'You can tame a lion, but you cannot tame Zlatan'

Just months shy of his 40th birthday, Zlatan Ibrahimović remains a predator in front of goal, making fools of those who questioned his return to AC Milan in 2019. The Swede is calmer and more mature these days, but he is no less demanding of himself and his team-mates – and that relentless drive could yet bring him another tilt at the Champions League

WORDS Paolo Menicucci and Sheridan Bird

Interview
“I am like Benjamin Button. I’m getting younger every year, every day. As long as I can play, I will play. I promise you that.” Coming from anyone else, that would sound fanciful. But when Zlatan Ibrahimović compares himself to the reverse-ageing character played by Brad Pitt in 2008, it’s hard to disagree. Ibrahimović is a hero in his homeland and beyond, a man who could open a museum to show off the medals and trophies he’s swept up around Europe. No doubt fans would flock, with recent converts to his unique charisma including late-night talk-show audiences in the US, left breathless by his braggadocious appeal during his MLS spell. At 39, isn’t that enough? Where does he find the motivation to get up every day and drive to training at AC Milan’s Milanello facility?

“I have a problem: I’m never satisfied. I’m 39 and, with what I have done, I have no obligation to work anymore because I’ve had a good life anyway, but I still have this passion for what I’m doing. I always want more. Maybe that’s why I am here today and able to perform and do what I’m doing, because I don’t see a lot of players my age who were, or are, performing like I am.”

True enough. Even with his 40th birthday looming in October, Ibrahimović is showing no sign of slowing down. It’s fair to say that he is more reflective, some of that famously swaggering edge having been smoothed by time, but on the pitch he continues to leave defenders pointing at each other in confusion. “The moment a player goes above 30 is when they start to go down and they quit. Above 30 is when I started to become even better – and the line is just going up.”

And let’s be clear: yes, the Swede has certainly mellowed, but he’s still more than happy to unleash a few potent Zlatanisms. We lay out some animal-based bait: who would be easier to domesticate, Zlatan or a lion? “You can tame a lion, but you cannot tame Zlatan. It’s a different animal.” Noted. And just out of interest, who would win in an arm wrestle between Zlatan and King Kong? “I would destroy King Kong, 100%. I would destroy him.”

The giant-gorilla vanquisher arguably faced an even greater challenge in April 2017. Manchester United were playing Anderlecht in the Europa League when Ibrahimović landed awkwardly after leaping for the ball. His right knee hyperextended, causing severe damage to his cruciate ligament and meniscus – and, just like that, his career was in doubt. He was 35. The road back was long, uncertain. But retirement never crossed his mind.

“It took me one year to come back and feel alive,” he says, recalling unending hours of physiotherapy, pain and fatigue. “I’ll be honest, the work I did was very boring; it was mental work because I wasn’t used to it. I’m used to touching the ball: shooting, receiving the ball, scoring goals, using [imagination] to create something.

“Now I was just looking at the time and asking: ‘When is this finished? When am I done? Do I have to do this again?’ But I had people around me who were pushing me and not letting me become lazy, saying, ‘You have to do it, you have to do it! This is the way to do it.’ And this is the way it was done. At the end, I felt alive again.”

The modern Ibrahimović is less mobile and sprightly than a decade ago, but he knows when to move and when to pounce. It is energy management with a trademark sprinkling of audacity and skill. And although you can’t tell from his steely expression on the turf, he is absolutely thrilled to be back. “When you go from a moment where you touch the ball and then you don’t touch it anymore it is not easy, because it was like I was slowing down. I touched the ball less, less, less. And from that moment, I understood that the ball is my best friend who I want to be with for the rest of my life. That’s why I have this happiness every time I come out on the pitch and I’m able to play the game.”

And play again with AC Milan, no less. He has worn the prestigious colours of  some of Europe’s finest teams, in the form of Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. Yet this is undoubtedly the club he has developed the strongest affinity with outside his homeland.

Ibrahimović returned from LA Galaxy to a Rossoneri side completely different to the one he left in 2012. Milan won the 2010/11 title and finished second the following season, with the towering Swede scoring 28 goals in 32 games to be crowned Serie A’s top scorer. That team blended legends and upcoming stars, the acrobatic forward sharing the spotlight with the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Robinho and Thiago Silva. Ibrahimović’s departure, however, was the beginning of a barren spell. Although they managed to scrape a third-place finish the following season, the top four soon slipped away. The San Siro side dropped as low as tenth at the end of 2014/15.

