Zlatan Ibrahimović knows there are people who don’t like him. He has been rejected, disrespected, and put up for sale. In his mind, he records the words, the video of critics saying he’s not good enough. He’ll even distort it, hear what he wants to hear, so he can use the hate when his motivation has dropped. Hate can be converted to fuel.
A career in world class soccer may have elements of glamour, but it’s mentally and physically draining, so any fuel is welcomed. Always, there’s someone who wants your spot. Always, in some corner of the world, the game is improving. Ibra is able to ride the cutting edge and push the sport further.
He can hold the ball at the tip of the attack, a defender hanging on his back. He can pass to players who run off him, or spin away and beat guys one on one. He can be the team’s sharp edge, its blunt instrument, or a one-touch tool to score. Statistically speaking, after you put aside Messi and Ronaldo, in most categories Ibra is next. His genius is unique amongst his contemporaries. He’s more Ronaldo than Messi, but — as is true when you compare any group of great individuals — each is his own shade.
Ibra is a blend of strength, smarts, technique, and speed, but his mentality — a royal’s ego and the toughness of a street kid— differentiate him from quiet Messi and impeccable Ronaldo. Ibra compares himself to a lion, but players like him don’t come from idyllic landscapes. They’re made on street courts in tough neighborhoods. For Ibra, it was in Sweden, a cold place, the son of a war-shocked, Muslim Bosniak and a Croatian Catholic, immigrants in a welcoming but uniform place. Ibra grew up a tall, brash brunette, a bike thief turned footballer in a land of polite blondes.
In the summer of 2009, Ibra was 28, and playing for Italian giant Inter Milan. Inter won the ’08/‘09 Serie A, and Ibra was the top goalscorer in the league, scoring 19 more than anyone else on his team. However, the Serie A was not what it had been in the 80s and 90s. The clubs weren’t attracting the big names. The league still stunk of the crimes of the Calciopoli, the 2006 game-fixing scandal. Even more damning, the league couldn’t match the popularity of its English and Spanish counterparts. It wasn’t just bad marketing. The product was boring. Top Italian clubs built defense-oriented teams that didn’t see attacking as a long-term pursuit. It was more defend, defend, smash and grab, then a counter attack to the goal. Many of the best attacking players shipped out for the big lights of England, Spain, and Germany where attack-first teams controlled the game through possession.
Counter attacking can be rollicking fun, but it tends to get sloppy. At its worst, it’s a lot of booting balls, a lot of grinding out 1-0 wins. A countering offense requires a large burst of commitment, speed, and smarts, so if players can’t pull their weight, the passes don’t connect, and the player at the tip of the attack, the man on the island, does a lot of fruitless running. The man on the island has to be a total loyalist, has to be a work dog, a big pest for the defense, a physical presence. He has to fight for territory and possession. He provides relief from pressure and hopes other attackers will hurry to support him. He’s going to be in a lot of scraps where he’s outnumbered. He’ll lose the ball a lot. He’s exiled. For Inter, that player up front, the one expected to sacrifice himself for the good of the team, was the not-always-so-willing King Ibra.
In ’08/’09, the best soccer in the world was being played in Barcelona — no doubt. They were treble winners. They played high-pressure jazz, and there was no sign of them slowing. Messi was 21, only ramping up, Xavi and Iniesta had just grabbed the midfield by the throat, stalwarts like Carles Puyol kept the heart beating, while a fantastic young coach, Pep Guardiola, was figuring out the brain. We could spend all day counting their virtues. Simply put, if you thought you deserved to play for the best team in the world, you moved to Barca.
Despite Ibra’s critics, his ego remained intact and operational, and he thought he was the best, probably still does. Near the end of the ’08/’09 season, Ibra’s eyes began to wander. He looked around at his Inter teammates, saw what Barca was doing, and got the impression that although he was the best, his teammates weren’t.
Let’s check in on Ibra’s ’08/’09 team by looking at a late season Serie A game against Fiorentina, and we'll see if he's right. On this night, Inter’s squad was a few 17-year-olds, a handful of over-30s, flying with low fuel, and a whole lot of average surrounding — to Ibra — the jewel of Milan, himself.
Already, Inter were in the driver’s seat to win the Serie A, which they’d eventually clear by ten points, but they’d just gotten booted from the Champions League by Manchester United in the Round of 16, and they were losing their Coppa Italia tie 3-0, so advancing there was doubtful too.
