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.”