There are footballers and then there’s Zlatan. The taekwondo-trained cult hero tells Diego Jokas about Premier League rumours and missing Mourinho
He’s been violent to opponents, teammates and managers, been described as ignorant and childish, and – perhaps most damningly – he refers to himself in the third person as a matter of course. And yet we can’t help but love him.
Maybe it’s because Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not simply outrageously talented, he has an incredible knack of elevating his teammates. How else can you explain the fact that his teams have topped their league table 11 times in the past 13 seasons? Or maybe it’s because the 33-year-old’s been vocal about growing up in poverty and his efforts to improve the lives of those facing the same battle.
A quick recap of his origin story: the son of Bosnian and Croatian immigrants, Zlatan grew up in what he describes as a ghetto in Rosengard, Malmo. His upbringing was tough, but it helped prepare him for the competitive world of football as he put noses out of joint from the point he joined Malmo’s youth team. But this abrasive nature didn’t prevent a career-making move to Ajax when he was barely out of his teens.
After being accused of intentionally injuring a club teammate in an international match, he was swiftly sold to Juventus. When the Turin club was relegated as part of the 2006 match-fixing scandal punishments he found himself at Internazionale (eventually under Jose Mourinho) before another transfer saw him join Barcelona.
His fractious relationship with Pep Guardiola meant his time at the Nou Camp was cut short and he was soon back at the San Siro, this time with Milan. After a couple of productive seasons there he was sold on to Paris Saint-Germain – where he has so far helped them win their third and fourth French league titles.
Despite being banned for this week’s first game, he’s still hoping he can lead PSG past Barcelona in next week’s Champions League second leg and, ultimately, to victory at the final in Berlin come June. But don’t expect him to head to England after that...
You’ve had success in France, Holland, Italy and Spain, but if you never play in the Premier League will you feel you’ve missed out?
No regrets at all, I have 11 league titles – what is there I can regret? I have nothing to prove in England, I can achieve everything I want to at PSG.
Was it even more satisfying to see PSG eliminate Chelsea from the Champions League after the circumstances surrounding your red card?
All I want to do is win the Champions League with PSG; we had to knock out Chelsea to have a chance for this to happen and we did. That is the only satisfaction I need.
You’ve played under Jose Mourinho and he’s said he’d like to sign you again. What's he like to work with? Did you ever have any arguments?
You want to talk about regrets? One I have is that I did not play under Jose for longer. Before I even met him in person he called me and said, “I can’t wait to start working with you.” That man had my loyalty straight away, he is one of the most intelligent men I know.
You bring a lot of passion on to the pitch – did you have any sympathy for Steven Gerrard getting sent off less than a minute after coming on against Manchester United last month?
Things can happen that shouldn’t happen, but mistakes at least show players care about the game. When you stop caring it is time to retire.
Is there a danger of being too fired up or too motivated?
Maybe, but I would always accept that above not caring.
What do you expect the atmosphere to be like at the Nou Camp when PSG play the away leg against Barcelona, and how will it play a part in your own performance?
I can’t answer how the atmosphere will be, but I must be clear: nothing is personal. The game is not about Zlatan returning to Barcelona; it is just another step in PSG’s quest to win the Champions League.
Much is made of how your martial-arts background helped your balance and play. Do you think it did?
I think you just answered your own question – you are correct, it helped with my balance, and balance is an important part of the type of goals I can score.
What drew you to martial arts as a child?
The need to protect yourself, it was important growing up.
What sort of a footballer were you back then? Did you have the same style and flair you have now?
I still approached the game in the same way, but I am a lot calmer now. There was a petition to get me removed from the club when I was a kid. I mean, come on.
What are you most likely to be involved in when you retire: coaching or politics?
I can’t think about my post-football career when there is still so much I want to achieve.
A few footballers have moved into acting. Is that something that appeals to you?
I don’t see that happening.
Do you feel you’ve matured? Are there moments that, looking back, you’d like to change?
Of course I have made mistakes, I don’t think it was a good idea headbutting a teammate when I was playing for the youth side in Malmo, but the most important thing is you learn. I will still make mistakes, but I am still learning. [My wife] Helena has been such a positive person in my life; she has matured me and calmed me.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
Probably that Zlatan cares only about Zlatan. When I win league titles they are for my teammates and my fans – that is why I want to be successful.
What’s the single most annoying thing about modern footballers?
Maybe it’s just a few, but a lack of passion. We know that football has become a business, but you must still play because you love it.
Zlatan, of course, is in a unique position to comment on the failings of his peers. There are few players that can rival his status as the antithesis of the bland, media-trained footballer we hear trotting out the same tired soundbites every weekend. He speaks his mind with no regard to the consequences – he recently received a four-match ban for describing France as a “sh*t country” that didn’t “deserve” PSG after yet another run-in with a ref. This also partly explains why he never stays at one club for too long.
Much like Eric Cantona once did, Zlatan struts around the pitch exuding enough confidence and charisma to make fans of rival clubs hate and admire him in equal measure. He’s the real-life version of the sort of player we all wanted to be when we were playing football in the park as kids: all tricks, spectacular goals and breathtaking style. But it may surprise people to learn that he’s also taken his no-nonsense swagger into the world of philanthropy. Not to mention his approach to fatherhood...
Do you think footballers should follow your lead and do more to highlight problems such as global hunger?
It is not for me to tell other players what to do, but I feel I must raise awareness. Eight hundred million people go to bed hungry every night; we can’t allow that to happen. We just can’t.
How did you get involved with the INAS World Football Championship, the tournament for people with intellectual disabilities?
Football is for everybody, disability or no disability. When I found out [the Sweden team] needed money to play in the tournament in Brazil, I told them the money would be there, as it was the only chance I had of being involved in a World Cup in Brazil.
You’ve been described as arrogant and rebellious. But is that a bad thing? Surely you wouldn’t be the player you are if you didn’t carry yourself that way?
You must understand this is the view of journalists who have newspapers to write. You can only judge me when you meet me. So often people say, “I thought you were going to be arrogant and cocky, but you are a nice guy.”
You have spoken about your hard upbringing. How has that shaped the player and man you are?
Your upbringing does shape you. If it is positive you want it to carry on being that way, if it is a negative upbringing it inspires change.
What was the toughest thing you faced growing up?
Hunger – people think hunger is just restricted to some countries, but it is not true. Our fridge was often empty because my father would spend money on alcohol rather than food.
The money you’ve earned from football has ensured your children have a more comfortable upbringing than you had. As a father, how can you ensure they don’t take this for granted?
We are comfortable, that’s true. Our fridge is always full and there is no need to feel guilty for that. What I will educate them in is that not everybody’s fridge is full, and if it isn’t, people with much have a duty to help them fill it.
How do you think your life would’ve turned out if you’d not pursued football as a career?
Maybe not so well.
What’s the best goal you have scored?
The best goals I have scored very few people have seen. People ask about the England goal [his fourth of four in a 4-2 friendly win in 2012], but if you ask any of the players I have played with they will tell you I have scored many better in training. For me, goals like that are not unusual.
Is there a player you’d still love to play alongside?
If we are talking ever then Diego Maradona. He had magic in his feet, and he started number 10. Everybody wanted to wear number 10 because that was what Maradona wore. He is a very important part of football history.
Who’s the toughest opponent you’ve faced?
My toughest opponent has always been me; the next day I strive to be a better player than the day before.
How much of the ‘Zlatan’ character is really you and how much is a construct?
Everything you see is real, but maybe everything that you read isn’t.