"I do put pressure on my team-mates, I try to bring out their maximum effort. Some take it in a good way, some a little bit less. Some can’t handle it… not that they can’t handle it, but they find it very hard in the sense that you have to perform when we decide you need to perform. And I decide that we have to perform every day, because for me the way you train is the way you play.”
"Above the age of 30 is when I started to become even better – and the line is just going up"

There were no signs of a prompt recovery; on Christmas Day 2019 they were languishing in 11th. Then, two days later, Ibrahimović announced his decision to return. Could a striker creeping towards his 40s, and coming from two seasons in the MLS, really relaunch Rossoneri ambitions? Or was this just stunt-casting, a desperate move, perhaps a bid to sell some shirts? Any doubts quickly disappeared.

“It’s all about challenges in life,” explains Ibrahimović. “I was playing in America; I felt I’d done enough there. And I came to a moment of whether I should continue to play or not. I had some talks with Italian clubs; I’d played at Milan before and, obviously, I know the club very well. But new management, different team, different names, so, it was all about what I wanted from it. Then I chose to accept because it was a big challenge to come, to try to change the mentality, try to change the situation. And also make the team, the players, understand what Milan is about – the Milan that I know, the Milan the whole world knows.”

The right words can certainly have an impact but goals – and Ibrahimović scored 20 in 24 Serie A games in 2020 – are also good medicine. “Since day one I started to push in the way I do, and try to make the players understand what it takes to play for Milan. It’s not enough to put on the shirt and go out and play. It’s about you doing what you need to do: 200 per cent every day, a lot of hard work, playing under a lot of pressure, and you play to win something. We’re here because this club is used to winning. This club is used to having massive players who bring results, who perform every day, not only one game a month but every day, even in training. That’s what Milan are about.”

Twelve months later there was a completely different midwinter mood at Milanello. The Rossoneri were top of Serie A and only Real Madrid had earned more than their 79 points for the calendar year in Europe’s top-five domestic leagues.

Ibrahimović’s ability to improve players around him will shock nobody who worked with him first time around in the iconic red and black. “I need the team as much as the team needs me,” explains Ibrahimović. “This is obvious because alone I can do a lot, but with my team I can do even more. When I play I bring my character, I bring my personality, I bring my quality. I do put pressure on my team-mates, I try to bring out their maximum effort. Some take it in a good way, some a little bit less. Some can’t handle it… not that they can’t handle it, but they find it very hard in the sense that you have to perform when we decide you need to perform. And I decide that we have to perform every day, because for me the way you train is the way you play.”

Milan lead Serie A at the time of writing, and with the youngest squad in the country. “I think we’re on the right path. In six months – seven, eight months – there have been a lot of changes. We’re a young team and I consider myself part of this team, because I am young!” That prompts a cheeky laugh, then it’s back to business. “We are hungry, we want a lot. We have our own objectives and we put a lot of pressure on each other to give the maximum effort.

“If you play at the top level, whether you’re young or old, I put the same pressure on you. Because if you’re here it means you’re here for a reason. You are here because you’re good enough. You’re not here because somebody is waiting for you to become good. When you play for Milan, there is no time: either you perform or not. It is the same for all of the players.

“But then off the pitch, obviously, you’re young, so I speak to you in a different manner, I treat you differently. I mean, if I talk to Rafa Leão, it’s in a different manner. If I talk to Simon Kjær, obviously he’s more mature, he has children. But on the pitch, they’re all the same for me.”

Crucially, Ibrahimović sees through the shallow adulation that online comments can bring. “I’m happy that I come from the old school because with the attention, with social media and all these things, you become big with a little performance. Before, it was not like that. Before, you needed big performances over the long term to be proven as a big player.”

It’s not just Milan who have changed. Ibrahimović has emerged as an elder statesman of European football, mentally stronger than ever, his spiky personality more focused on end results since that 2017 injury. Perhaps that explains the lean, muscular frame he has maintained in his fight against time?

Ibrahimović’s agent, Mino Raiola, told Swedish newspaper Expressen that the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine want to investigate the miracle man and his knee when his career ends. Why wait, he seems tempted to tell them, when the answer is obvious. “I hear athletes from the US say that they spent more than one million [dollars] to keep their body in shape. I am 39. I am in shape. I perform at the highest level. I spend zero to stay in shape. The secret is not how much you spend, the secret is in your head: how much you want it, how much you’re willing to sacrifice.”

