The Milan and Sweden player talks about barging César Azpilicueta, the Premier League and the secret of his longevity
“It’s not easy. Every day I wake up, I have pain everywhere,” Zlatan Ibrahimovic says as he resists the inevitable end on a beautiful afternoon at Milanello. The mighty Swede grimaces before fixing me with his familiar stare of cocky intensity at Milan’s famous old training ground. This is how much it takes to remain an elite footballer at the age of 40.
Ibrahimovic continues to inspire a young Milan squad and to play football at the highest level while sparking controversy and embracing the wonder of being Zlatan with amusing gusto. He knows we are all going to die, or retire, but here is the defiant Ibrahimovic mantra:
“This morning I had pain everywhere but as long as I have objectives, as long as I have adrenaline, I keep going. I know I’m coming to something good. I’m coming to somewhere I need to work to keep myself at the top.
“I will keep doing it as long as I can. I don’t want to have that regret if I stop and then, in a couple of years, I’m sitting with you and saying: ‘I could have continued because I was feeling good.’ It’s better to be totally finished and say: ‘I cannot do it any more.’ But I can still do it and I am doing it.”
On Saturday, away against Fiorentina, Ibrahimovic scored two and set up a third goal. But Milan remain a work in progress as they lost 4-3 and are second in the table behind Napoli on goal difference.
He returned to Milan for his second spell with the club in late December 2019. After a serious knee injury hastened his departure from Manchester United in 2018, he spent two years playing for LA Galaxy. Such a stint in the US usually marks a lucrative swansong for a feted European player. But Ibrahimovic is different and he came back to Milan with a new goal. He wanted to transform the youngest squad in Serie A and instil his formidable fight into players who revere him.
He continues to stoke his own fire and as he proved just over a week ago when barging into César Azpilicueta during Sweden’s final World Cup qualifying group match, Ibrahimovic still adheres fiercely to his beliefs. Before we reach this contentious point, the middle‑aged maverick reiterates his worldview. “It’s not about contracts or being famous. I don’t need that. The only thing that keeps me going is the adrenaline because every morning I have pain everywhere. But getting two more followers will not heal you. Getting more money will not heal you. Getting attention will not heal you. What will heal you is adrenaline.
“I don’t have problems suffering. For me, to suffer is like breakfast. But many people don’t understand suffering because the new generation, with all these platforms, have to do little to get credit. The generation before that you had to do a lot to get a little. I’m very proud I came from the old generation.”
In their Champions League group with Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and Porto, Milan are struggling. But they have the youngest squad in Europe’s premier competition. “Even if I’m there,” Ibrahimovic says. “It’s incredible. They make me look young. It has this effect, like Benjamin Button. After six months here you will have dark hair, trust me.”
Ibrahimovic points to my white hair and laughs before becoming serious. “I’m very proud because I see these young players taking more responsibility, the mentality changing. That is my happiness now. That is my adrenaline. I go out and run as much as them.
“I’ve been doing it for 20 years. People think: ‘No, Ibrahimovic, you need to stop.’ My mentality says different. I do it because when the young players see me work they say: ‘After all he has done he is still [working]. I have to do it because he has done everything.’ It’s a bit of – not manipulation – but showing them by example.
“I’m not that dog that barks and does nothing. I’m the opposite. When I was first here [from 2010 to 2012] we were superstars. Now it’s full of talent, the youngest team in Europe, but we’re on top. So it’s a different project and it’s more satisfying because if you succeed with superstars, it’s expected. This is not expected.”
One measure of Ibrahimovic’s longevity is that he played against Paolo Maldini who was a giant in the Milan defence from 1984 to 2009, when he retired at 41. Maldini epitomised Milan’s reputation for extending the careers of great players and it is striking that his 20‑year‑old son, Daniel, plays alongside Ibrahimovic. Are father and son similar?
“One is Mr Nice Guy. The other one, if he wants to kill you, he will kill you. I’m happy they’re not the same because it’s not easy for the son to be compared with the father, especially when the father has the career he had. We are helping the son in every way. He’s a big talent, but I tell him: ‘Just play your game, fight, then you will lead the way yourself.’ I’m happy. I played against the father and today I’m playing with the son. Maybe [Daniel] will have a son …”
There’s an ambition, I say, to keep going until the next Maldini arrives at Milanello. The miracle of Zlatan will be complete. “It’s already a miracle,” Ibrahimovic says with a grin before he picks up my notebook. He studies my scrawled 48 questions that stretch across three pages. “You brought a whole book with you. My time is very expensive. But you take your work very serious and there’s a lot to talk about.”
I ask Ibrahimovic if he is almost glad he came from a difficult past in Sweden, when he was “a punk from Rosengård”, an immigrant neighbourhood in Malmö, and the son of a Bosnian caretaker and a Croatian cleaner. “I’m not here to say I’m cool because I came from the ghetto or that you should feel sorry for me because I came from there. You make the best of it and then it depends on you.”
