Dubai: We are at the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar which means the tournament is approaching its end. Morocco have been the surprise package for many but not for AC Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The iconic Swedish striker is with the Italian champions in Dubai for warm-weather training and during a chat at The One and Only Royal Mirage where the team is staying, he says he knew Morocco would go far in the tournament.
“I don’t think it is a surprise that Morocco have done so well in the World Cup,” says the 41-year-old. “I knew they were good before the World Cup but then obviously during the tournament anything can happen. It is a good team, it is a good nation and people enjoy these kind of surprises because when the favourites always win it is not a surprise. Let’s see if they can reach the final.”
Serie A title
Ibrahimovic, who helped AC Milan win the Serie A title last season while playing with a serious knee injury feels France have a good chance to retain the title. “They are good, they won the World Cup in 2018 when they were young, they are a little bit older now and they are strong. I am also not surprised Croatia are in the semi-finals because they were in the final at the last World Cup. But I think it is already written who will win - and you know who I mean. I think Messi will lift the trophy for Argentina.”
Ibrahimovic’s rehabilitation is going well but he will not be taking part in AC Milan’s upcoming Dubai Super Cup matches against Arsenal tonight or Liverpool on Friday. The former Barcelona man says he is unsure when he will be back playing. “I am following the process I need to follow and each day is getting better but it is a long process and we knew it would be. The key is being patient. There is no date when I am supposed to be back. It is all about feeling good in your health, then the second step is to play football.”
He was taking pain-killer injections last season as he guided the team to glory and admits it was a risk and could have made the injury worse. “Every time I put my foot on the field I knew there would be a consequence but I have no regrets. I would do it again because my mentality is that. I am in the game to win, I do everything to win, help my teammates to win. I knew I was not 100 per cent fit but in the end we won, but now I am paying for what I went through so let’s say every trophy has its price and this price was my knee.”
The Italian giants are currently trailing leaders Napoli – who are unbeaten this season – by eight points but with the World Cup interrupting all the major European leagues, Ibrahimovic believes anything can happen once the league resumes in January 2023. “I think this season is a little bit different because we have a World Cup in the middle of it which has not happened before so it is a different schedule and the approach is different. There is a longer break between the mid-season but I am very optimistic, I am positive, we are ready, we are prepared we are here in Dubai to prepare for the second part of the season and we are working very hard so we know what we have to do from the last year when we won the title. The players are a bit older than last year – except me I am getting younger every year – we are ready for anything.”
There is still a long way to go and he most definitely has not ruled out Milan defending their title. The first half of the season is all about taking as many points as possible, but the difference is always the second half of the season. “That is decisive,” he says. “That is where you see who will be the champions. So who is in the better condition, who is in shape is very important and with the World Cup taking place in the middle of the season there could be consequences for teams because this is a different season. But we are ready we work hard we have experience from the last year we are the reigning champions so we know what we need to do to win.”
The explosive forward has had a glittering career and enjoyed spells with the likes of Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. But his heart is with Milan and he has fond memories of the team that won the title back in the 2011-12 season. “We had a team that was really phenomenal and everybody expected us to win, we were one of the favourites to win, and we had amazing players that won a lot of trophies and they were in the last part of their career - more or less like I am now,” he recalls. “Then I came to a second wave with Milan this time and it was a different Milan. A Milan that didn’t play in the Champions League for 8 or 9 years, didn’t win the Scudetto since 2011-12 and it was a young team with a different owner, so the situation was completely different. But bigger satisfaction was winning with this team because nobody expected us to do it. They said we won’t even come top 4. That is why I came back. In my first press conference I said I will bring them back to the top and we will win. People were laughing they said ‘no chance’, they said I’m too old. Instead I am sitting here as a champion of Italy and I won. So people should be careful before they judge my words. Because my words are very important.”
He remembers visiting Dubai 15 years ago and there being construction sites as far as the eye could see but he says he knew the plans that were in place then would help put the Emirate on the map. “When I come today I see everything that was a vision all those years ago and I’m super positive every time I am here, I really enjoy it. The weather is good, it isn’t a long flight from Europe and whatever you need you can find in Dubai so I enjoy every time I am here.”
Renowned for his acrobatic strikes, powerful long-range shots, and excellent technique which have not deserted him even in his 40s he believes he could play in the Middle East one day. “If this is a region for my future you never know because every time I talk about my future different things happen so I have to be careful. I’m enjoying my life I take it as it comes because you never know what can happen in life so I prefer to take the day as it comes.”
He knows he won’t be able to play the game he loves forever and has already dabbled in several different projects ranging from writing books, making music and starring in movies. He can pick and choose what he wants to do next in his life and though he has the personality to become a football manager, it is not something that he is considering just yet. “I think being a coach is not easy because if you had a career like me and you are a player like me it doesn’t mean you will be a great coach. Once you start with something else you have to start from zero. And then you build yourself up so if I chose to be a journalist I will have to start from zero and learn, develop, grow. I think the same thing would be required as a coach. You need to start as a novice even if you have been a great player and had a fantastic career because being a coach is managing 25 players. Being a player you are managing yourself. We have seen great players do a great job as a coach but you never know and I am not there yet because if I start to think about being a coach it means in my mind I am already retiring so my football is not important and in my mind I am not retired I am still active.”