In case you’re wondering, there is no quick fix to get a physique like Ibra’s. “All these people who say how much they spend to stay in shape, it’s all fake publicity, fake hopes. Work hard every day and never give up; have your objectives and always achieve and strive for more. That is the secret. It’s the mentality – and mentality doesn’t cost anything.” Not even a special diet? “I eat everything,” he snaps back. “There is no secret here. Hard work. I sleep a lot, yes. I sleep a lot and obviously I get tired faster now, compared to when I was younger.”

During his slumber he may well dream of one last shot at the cup with the big ears, a trophy that has so far eluded him. “Milan is a club with great history in the Champions League, so I have pain in my heart when I don’t see Milan in the Champions League. But first you have to do well in the domestic league, otherwise you don’t reach the best tournaments
in Europe.”

Ibrahimović is doing his level best to ensure that Milan do the business in Serie A in the first instance. He is in the battle to finish as the league’s top scorer and in February hit his 500th career goal; the desire and intensity is clearly as strong as it ever was. “As long as I can perform, I will play at a high level. The day I stop performing I will not play anymore, because I need to feel alive. I need to feel I give something back.

“I want the cooperation between me and the others to be on the same level. I don’t want any advantages because I am 39 and they say, ‘Hey, you slow down.’ No, I want you to consider me on the world-class level and compare me to everybody else because then I push myself even more. I need to bring you results. If I can do that, I feel alive. If I cannot do that then I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Still, that Champions League-shaped hole in his trophy collection must rankle. Ibrahimović has given the competition countless golden moments since his first steps in a qualifier for Ajax in 2001, including a four-goal spree at Anderlecht and knockout strikes against former winners Chelsea and Barcelona. But he has never graced the final and he will have to return in 2021/22 to have a chance to put that right. If he does, he will mark a Champions League career spanning 20 years, an achievement matched only by Ryan Giggs, Iker Casillas and Paolo Maldini.

The last in that select group is back at Milan as a director, working in unison with the Swedish evergreen. Maldini’s own longevity was the stuff of legend but Ibrahimović could yet surpass it – and surpass Brad Pitt too. “Benjamin Button is just a made-up story,” he says. “I’m
the perfect profile for that movie. I’m the real one, and Benjamin Button was for the cinema.”

In truth, Button’s story is much older than the Hollywood blockbuster, older even than Ibrahimović himself. First penned by F Scott Fitzgerald, it was published in Collier’s magazine on 27 May 1922, which means that its 100th anniversary is on the horizon. And the day after the character’s centenary, 28 May 2022, just happens to be the date of next year’s Champions League final. Will Zlatan Button be there with his youthful Milan side for one glorious final chapter?

Interview
Zlatan on...


Milan coach Stefano Pioli
“Maybe he became ‘Zlatanised’. Maybe I’m making him become a Zlatan. He has a very strong mentality. He puts a lot of pressure on the team, he demands a lot, he expects a lot, even though it’s a young team.”

His sons Maximilian and Vincent
“I have two ninjas at home who also play football. If I could play together with them, it would be a huge dream. I think the age difference is too big but if I continue like this, maybe we could one day…”

Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima
“You have the players that play the game and the players that are the game. For me, he is the game. For me, he is the best player in history. No doubt.”

Paul Pogba
“If you ask Paul Pogba, he would say he is [more skilful]. If you ask me, I’m above him. He has a technique like my technique: we can move like small guys. But I promise you, if he showed me a trick, I would do it within one attempt.”

Kids today
“The new generation, they play five minutes and people consider them a big player. I like the old style more, when you didn’t become something, you weren’t proven until you had demonstrated it.”

Tattoos
“All my tattoos are behind me. That’s because I cannot see them and I cannot get tired of them. If I saw them every day I would get tired of them. I think I’ve stopped with the tattoos now. I don’t have any more space on my back, and my legs I don’t touch because they are gifts for me.”

“I have a problem: I’m never satisfied. I’m 39 and, with what I have done, I have no obligation to work anymore because I’ve had a good life anyway, but I still have this passion for what I’m doing. I always want more. Maybe that’s why I am here today and able to perform and do what I’m doing, because I don’t see a lot of players my age who were, or are, performing like I am.”

True enough. Even with his 40th birthday looming in October, Ibrahimović is showing no sign of slowing down. It’s fair to say that he is more reflective, some of that famously swaggering edge having been smoothed by time, but on the pitch he continues to leave defenders pointing at each other in confusion. “The moment a player goes above 30 is when they start to go down and they quit. Above 30 is when I started to become even better – and the line is just going up.”

