Sometimes Mino Raiola will walk over his client Zlatan Ibrahimovic. “While he’s doing a workout I just stand on him for a moment,” says the player’s agent, “and I’m not the lightest person. But Zlatan just continues with his push-ups.”
The Sweden striker is now 39 and for the vast majority of players who have played at the very top of the game over a long career retiring from a rigid training regime would be long overdue at such an age. But Ibrahimovic is playing at Milan this season as if he had just entered the spring of his career.
According to Raiola, Ibrahimovic is far from finished. “I won’t let him stop playing until he has to get carried off the pitch on a stretcher. He can continue until his 50th, but he only wants to play at the highest level,” says the agent. “You can see he can continue for the time being. He resuscitated all of Milan, he’s 90% of that team.”
Going into the weekend fixtures Milan are top of Serie A, one point ahead of the city rivals, Internazionale. Ibrahimovic has played 29 games since his return to San Siro in January. La Gazzetta dello Sport splashed him on its front page in royal costume. He was player of the month in October, when he struggled with Covid-19.
Shortly afterwards, a video appeared with Ibrahimovic warning the Lombardy region of the virus in his own way: “Corona challenged me but I won. But remember: you are not Zlatan, be careful.”
A year ago he was playing at LA Galaxy following a stint with Manchester United. The MLS is often regarded as the final hurrah for a top player. Yet he scored 52 goals in 56 appearances in the United States. And since his return to Milan for a second spell, he has revitalised the club. He has scored 20 goals in 24 games, including two critical goals in October’s Milan derby. He should be back from injury on Sunday when Milan take on Sassuolo.
In a sense, the veteran has become Milan’s figurehead. Udinese’s Dutch defender Bram Nuytinck is in awe of his impact. “Milan is Zlatan,” he says, echoing Raiola’s bold claim. “The squad has been incomparable since he returned. There is just really something special in the side now; a piece of power, quality, technique and appearance.
“He still picks up balls from two meters high with his foot from the air like it’s nothing.”
Nuytinck says of Udinese’s match last month: “It was just as difficult to play against him as the times I played against him before [in 2013 and 2017]. Normally you force yourself to win man-on-man duels. You don’t have to do it with him, he just uses your body to win the ball.”
Nuytinck was missing against Milan because of an injury when Ibrahimovic scored an acrobatic late winner. Without fans in the stadium, it was possible for the defender to hear Ibrahimovic urging his teammates: “Don’t play that ball back, I need it here,” Nuytinck says: “All the players listen to him. He enforces that by winning so much, still being so motivated and still having such an impressive physique.”
Jörgen Becke, Ibrahimovic’s fitness coach at his first club, Malmö, believed that the then 18-year-old “extremely lazy” Zlatan could deliver more power than the rest of his teammates and that his impressive trunk and side muscles were already on par with some of the best sprinters and high jumpers in Sweden at that time.
Over the years, Ibrahimovic became addicted to training. “I love to suffer through my training,” he told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 2015. “It has to be hard, preferably every day. It’s like driving a fast car. It doesn’t want to drive slow, it wants to go fast. That pressure comes from me and no one else. As soon as I don’t achieve what I want to achieve, I get disappointed. Everything I do has to be perfect.”
Raiola says: “He knows his body very well, has only become more extreme in that department. It is almost exact science the way he lives for his sport. He can work with any fitness coach, but is above all his own personal trainer.”
And those of others, too. Raiola recalls when he had agreed with a teammate to take a helicopter tour. “They were due to fly at 11 in the morning, had played a game the night before. So that teammate says: ‘OK then, I’ll be with you at half past 10.’ ‘No,’ said Zlatan, ‘you’ll be there at half past eight.’ ‘What do you mean?’ the teammate said. ‘Well,’ said Zlatan, ‘we’re going to train for two hours first.’”
Such commitment influences his much younger teammates, believes Ruud Gullit. “The others don’t want to be left behind when he’s ahead,” he says. “That is why his arrival has been so important to Milan.
“I was raised as a young player by Martin Haar at Haarlem, by Cruyff and Van Hanegem at Feyenoord. You don’t have that kind of leader on the field any more. But they are so important.”
In the US, Ibrahimovic missed “the intrinsic discipline”, Raiola says. “Those years were a pity, really. He wanted to live in LA with his family, but had difficulties there. They didn’t want to win there as much as he did. Even if he plays a computer game, Zlatan has to win.”
Gullit, a former LA Galaxy coach, says: “It’s hard to build a good team in that league. A number of players can earn more but the rest must remain below a salary ceiling. That gives you big differences in quality.”
‘He is unimaginably self-critical. Failure does not suit him, it will drive him crazy. He has to play well all the time’
Pele van Anholt had just left LA Galaxy when Ibrahimovic, on his arrival, took out an advertisement in the LA Times congratulating the city. “Dear Los Angeles,” it read, “you’re welcome.”
Van Anholt believes such an attitude did not go down well with all his fellow players: “What I understood from former teammates was that they had trouble with the stamp he was trying to put on everyone, including off the field. That was suffocating. In America people are very careful with their dealings, Zlatan is straightforward.”Anyone who opens up finds an ally for life. Mark van Bommel clashed regularly with Ibrahimovic during games. At half-time in a game between Sweden and the Netherlands, Ibrahimovic kicked a ball at the Dutchman and told him to be careful. When they became teammates at Milan, Ibrahimovic helped the equally fiery Dutchman to settle in. They became such good friends that Zlatan attended Van Bommel’s farewell game and the Dutchman called his dog, a burly Rhodesian ridgeback, Ibra.
Ibrahimovic has struck up a close connection with the young Alkmaar striker Myron Boadu, another of Raiola’s clients. “When they were in America for knee surgery, Myron saw Zlatan doing abdominal exercises already the day after his surgery,” says Raiola.
Boadu says Ibrahimovic treated him like a friend and Raiola adds: “Zlatan is like a fruit bowl but you have to get the fruit yourself.” What he means is that Zlatan has a lot of advice and knowledge to offer but you have to be open to it: the fruit is there, but it doesn’t walk up to you by itself. You have to go and get it.
Zlatan’s public statements are certainly not short on self-confidence. In 2020 he compared himself on social media with a shark (once), a lion (five times) and God (10 times, once calling himself half devil, half God). But such displays of bravado do not reveal the true Ibrahimovic, Raiola says. “There is a wink in everything he does. And there is a serious undertone to all winks.
“He challenges himself with those statements. He is unimaginably self-critical. Failure does not suit him, it will drive him crazy. He doesn’t want to play well once, he has to play well all the time. And not only him, the whole team has to. And he succeeds.
“Where was Paris Saint-Germain before he came? Where was Milan? He sets the standard those clubs will benefit from for years to come. Also because of the way he deals with adversity. He always finds the strength to keep going.”
A striking example was the recent game aAgainst Verona last month, he missed a penalty but made amends by scoring the equaliser in injury time. “After that goal,” Nuytinck says, “his head was full of disappointment because of that missed penalty kick. You think: ‘He’s 39 years old, won more than 30 trophies, has plenty of money but still so down over that miss …’”
Gullit also sees another side of Ibrahimovic. “He’s not arrogant at all, simply a very nice, friendly guy to deal with, but on the pitch he’s a phenomenon, a beast. I understand he wants to continue playing football. It is the best thing there is when you are still fit. Stress? No, Zlatan has no stress. He only gets better.”