We all know about the sublime skills Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic possesses but it his confident personality that sets him apart from the pack. And the AC Milan star was at his assertive best last night at the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).
There was bedlam inside Ballroom as thousands of fans waited for his arrival and when they caught a glimpse of the 6 foot 5 inch icon, he was greeted with a rapturous welcome. Eventually, the thunderous noise died down and he began talking about his career, his current knee injury and his plans for life after football.
“The knee is making good progress, I am working hard and I am aiming to come back and play football again soon,” said the 41-year-old.
He is still recovering from surgery that he underwent in the summer and he is expected to join his club AC Milan for a training camp in Dubai later this year. Ibrahimovic is a leader on the pitch and his experience has been vital for the club who won the Serie A title last year after he rejoined them for a second time. “When I came back to Milan people said it would be a disaster, but I didn’t lose the passion for what I am doing. I promised them I would help them win the title – and we did it. I was 39 when I came back, they said I should stop playing. They said I was too old. This fired me up. If you want to play with fire I will burn you!”
Most players retire in their mid-30s but Ibrahimovic is not ready to hang up his boots just yet. “I never lost the passion for what I do, I have a strong mentality. I believe in working hard. When you have this kind of mentality you reach far. I was surrounded by people who had the same mentality, I would watch them do certain things and follow and you build up this bullet proof mentality.”
He hasn’t only scored hundreds of goals in a hugely successful career with clubs including Ajax, Barcelona, Juventus, Paris-Saint Germain and Manchester United, but he has also set the pace in bookstores around the globe with the huge success of his best-selling novels. His latest anticipated release is called ‘My Untold Story’ and with such a colourful career that has seen plenty of controversies it is bound to be a riveting read. But when asked if he reads books about the beautiful game, he quipped, “I don’t read books about how to play football – I teach others how to play football!”
He began his career with Swedish club Malmö FF in 1999 and has made over 100 appearances for the national team. He has won 34 trophies and has scored almost 600 career goals to date and says coaching is not on his mind as he still has a burning passion to keep playing the game. “The more experience you get, the more you are managing things. I have a situation now at AC Milan where I am a player but I am still trying to help in a different way. But I’m not there yet. If I start to focus on coaching now that means in my mind I decided to stop playing, and I didn’t decide to stop.”
Ibrahimovic speaks five languages, Swedish, Bosnian, Spanish, Italian, and English and holds an honorary blackbelt in Taekwondo. He’s a philanthropist too and contributed to multiple causes. He once paid $51,000 to send the Swedish national football team for the intellectually disabled to the INAS World Football Championships in Brazil. He’s also an activist and famously took off his shirt after scoring a goal to reveal the names of 50 people suffering from hunger around the world in a bid to raise awareness for famine. And on top of that he is still an exceptional player. His career statistics are enviable and inspirational.
Making his debut at the world’s largest book fair, he added, “You learn from different experiences in life, experience is a value that you cannot buy. Experience is something that takes time to gain and to create. You can read about experiences that people went through in books and I advise people to read.”
But why is he launching a new book now? Unsurprisingly, he has a good reason. “Normally when you do a book it is at the end of your career – so because they said to me to do it after your career I said ‘no I will do it now because I have many things to say’. There are a lot of things happening in my life so I need to reach out to the people.”
This was supposed to be a book fair but it sounded more like a packed house at a football stadium. The noise reached deafening levels when he said, “I didn’t win the Champions League but it didn’t change me as a player, I won many other trophies. I believe in continuity, many players win one trophy and disappear - it means you are a lucky shot. I am in the game 20 years and I have been winning every year so it means I am for real.”
When asked who the best player he ever came up against was he said it was Italy legend Paulo Maldini. “He was the best. He was a complete defender, he could predict things before they happened and that is what made him special. He could read the game and that is why he is a legend of the game. But I played against many defenders, I made it difficult for them and they made it difficult for me. But in the end I smashed all of them!”
He also gave a definitive answer to the age old question of who is better – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or himself and it brought the house down. “Lions don’t compare themselves with humans!”
With the FIFA World Cup set to kick off in a matter of days, Ibrahimovic is looking forward to the showpiece which is being held in the Middle East for the very first time. “Every World Cup is exciting, it is the biggest stage for professional players. It is a different World Cup, it is not being played in the summer time in Europe. It is a tournament in the middle of the season. If I have to choose one team to win it I will say Argentina. I hope Messi will win it – he is a good guy, he is older now, but he is a person who loves football. He is phenomenal. I loved playing with him at Barcelona.”
Asked about the prospect of a World Cup every two years, he said, “It is not possible. We are not machines. The tournament is here in the middle of the season and it has caused many injuries. It is already a very tight schedules but to have it every two years… I don’t know if it would be for business or passion.”
Scorpion kick goal
He has scored hundreds of incredible goals in his glittering career but the one against England stands out. “They will never forget it. According to the English if you have not played in England you are not good enough. We had a friendly game against them and I scored four goals but my scorpion kick is one they will never forget.”
He eventually came to England at 35 to play for Manchester United and the press said he would never make it because he was too old. “After three months there all of my haters became my fans,” he laughed. He said he even enjoyed his time in the US playing in the MLS because “I taught them how to play football!”
He cannot go on forever and will no doubt have many offers to get into football management having learnt from the best including Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. “As a player I have been at the top for 20 years. We footballers are programmed. We wake up, we eat breakfast, we go to training, we prepare, we come home, we rest, we play matches. We repeat this every day. So imagine now when you wake up you have breakfast but what happens now? But this is a mental thing, I am not ready to stop, that is why I am still in the game. But I am very curious about the movie world and would love to take up acting.”