And let’s be clear: yes, the Swede has certainly mellowed, but he’s still more than happy to unleash a few potent Zlatanisms. We lay out some animal-based bait: who would be easier to domesticate, Zlatan or a lion? “You can tame a lion, but you cannot tame Zlatan. It’s a different animal.” Noted. And just out of interest, who would win in an arm wrestle between Zlatan and King Kong? “I would destroy King Kong, 100%. I would destroy him.”

The giant-gorilla vanquisher arguably faced an even greater challenge in April 2017. Manchester United were playing Anderlecht in the Europa League when Ibrahimović landed awkwardly after leaping for the ball. His right knee hyperextended, causing severe damage to his cruciate ligament and meniscus – and, just like that, his career was in doubt. He was 35. The road back was long, uncertain. But retirement never crossed his mind.

“It took me one year to come back and feel alive,” he says, recalling unending hours of physiotherapy, pain and fatigue. “I’ll be honest, the work I did was very boring; it was mental work because I wasn’t used to it. I’m used to touching the ball: shooting, receiving the ball, scoring goals, using [imagination] to create something.

“Now I was just looking at the time and asking: ‘When is this finished? When am I done? Do I have to do this again?’ But I had people around me who were pushing me and not letting me become lazy, saying, ‘You have to do it, you have to do it! This is the way to do it.’ And this is the way it was done. At the end, I felt alive again.”

The modern Ibrahimović is less mobile and sprightly than a decade ago, but he knows when to move and when to pounce. It is energy management with a trademark sprinkling of audacity and skill. And although you can’t tell from his steely expression on the turf, he is absolutely thrilled to be back. “When you go from a moment where you touch the ball and then you don’t touch it anymore it is not easy, because it was like I was slowing down. I touched the ball less, less, less. And from that moment, I understood that the ball is my best friend who I want to be with for the rest of my life. That’s why I have this happiness every time I come out on the pitch and I’m able to play the game.”

And play again with AC Milan, no less. He has worn the prestigious colours of  some of Europe’s finest teams, in the form of Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. Yet this is undoubtedly the club he has developed the strongest affinity with outside his homeland.

Ibrahimović returned from LA Galaxy to a Rossoneri side completely different to the one he left in 2012. Milan won the 2010/11 title and finished second the following season, with the towering Swede scoring 28 goals in 32 games to be crowned Serie A’s top scorer. That team blended legends and upcoming stars, the acrobatic forward sharing the spotlight with the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Robinho and Thiago Silva. Ibrahimović’s departure, however, was the beginning of a barren spell. Although they managed to scrape a third-place finish the following season, the top four soon slipped away. The San Siro side dropped as low as tenth at the end of 2014/15.

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"I do put pressure on my team-mates, I try to bring out their maximum effort. Some take it in a good way, some a little bit less. Some can’t handle it… not that they can’t handle it, but they find it very hard in the sense that you have to perform when we decide you need to perform. And I decide that we have to perform every day, because for me the way you train is the way you play.”
"Above the age of 30 is when I started to become even better – and the line is just going up"

There were no signs of a prompt recovery; on Christmas Day 2019 they were languishing in 11th. Then, two days later, Ibrahimović announced his decision to return. Could a striker creeping towards his 40s, and coming from two seasons in the MLS, really relaunch Rossoneri ambitions? Or was this just stunt-casting, a desperate move, perhaps a bid to sell some shirts? Any doubts quickly disappeared.

“It’s all about challenges in life,” explains Ibrahimović. “I was playing in America; I felt I’d done enough there. And I came to a moment of whether I should continue to play or not. I had some talks with Italian clubs; I’d played at Milan before and, obviously, I know the club very well. But new management, different team, different names, so, it was all about what I wanted from it. Then I chose to accept because it was a big challenge to come, to try to change the mentality, try to change the situation. And also make the team, the players, understand what Milan is about – the Milan that I know, the Milan the whole world knows.”

The right words can certainly have an impact but goals – and Ibrahimović scored 20 in 24 Serie A games in 2020 – are also good medicine. “Since day one I started to push in the way I do, and try to make the players understand what it takes to play for Milan. It’s not enough to put on the shirt and go out and play. It’s about you doing what you need to do: 200 per cent every day, a lot of hard work, playing under a lot of pressure, and you play to win something. We’re here because this club is used to winning. This club is used to having massive players who bring results, who perform every day, not only one game a month but every day, even in training. That’s what Milan are about.”

Twelve months later there was a completely different midwinter mood at Milanello. The Rossoneri were top of Serie A and only Real Madrid had earned more than their 79 points for the calendar year in Europe’s top-five domestic leagues.