Ibrahimovic leans forward. He is in full flow now. “Life is up and down. If everything was perfect, we have nothing to talk about. We still do mistakes. Nobody is perfect. On digital platforms you put out a picture with 20 filters and you look perfect. But when I see you in reality you’re not perfect. You look normal like everybody else. People pretend they are perfect. I say: ‘I am perfect when I’m myself.’ It doesn’t mean I will not do mistakes. But I learn from them.
“The other day in the national team, I gave a tackle to [Spain’s Azpilicueta]. I did it on purpose. I’m not ashamed to say it because he did something stupid to my player. Acting big to my player. It was a stupid thing but I would still do it to make him understand: ‘You don’t fucking do that. You don’t have balls to do it against me. But I will show you what happens if you do it to me.’ That’s why I did it.”
Sweden conceded the only goal of the game in the 86th minute and Ibrahimovic set about his lesson deep into added time. As a corner was taken he careered into Azpilicueta, hitting him with his shoulder as he sent the defender crashing to the ground. It looked brutal.
Did Azpilicueta say anything after the game, which sealed Spain’s World Cup qualification ahead of Sweden? “What can he say? He will not say it to me but he will say it to my player – who will do nothing because he’s too nice. It was not a good thing by me, but I would still do it. That’s me. I’m not ashamed to say it.”
He was booked and Ibrahimovic will miss Sweden’s first play-off match in March. “It’s not about missing the play-offs. It’s about making the guy understand you don’t take the piss out of somebody laying [on the ground]. You don’t attack a dog that doesn’t talk. Attack the one able to do something. It’s too easy to pick on my teammates who are 20 years old and very nice guys. I hope he understands now.”
Two of Milan’s charming media team, who sit in on our interview, take notes at speed. Ibrahimovic doesn’t care. “I’m not afraid to say it to you,” he stresses, concentrating on our conversation. “I did a stupid thing. [But] I will do it again. 100%.”
Is he being true to himself? “Exactly. That is what I say about being ‘perfect’. Being myself is perfect for me. I don’t need filters to ask them what kind of questions you will give me.”
His two seasons at Manchester United were partially successful and Ibrahimovic says: “I had a great experience in England. Manchester United are an amazing club and we won a couple of trophies [the League Cup when he scored two goals in the final and the Europa League].”
Considering the ongoing travails of United, who remain in thrall to the Ferguson years, Ibrahimovic says: “They talk too much about the past. When I went there I said: ‘I’m here to focus on the present and to make my own story.’ But when you have too much it becomes like a loop. You have to think about the present or you should go to a hospital and clean your head.”
The Premier League is an addictive soap-opera but did it seem overrated? “The quality is overrated in a technical way. But the Premier League has different qualities – the pace, the rhythm. You can be the best player in the world but if you cannot handle that pace and rhythm [you won’t succeed].
“In Spain, France, Italy, the technique is better. That’s why there are so many foreigners in the Premier League. They bring the technical [aspect].”
I also interviewed Ibrahimovic on 6 October 2014 – his 33rd birthday. We met in Paris, as he played for PSG then, and his sons Max and Vincent had woken him by singing Happy Birthday. “They’re 13 and 15 now,” he says, almost wistfully. “Time flies.”
It’s the first time Ibrahimovic has been separated from his family because he and his wife want their boys to be settled at school in Sweden. “It’s not easy but my wife takes good care of the children. We make it work. When there is free time we see each other and we are all happy.”
In March 2020, six weeks after returning to Milan, the whole of Lombardy was in the grip of Covid. Ibrahimovic remembers how the eerie silence was broken only by the ambulance sirens. He donated €100,000 to the fight against coronavirus and led campaigns to spread awareness and encourage the wearing of masks. But without his family and football how did he feel at the start of the pandemic? “I was lonely. Things were very strict and you couldn’t travel. It was strange because in those moments you stay with your close ones and I couldn’t. But then they opened up a little and I travelled home and stayed with them for two months.”
The virus remains and he still gets caught up in controversy. I have interviewed LeBron James twice before and I tell Ibrahimovic I was disappointed that he and the NBA giant have fallen out. They have much in common but Ibrahimovic chose to criticise James for making political statements. I believe James is America’s most significant sportsman because of his readiness to call out racial injustice and brutality.
“Sport unites people. Politics divide people,” Ibrahimovic says. He listens carefully when I explain that I grew up in South Africa and the sports boycott against apartheid in the 1970s offered my first lessons in how racism deforms society. “If we talk about racism, it’s something else. That’s something I don’t agree with. But I don’t do politics. If I did, I would be a president now.”
It seems a shame he can’t talk openly with James. “I don’t know him personally. I don’t judge him. Whatever he does with racists, he is right, because when 50,000 call you a fucking gypsy, it’s the same. That is [also] racism. But I don’t do politics. I do sport. That’s the way you spread love.”
We agree to disagree and he smiles when I ask if anything scares him about his future without football? “If I worry about the future, I’m not focusing on today. I’m present time. Carpe diem.”
Then, with a handshake and warm words, the great old warrior slips back out into the autumnal sunshine. He raises his hand in a final wave as he returns to work but the end, for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is still not here.