Joaquin and Zlatan Ibrahimovic poised for bittersweet end to remarkable careers

Real Betis and AC Milan stars are still playing at 41 but Spaniard has decided time is right to retire while Swede still harbours hopes of carrying on

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is currently in his second spell with Serie A side AC Milan. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

To still be playing professional at the grand old age of 41 is an implausible idea for almost every elite attacking player in an era that so prizes speed.

On Wednesday, the flag-bearer for the game’s evergreens finally acknowledged time had become his enemy. Adios, said Joaquin Sanchez, idol of Spain’s Real Betis, the Spaniard who played over 50 times for his country even before he was halfway through an extraordinarily long career.

Joaquin, who turns 42 in July, chose the medium he has mastered almost as well as the pitch to announce his retirement, releasing a carefully curated video to tell his devotees that next month he will be retiring.

By then he should have added to his many statistical landmarks the eight appearances he needs to pass the 622 matches that are the record in La Liga – held by a goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizarreta – to focus on his next adventure.

It will be in Spanish television, where, with his self-deprecating humour, Joaquin has already made himself popular as a presenter of light-entertainment shows. “I like to put a bit of art into everything,” he said in his farewell announcement.

On the same day Joaquin fixed an endpoint to a journey that has gone from fearlessly dribbling past full-backs at the Betis academy, a professional debut in the second division in the last century, to a World Cup, to Valencia, Malaga, Fiorentina and back again to Betis, another 41 year-old was pushing his body towards the next target.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic wants his recovery from a thigh problem he suffered last month to be completed as quickly as possible to play a part in AC Milan’s tumultuous climax to the season.

Like Joaquin at Betis, Ibrahimovic is in his second spell at Milan. Like Betis, fifth in the Spanish table, Milan’s aim in what is left of the Serie A schedule is a finish in the top four, guaranteeing qualification for the next Champions League. They are only two points above fifth-placed city rivals Inter going into this weekend.

“To retire with us getting into the Champions League would be the ultimate,” Joaquin acknowledged, “but not then being part of it would kill me a bit too.”

Ibrahimovic will also have bittersweet feelings if Milan achieve all their aims between now and June. They have just reached a European Cup semi-final for the first time since 2007, and will meet Inter for a place in the final.

It’s a fixture that would normally put Ibrahimovic, who would never be described as self-deprecating, absolutely centre stage. He’s played in 14 Milan derbies, five of them for Inter in the late 2000s. He has won Serie A with both.

Unfortunately for Ibrahimovic his injury issues earlier this season meant Milan, facing choices around the restricted number of players who can be registered for Uefa competitions, left him out of their Champions League squad.

Their calculations were partly based on the knowledge he would still be recovering from knee surgery into February; their progress to the last four has surprised many, and even some within the club.

It leaves the greatest icon on their roster, who should return to action in the next week or so, obliged to watch the European campaign from the sidelines. His primary role from here will be to help gain domestic points, from off the bench or wearing the captain’s armband, as he did when he netted the 93rd goal of his two-part Milan career last month against Udinese.

If Milan overcome Inter and reach the Champions League final, Ibrahimovic will feel forever jinxed. The missing part of his long, medalled timeline is a European Cup.

In domestic competitions, he was for a decade and a half the sport’s greatest guarantee of finishing top of a league, no matter what country. Between 2002 and 2016, his clubs ended their seasons off top spot only twice. And his clubs were many: Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.

He won a Europa League with Manchester United in 2017, and a Club World Cup with Barca in 2010, and, after two seasons with LA Galaxy, returned to Europe to be a key contributor to Milan’s reclaiming the Italian title last year.

The club had waited 11 years since their previous, Ibrahimovic-inspired title. Like Joaquin, who won a Copa del Rey as a dashing winger with Betis in 2005 and the same trophy as shrewd midfield creator in 2022, the spread-out titles framed the reunion of club and returning hero.

“I have won many league titles,” Ibrahimovic said then, “but the last with Milan was absolutely the most rewarding. Perhaps it would mark the ideal end of my career.” But he stayed on. Recognising the right time to retire is hard. “I’m apprehensive about quitting,” admitted Ibrahimovic, “and I still feel strong enough to keep going.”

Updated: April 21, 2023, 5:15 AM