Ibrahimović’s ability to improve players around him will shock nobody who worked with him first time around in the iconic red and black. “I need the team as much as the team needs me,” explains Ibrahimović. “This is obvious because alone I can do a lot, but with my team I can do even more. When I play I bring my character, I bring my personality, I bring my quality. I do put pressure on my team-mates, I try to bring out their maximum effort. Some take it in a good way, some a little bit less. Some can’t handle it… not that they can’t handle it, but they find it very hard in the sense that you have to perform when we decide you need to perform. And I decide that we have to perform every day, because for me the way you train is the way you play.”

Milan lead Serie A at the time of writing, and with the youngest squad in the country. “I think we’re on the right path. In six months – seven, eight months – there have been a lot of changes. We’re a young team and I consider myself part of this team, because I am young!” That prompts a cheeky laugh, then it’s back to business. “We are hungry, we want a lot. We have our own objectives and we put a lot of pressure on each other to give the maximum effort.

“If you play at the top level, whether you’re young or old, I put the same pressure on you. Because if you’re here it means you’re here for a reason. You are here because you’re good enough. You’re not here because somebody is waiting for you to become good. When you play for Milan, there is no time: either you perform or not. It is the same for all of the players.

“But then off the pitch, obviously, you’re young, so I speak to you in a different manner, I treat you differently. I mean, if I talk to Rafa Leão, it’s in a different manner. If I talk to Simon Kjær, obviously he’s more mature, he has children. But on the pitch, they’re all the same for me.”

Crucially, Ibrahimović sees through the shallow adulation that online comments can bring. “I’m happy that I come from the old school because with the attention, with social media and all these things, you become big with a little performance. Before, it was not like that. Before, you needed big performances over the long term to be proven as a big player.”

It’s not just Milan who have changed. Ibrahimović has emerged as an elder statesman of European football, mentally stronger than ever, his spiky personality more focused on end results since that 2017 injury. Perhaps that explains the lean, muscular frame he has maintained in his fight against time?

Ibrahimović’s agent, Mino Raiola, told Swedish newspaper Expressen that the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine want to investigate the miracle man and his knee when his career ends. Why wait, he seems tempted to tell them, when the answer is obvious. “I hear athletes from the US say that they spent more than one million [dollars] to keep their body in shape. I am 39. I am in shape. I perform at the highest level. I spend zero to stay in shape. The secret is not how much you spend, the secret is in your head: how much you want it, how much you’re willing to sacrifice.”

In case you’re wondering, there is no quick fix to get a physique like Ibra’s. “All these people who say how much they spend to stay in shape, it’s all fake publicity, fake hopes. Work hard every day and never give up; have your objectives and always achieve and strive for more. That is the secret. It’s the mentality – and mentality doesn’t cost anything.” Not even a special diet? “I eat everything,” he snaps back. “There is no secret here. Hard work. I sleep a lot, yes. I sleep a lot and obviously I get tired faster now, compared to when I was younger.”

During his slumber he may well dream of one last shot at the cup with the big ears, a trophy that has so far eluded him. “Milan is a club with great history in the Champions League, so I have pain in my heart when I don’t see Milan in the Champions League. But first you have to do well in the domestic league, otherwise you don’t reach the best tournaments
in Europe.”

Ibrahimović is doing his level best to ensure that Milan do the business in Serie A in the first instance. He is in the battle to finish as the league’s top scorer and in February hit his 500th career goal; the desire and intensity is clearly as strong as it ever was. “As long as I can perform, I will play at a high level. The day I stop performing I will not play anymore, because I need to feel alive. I need to feel I give something back.

“I want the cooperation between me and the others to be on the same level. I don’t want any advantages because I am 39 and they say, ‘Hey, you slow down.’ No, I want you to consider me on the world-class level and compare me to everybody else because then I push myself even more. I need to bring you results. If I can do that, I feel alive. If I cannot do that then I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Still, that Champions League-shaped hole in his trophy collection must rankle. Ibrahimović has given the competition countless golden moments since his first steps in a qualifier for Ajax in 2001, including a four-goal spree at Anderlecht and knockout strikes against former winners Chelsea and Barcelona. But he has never graced the final and he will have to return in 2021/22 to have a chance to put that right. If he does, he will mark a Champions League career spanning 20 years, an achievement matched only by Ryan Giggs, Iker Casillas and Paolo Maldini.

