Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Football's Peter Pan tasked with inspiring AC Milan's revival
Once great club has turned to a player synonymous with winning trophies - but as the Swedish striker approaches 40, can he conjure up the necessary magic?
Through the evening of December 22, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s phone barely stopped ringing. The giant Swede had let it be known he was eager to resurrect his career in elite European football, after two years in the American MLS, and, as he tells it, demand was extraordinarily high. “I had more offers aged 38 than when I was 28,” Ibrahimovic claimed.
AC Milan, where Ibrahimovic spent two of his seven Serie A seasons in a career striding across most of the world's best leagues, were in pole position, but they nervously anticipated that Ibrahimovic might have second thoughts, a week before the opening of the transfer window.
On December 22, they went to Atalanta and lost 5-0. It was a devastating defeat and left the club in the bottom half of Italy’s top division.
Zvonimir Boban, Milan’s chief football officer, rang Ibrahimovic urgently. So did other suitors. “After the Atalanta game, there were lots of calls,” Ibrahimovic said.
Milan were clear: a statement was needed after the humiliating loss. Ibrahimovic would be it. So the player dialled up his old friend Sinisa Mihajlovic, manager of Bologna, to say he would not be joining them, that Milan had a special place in his heart, however sharp their decline.
Ibrahimovic should make his second debut for the club, eight years after he left, and nine seasons after he guided them to their last league title, against Sampdoria at San Siro on Monday. If things go well over the next six months, he can extend the deal beyond what remains of this season and make himself a Milan footballer to the end of the 2020-21 season, when he would be four months shy of 40 years old.
It is a captivating storyline, and one that has already achieved one objective for Milan's fretful executives: to distract from the agony at Atalanta. But Boban, a former great from the champion Milan teams of the 1990s, stressed: “Zlatan is not here as a mascot.”
He has returned to lead, to create, to make Milan feared again, and to address an urgent shortage of goals. The club he is rejoining went into the weekend 15th of the 20 Serie A in terms of attacking potency.
He makes a convincing Peter Pan, an athlete apparently uninhibited by advancing years. Over his last two years with LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, Ibrahimovic has scored goals at a rate of close to one per game. In his most recent stop on the tour of grand European clubs, Manchester United, the Zlatan of his mid-30s scored 29 times and registered 10 assists in 43 starts.
At United he also picked up a medal that had eluded him, to his irritation, through an otherwise heavily decorated journey through the game. He won a major European trophy, the Europa League, although he was injured for the final, against his old club Ajax, with whom he embarked on the extraordinary run that once made Ibrahimovic the sport’s best guarantor of prizes. Between 2004, his last season with Ajax, whom he had joined from Malmo as a teenager, and 2016, Ibrahimovic finished every season but one at the top of the league.
That was seven times in Serie A, with Juventus, then Inter Milan, and then AC Milan. It was once with Barcelona, where he spent a year of personal discontent but still with medals. It was four times in France, where he was Paris Saint-Germain’s supersized mascot, goal-machine and Ligue 1 figurehead until four years ago.
This Milan episode will not feature any European challenge. The club are excluded from Uefa competitions for having infringed Financial Fair Play guidelines. They are a long way from reaching the qualifying positions - Serie A’s top four - for next season’s Champions League, too, although that is the target for manager Stefano Pioli, and for Boban and Paolo Maldini, another AC Milan great who serves as technical director.
Milan have a tradition of holding on, or inviting back, former greats and Ibrahimovic will be aware of previous nostalgia reflexes: Ruud Gullit, Andriy Shevchenko and Kaka, Champions League winners with Milan, all came back for a second spell. For none of them was it as fulfilling as their first.
The club genuinely has the affection of the much-travelled Ibrahimovic. He first joined Milan in 2010, from Barcelona, where he had clashed with then Barca manager Pep Guardiola. “Milan gave me back my happiness,” he said at his presentation last week. He promptly put his Milan jersey and scored in a warm-up friendly.
Pioli must now decide whether his comeback at San Siro begins from the bench or in the starting XI. “His joining us is a great present for me,” said the Milan manager. “He is insatiable, and has never stopped seeking to improve and moving with the times.” Of Milan, the same cannot be said.
Updated: January 5, 2020 04:47 PM