonder strike is the height at which Ibrahimovic's boot makes contact with the ball. His foot actually seems to reach higher than his head, no mean feet when you stand 198 cm tall, and the Swede's leg is practically perpendicular to the ground at the moment of contact.
After the goal, which secured Sweden a 4-2 victory in a friendly game against England, much was made of Ibrahimovic's background in Taekwondo. Even the player himself probably couldn't accurately assess the causality between his early martial arts experience and his development into a scorer of spectacular goals at the highest level. But the unconventional kicking techniques he sometimes employs in soccer do seem remarkably similar to certain strikes from Taekwondo.
If Ibrahimovic only scored these sort of goals every now and again it would be easy to write off the causal connection between his black belt and his tricks. But he does it all the time. There's this backheel volley which is reminiscent of a jumping back kick, and then there's an incredible flick in training which simply needs to be seen to be believed.
In total Ibrahimovic has generated over € 181,794 million in transfer fees over the course of his career, more than any other player. Studying Taekwondo alone won't automatically give you the sort of skillset required to succeed in arguably the most competitive sport on the planet. But anyone wanting to emulate the Swedish striker by adding unconventional elements to their game could benefit from a spell studying martial arts.