The last in that select group is back at Milan as a director, working in unison with the Swedish evergreen. Maldini’s own longevity was the stuff of legend but Ibrahimović could yet surpass it – and surpass Brad Pitt too. “Benjamin Button is just a made-up story,” he says. “I’m
the perfect profile for that movie. I’m the real one, and Benjamin Button was for the cinema.”

In truth, Button’s story is much older than the Hollywood blockbuster, older even than Ibrahimović himself. First penned by F Scott Fitzgerald, it was published in Collier’s magazine on 27 May 1922, which means that its 100th anniversary is on the horizon. And the day after the character’s centenary, 28 May 2022, just happens to be the date of next year’s Champions League final. Will Zlatan Button be there with his youthful Milan side for one glorious final chapter?

Interview
Zlatan on...


Milan coach Stefano Pioli
“Maybe he became ‘Zlatanised’. Maybe I’m making him become a Zlatan. He has a very strong mentality. He puts a lot of pressure on the team, he demands a lot, he expects a lot, even though it’s a young team.”

His sons Maximilian and Vincent
“I have two ninjas at home who also play football. If I could play together with them, it would be a huge dream. I think the age difference is too big but if I continue like this, maybe we could one day…”

Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima
“You have the players that play the game and the players that are the game. For me, he is the game. For me, he is the best player in history. No doubt.”

Paul Pogba
“If you ask Paul Pogba, he would say he is [more skilful]. If you ask me, I’m above him. He has a technique like my technique: we can move like small guys. But I promise you, if he showed me a trick, I would do it within one attempt.”

Kids today
“The new generation, they play five minutes and people consider them a big player. I like the old style more, when you didn’t become something, you weren’t proven until you had demonstrated it.”

Tattoos
“All my tattoos are behind me. That’s because I cannot see them and I cannot get tired of them. If I saw them every day I would get tired of them. I think I’ve stopped with the tattoos now. I don’t have any more space on my back, and my legs I don’t touch because they are gifts for me.”

“I have a problem: I’m never satisfied. I’m 39 and, with what I have done, I have no obligation to work anymore because I’ve had a good life anyway, but I still have this passion for what I’m doing. I always want more. Maybe that’s why I am here today and able to perform and do what I’m doing, because I don’t see a lot of players my age who were, or are, performing like I am.”

True enough. Even with his 40th birthday looming in October, Ibrahimović is showing no sign of slowing down. It’s fair to say that he is more reflective, some of that famously swaggering edge having been smoothed by time, but on the pitch he continues to leave defenders pointing at each other in confusion. “The moment a player goes above 30 is when they start to go down and they quit. Above 30 is when I started to become even better – and the line is just going up.”

And let’s be clear: yes, the Swede has certainly mellowed, but he’s still more than happy to unleash a few potent Zlatanisms. We lay out some animal-based bait: who would be easier to domesticate, Zlatan or a lion? “You can tame a lion, but you cannot tame Zlatan. It’s a different animal.” Noted. And just out of interest, who would win in an arm wrestle between Zlatan and King Kong? “I would destroy King Kong, 100%. I would destroy him.”

The giant-gorilla vanquisher arguably faced an even greater challenge in April 2017. Manchester United were playing Anderlecht in the Europa League when Ibrahimović landed awkwardly after leaping for the ball. His right knee hyperextended, causing severe damage to his cruciate ligament and meniscus – and, just like that, his career was in doubt. He was 35. The road back was long, uncertain. But retirement never crossed his mind.

“It took me one year to come back and feel alive,” he says, recalling unending hours of physiotherapy, pain and fatigue. “I’ll be honest, the work I did was very boring; it was mental work because I wasn’t used to it. I’m used to touching the ball: shooting, receiving the ball, scoring goals, using [imagination] to create something.

“Now I was just looking at the time and asking: ‘When is this finished? When am I done? Do I have to do this again?’ But I had people around me who were pushing me and not letting me become lazy, saying, ‘You have to do it, you have to do it! This is the way to do it.’ And this is the way it was done. At the end, I felt alive again.”

The modern Ibrahimović is less mobile and sprightly than a decade ago, but he knows when to move and when to pounce. It is energy management with a trademark sprinkling of audacity and skill. And although you can’t tell from his steely expression on the turf, he is absolutely thrilled to be back. “When you go from a moment where you touch the ball and then you don’t touch it anymore it is not easy, because it was like I was slowing down. I touched the ball less, less, less. And from that moment, I understood that the ball is my best friend who I want to be with for the rest of my life. That’s why I have this happiness every time I come out on the pitch and I’m able to play the game.”

