One of the most enigmatic and inventive players of his generation, Zlatan Ibrahimović has come a long way from his troubled upbringing in Rosengård, Sweden to the posh streets of the Champs-Élysées in Paris, France. Just like the player himself, his autobiography I am Zlatan, is entertaining, controversial and full of surprises. The Swede has been heavily linked with a return to the San Siro to once again don the colours of the Rossoneri. Zlatan has played for many teams in his illustrious career and has unfairly earned the reputation of being a mercenary, plying his trade for the highest bidder. A move back to Milan would be the first time Ibra has ever returned to a club and would also bring him face to face with a man whom he shares a rather checkered past, Milan coach Siniša Mihajlović. His autobiography is a stark contrast to many others on the market. Zlatan is honest and pulls no punches while recounting every aspect of his career. You almost hear his distinct voice narrating you through all the highs and lows, all the friendships and bust ups. It becomes clear however, how much AC Milan has meant to a striker who has played at many clubs.
Zlatan’s history with the Rossoneri goes way back. Even further than many realize. When the Swede was making his bones in the game playing first for Malmö FF and then Ajax in Amsterdam, he constantly heard the comparison between himself and a certain Dutch legend who also wore the Red and Black, Marco Van Basten. The Swan of Utrecht as he is known, is one of the most legendary players to ever play for the San Siro outfit, Zlatan heard the comparisons from a very early age and the comparisons intensified when he made the move to Ajax and was handed the same number 9 shirt that Van Basten wore. It was almost written in the stars that Zlatan would one day emulate Van Basten by playing for Milan. Ibrahimović credits Van Basten with making his time at Ajax bearable. He also gave Zlatan some advice which he took to heart:
“Don’t waste your energy defending. You’ve got to use your strength in attacking. You’ll serve your team best by attacking and scoring goals, not by wearing yourself out defending.”
The comparisons between Zlatan and the Dutch legend didn’t end when he was transferred to Italian giants Juventus either. Zlatan’s coach during his time at Juventus was none other than Fabio Capello, the legendary Milan coach who guided the Rossoneri to countless titles while Van Basten was coming to the end of his playing career. Zlatan recounts a time when Capello locked him in the change room and forced him to watch every goal The Swan had ever scored for Milan.
“I was left alone in the changing room and started watching, and well, it really was all Van Basten’s goals from every angle and direction. The ball just thundered in and Marco Van Basten came up again and again. I sat there for ten, maybe fifteen minutes and wondered when I could go.”
While at Juventus, Zlatan came face to face with a man he would later come to admire but his feelings for Siniša Mihajlović were not good from the start. The rivalry between Juventus and Internazionale is second to none in Italy. The two teams and sets of supporters loathe one another. One derby in particular left a lasting impression on Ibra. During the match Zlatan put up with some rather tough treatment and insults from Internazionale defenders Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi but it was his encounter with Mihajlović which got the Swede into some hot water. According to Zlatan the two collided and tumbled to the ground. They then came face to face:
“…He made a gesture with his head. I responded by miming a head-butt. I’m sure it looked ridiculous; it was meant as a threat but I just pushed my head against his. Believe me, if I’d really head-butted him, he wouldn’t have got up. But Mihajlović put his hands up to his face and dropped to the ground. He wanted to get me sent off.”
In the summer of 2006 Zlatan for the first time came directly in contact with AC Milan. It was a summer no Italian soccer fan will ever forget. It all started with the unravelling of the match fixing scandal which would engulf many of the top teams in the country. It became known as Calciopoli or Moggiopoli, and it turned Italian football upside down. It was also the summer that Italy won its fourth World Cup title in Germany. Players returned from Germany to a different landscape. Juventus had been demoted to Serie B, Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina among others were forced to start the season on minus points. Zlatan made no bones about it, he would not go down to Serie B and attempted to get out of Torino at all costs. His choices were many but the two Milan giants, AC Milan and Internazionale, made the most sense for Zlatan who loved Italy and was accustom to the game by then. Il Cavaliere Silvio Berlusconi and Massimo Moratti of Inter fought a clandestine battle to sign one of the hottest commodities in the country. With European football still a doubt for Milan, Inter grabbed the edge. A meeting with Ariedo Braida also tilted the chances in Inter’s favour as Zlatan explained:
“To be honest, I didn’t like his (Braida) style. There was a lot of: Kaka is a star. You’re not. But Milan can make you into one. It was like, I needed AC Milan more than they needed me, and I didn’t feel particularly respected or sought after…”
Zlatan would get his payback however. Invited by Silvio Berlusconi to Ristorante Giannino for dinner, Zlatan’s agent Mino Raiola set an ultimatum to Massimo Moratti who couldn’t take the chances of Zlatan meeting with Berlusconi. In a last minute phone call with the Internazionale owner the deal was set. Zlatan would join Inter and win many Serie A titles, however in a cruel twist of fate the same Milan he turned down would go on to become Champions League winners, a title which remains elusive for Zlatan.
At Inter he once again crossed paths with Siniša Mihajlović a man he had grown to respect and even admire. Like Siniša, Zlatan is a son of a Serbian father. Both men were greatly affected by the war which tore Yugoslavia apart. While Mihajlović was much older and closer to the battle zone, Zlatan wasn’t necessarily shielded from the war growing up in Sweden. The war greatly affected Zlatan’s father and cost him much anguish as he listened for news of family and friends who were in the war zone. Despite their earlier encounter Mihajlović inspired Zlatan to take the field against Parma in the final game of the season despite suffering from a knee injury. Zlatan came on and scored two goals to clinch the title for Inter after nearly squandering the title to Roma. Zlatan reserved many good words for Siniša in his book. The respect he has for Mihajlović would make a move back to Milan, where the Serb is now steering the ship, a comfortable fit.
“I like being around warriors, and Mihajlović was a bruiser. He always did everything to win. Now he’d retired from playing and was an assistant coach under Mancini, and honestly there are few guys who have taught me as much about taking a free kick as Mihajlović.”
After falling out of favour with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, Zlatan finally made the move to AC Milan where he would spend two seasons under Massimiliano Allegri. Zlatan made many friendships while at Milan with the “legends” as he calls them; Gattuso, Nesta, Inzaghi, Seedorf etc. However his most important confidant at Milan was Robinho. The two saw the game in the same light, they loved doing tricks and being inventive. One player whom the big Swede did not get along with was Oguchi Onyewu and he opened up in his book on the training ground bust up which left him with a broken rib and left Onyewu praying for some strange reason. Zlatan won the Scudetto in his first year with Milan and scored 42 goals in 61 appearances but the Champions League trophy continued to elude him.
I am Zlatan is an amazing book full of ups and downs and takes you inside the life of a player who is a mystery to many. Zlatan writes honestly about his upbringing which helps the reader to understand many of the unique characteristics which Zlatan has displayed in his epic career. Fans of AC Milan will thoroughly enjoy reading about one of the greatest players of his generation, who once wore the red and black. This summer did not see him return but perhaps one day, maybe he will.