And play again with AC Milan, no less. He has worn the prestigious colours of  some of Europe’s finest teams, in the form of Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. Yet this is undoubtedly the club he has developed the strongest affinity with outside his homeland.

Ibrahimović returned from LA Galaxy to a Rossoneri side completely different to the one he left in 2012. Milan won the 2010/11 title and finished second the following season, with the towering Swede scoring 28 goals in 32 games to be crowned Serie A’s top scorer. That team blended legends and upcoming stars, the acrobatic forward sharing the spotlight with the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Robinho and Thiago Silva. Ibrahimović’s departure, however, was the beginning of a barren spell. Although they managed to scrape a third-place finish the following season, the top four soon slipped away. The San Siro side dropped as low as tenth at the end of 2014/15.

"I do put pressure on my team-mates, I try to bring out their maximum effort. Some take it in a good way, some a little bit less. Some can’t handle it… not that they can’t handle it, but they find it very hard in the sense that you have to perform when we decide you need to perform. And I decide that we have to perform every day, because for me the way you train is the way you play.”
"Above the age of 30 is when I started to become even better – and the line is just going up"

There were no signs of a prompt recovery; on Christmas Day 2019 they were languishing in 11th. Then, two days later, Ibrahimović announced his decision to return. Could a striker creeping towards his 40s, and coming from two seasons in the MLS, really relaunch Rossoneri ambitions? Or was this just stunt-casting, a desperate move, perhaps a bid to sell some shirts? Any doubts quickly disappeared.

“It’s all about challenges in life,” explains Ibrahimović. “I was playing in America; I felt I’d done enough there. And I came to a moment of whether I should continue to play or not. I had some talks with Italian clubs; I’d played at Milan before and, obviously, I know the club very well. But new management, different team, different names, so, it was all about what I wanted from it. Then I chose to accept because it was a big challenge to come, to try to change the mentality, try to change the situation. And also make the team, the players, understand what Milan is about – the Milan that I know, the Milan the whole world knows.”

The right words can certainly have an impact but goals – and Ibrahimović scored 20 in 24 Serie A games in 2020 – are also good medicine. “Since day one I started to push in the way I do, and try to make the players understand what it takes to play for Milan. It’s not enough to put on the shirt and go out and play. It’s about you doing what you need to do: 200 per cent every day, a lot of hard work, playing under a lot of pressure, and you play to win something. We’re here because this club is used to winning. This club is used to having massive players who bring results, who perform every day, not only one game a month but every day, even in training. That’s what Milan are about.”

Twelve months later there was a completely different midwinter mood at Milanello. The Rossoneri were top of Serie A and only Real Madrid had earned more than their 79 points for the calendar year in Europe’s top-five domestic leagues.

Ibrahimović’s ability to improve players around him will shock nobody who worked with him first time around in the iconic red and black. “I need the team as much as the team needs me,” explains Ibrahimović. “This is obvious because alone I can do a lot, but with my team I can do even more. When I play I bring my character, I bring my personality, I bring my quality. I do put pressure on my team-mates, I try to bring out their maximum effort. Some take it in a good way, some a little bit less. Some can’t handle it… not that they can’t handle it, but they find it very hard in the sense that you have to perform when we decide you need to perform. And I decide that we have to perform every day, because for me the way you train is the way you play.”

Milan lead Serie A at the time of writing, and with the youngest squad in the country. “I think we’re on the right path. In six months – seven, eight months – there have been a lot of changes. We’re a young team and I consider myself part of this team, because I am young!” That prompts a cheeky laugh, then it’s back to business. “We are hungry, we want a lot. We have our own objectives and we put a lot of pressure on each other to give the maximum effort.

“If you play at the top level, whether you’re young or old, I put the same pressure on you. Because if you’re here it means you’re here for a reason. You are here because you’re good enough. You’re not here because somebody is waiting for you to become good. When you play for Milan, there is no time: either you perform or not. It is the same for all of the players.

“But then off the pitch, obviously, you’re young, so I speak to you in a different manner, I treat you differently. I mean, if I talk to Rafa Leão, it’s in a different manner. If I talk to Simon Kjær, obviously he’s more mature, he has children. But on the pitch, they’re all the same for me.”

Crucially, Ibrahimović sees through the shallow adulation that online comments can bring. “I’m happy that I come from the old school because with the attention, with social media and all these things, you become big with a little performance. Before, it was not like that. Before, you needed big performances over the long term to be proven as a big player.”

It’s not just Milan who have changed. Ibrahimović has emerged as an elder statesman of European football, mentally stronger than ever, his spiky personality more focused on end results since that 2017 injury. Perhaps that explains the lean, muscular frame he has maintained in his fight against time?

Ibrahimović’s agent, Mino Raiola, told Swedish newspaper Expressen that the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine want to investigate the miracle man and his knee when his career ends. Why wait, he seems tempted to tell them, when the answer is obvious. “I hear athletes from the US say that they spent more than one million [dollars] to keep their body in shape. I am 39. I am in shape. I perform at the highest level. I spend zero to stay in shape. The secret is not how much you spend, the secret is in your head: how much you want it, how much you’re willing to sacrifice.”

In case you’re wondering, there is no quick fix to get a physique like Ibra’s. “All these people who say how much they spend to stay in shape, it’s all fake publicity, fake hopes. Work hard every day and never give up; have your objectives and always achieve and strive for more. That is the secret. It’s the mentality – and mentality doesn’t cost anything.” Not even a special diet? “I eat everything,” he snaps back. “There is no secret here. Hard work. I sleep a lot, yes. I sleep a lot and obviously I get tired faster now, compared to when I was younger.”

During his slumber he may well dream of one last shot at the cup with the big ears, a trophy that has so far eluded him. “Milan is a club with great history in the Champions League, so I have pain in my heart when I don’t see Milan in the Champions League. But first you have to do well in the domestic league, otherwise you don’t reach the best tournaments
in Europe.”

Ibrahimović is doing his level best to ensure that Milan do the business in Serie A in the first instance. He is in the battle to finish as the league’s top scorer and in February hit his 500th career goal; the desire and intensity is clearly as strong as it ever was. “As long as I can perform, I will play at a high level. The day I stop performing I will not play anymore, because I need to feel alive. I need to feel I give something back.

“I want the cooperation between me and the others to be on the same level. I don’t want any advantages because I am 39 and they say, ‘Hey, you slow down.’ No, I want you to consider me on the world-class level and compare me to everybody else because then I push myself even more. I need to bring you results. If I can do that, I feel alive. If I cannot do that then I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Still, that Champions League-shaped hole in his trophy collection must rankle. Ibrahimović has given the competition countless golden moments since his first steps in a qualifier for Ajax in 2001, including a four-goal spree at Anderlecht and knockout strikes against former winners Chelsea and Barcelona. But he has never graced the final and he will have to return in 2021/22 to have a chance to put that right. If he does, he will mark a Champions League career spanning 20 years, an achievement matched only by Ryan Giggs, Iker Casillas and Paolo Maldini.

The last in that select group is back at Milan as a director, working in unison with the Swedish evergreen. Maldini’s own longevity was the stuff of legend but Ibrahimović could yet surpass it – and surpass Brad Pitt too. “Benjamin Button is just a made-up story,” he says. “I’m
the perfect profile for that movie. I’m the real one, and Benjamin Button was for the cinema.”

In truth, Button’s story is much older than the Hollywood blockbuster, older even than Ibrahimović himself. First penned by F Scott Fitzgerald, it was published in Collier’s magazine on 27 May 1922, which means that its 100th anniversary is on the horizon. And the day after the character’s centenary, 28 May 2022, just happens to be the date of next year’s Champions League final. Will Zlatan Button be there with his youthful Milan side for one glorious final chapter?

Interview
Zlatan on...


Milan coach Stefano Pioli
“Maybe he became ‘Zlatanised’. Maybe I’m making him become a Zlatan. He has a very strong mentality. He puts a lot of pressure on the team, he demands a lot, he expects a lot, even though it’s a young team.”

His sons Maximilian and Vincent
“I have two ninjas at home who also play football. If I could play together with them, it would be a huge dream. I think the age difference is too big but if I continue like this, maybe we could one day…”

Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima
“You have the players that play the game and the players that are the game. For me, he is the game. For me, he is the best player in history. No doubt.”

Paul Pogba
“If you ask Paul Pogba, he would say he is [more skilful]. If you ask me, I’m above him. He has a technique like my technique: we can move like small guys. But I promise you, if he showed me a trick, I would do it within one attempt.”

Kids today
“The new generation, they play five minutes and people consider them a big player. I like the old style more, when you didn’t become something, you weren’t proven until you had demonstrated it.”

Tattoos
“All my tattoos are behind me. That’s because I cannot see them and I cannot get tired of them. If I saw them every day I would get tired of them. I think I’ve stopped with the tattoos now. I don’t have any more space on my back, and my legs I don’t touch because they are gifts for me.”

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