What did Inter have to play for? Diddly squat. Did winning the league accomplish their primary goal? No. They wanted the Champions League. On the other side, Fiorentina were in a scrap against upstart Genoa for the fourth spot in the Serie A and an invitation to next year’s Champions League, so they were coming in full throttle.
Ibra didn’t need to be playing for a championship to be motivated. Royalty is continuous, no nights off. It only took 10 minutes for him to get Inter’s first goal, a simple header after Balotelli whipped in a strong free kick, very easy.
From there, the game stalled. Inter’s counter attacking and short possessions went nowhere. Complacency, tired legs, and a lack of mental toughness clogged their play. Balotelli at only 17 and with a good nose for mischief was the first to go on the fritz.
In the second half, Inter’s attack looked particularly toothless with Portuguese legend Luis Figo, old and clumsy by then, trying to assert himself like he could before; the body gives up before the brain. Inter played a lot of sloppy long balls, a lot of “Go chase!” for Ibra. That’s not how Ibra plays. You pass the ball to his feet, you combine with him, you don’t kick it somewhere and expect him to run after it. This isn’t fetch.
At the other end, Fiorentina was making chances. Preserving Inter’s 1-0 lead came down to goalkeeping, the defense’s experienced core, and the lack of quality on Fiorentina. Inter’s attack was null. Instead of trying to revive it, they retreated. They left their king. Ibra was alone on the island, everyone else got behind the ball, and the game became defend at all costs and if you get it, hoof it up towards Ibra. They showed nearly no interest in scoring. Look at their setup for a free kick in the 75th minute.
Ibra had to know this run-out-the-clock tactic was at the behest of the manager, Jose Mourinho. Mourinho was young but already victorious. Ibra loved the way he managed players, how he talked to you like you were a man, how he motivated, but his tactics did not always suit Ibra.
Disengage from attacking to kill the clock? No.
Defend, defend, then boot it? No.
Mourinho didn’t like the booting either. He wanted the ball played to feet, to his highly skilled players, like Ibra, like Maicon. He wanted to defend and then counter. It can get ugly, but it wins games in the Serie A. King Ibra recognized and respected Mourinho’s domain, but he didn’t have to like it.
Mourinho had bigger concerns than Ibra’s preference. Balotelli was being a brat and pissing him off, the team was either losing or out of all other competitions, they couldn’t connect a pass in this game, and this goddamn referee couldn’t call his ass from his face.
In the second minute of added time, Mourinho lost it. Inter’s other 17 year-old Italian buck, Davide Santon, was fouled after he controlled a Fiorentina goal kick. It was a callus foul, no card, so Mourinho jumped out of his seat, ran to the touchline screaming, and threw his fist at the referee. That brought the card. It was red and for him.
Mourinho left the sideline after laughing in the arms of the fourth referee. He cut across the benches and found a spot at the edge of a maintenance tunnel, at the tip of the deepest canal into the stadium. From there, alone, with a an air of contemplation, he watched the rest of the game.
Ibra could swallow Mourinho’s antics. They came from loyalty, from passion. But Ibra couldn’t take playing this defensive Italian style, couldn’t take his fellow players unfocused and unwilling. If they wanted to seal the game, Ibra would seal it for them.
The free kick Stanton had earned was on the left side and about 35 yards out. Muntari stood with Ibra over the ball.
“Should I pass it to you?” Muntari asked.
“Enough passing,” Ibra answered. “Time to shoot.”
Watching Ibra take a free kick is like watching a rocket take off. It’s an astonishing amount of power. It feels like a limit is being breached. There’s a transonic vapor cone behind the ball. But this time, the rocket didn’t hit orbit. Ibra hit the ball with the top of his foot, so it knuckled too much and was too low. Even a king isn’t perfect. The shot was still a nightmare for the keeper who could only block it and send it up and away. Old man Figo got to the loose ball and booted it straight up into the air, like a child fooling around. Ibra got under it, in position to bring the ball down, when he was fouled in nearly the same spot he’d just shot from.
Luck gave Ibra a second chance.
Five attackers against eight defenders. Inter looped the ball up, the goalkeeper stretched his arms, fixed his hair for the camera, then jumped up and caught it. It was a waste, scraps you throw a dog. King Ibra showed his disgust by not even trying to win the ball.
In the 78th minute, everyone on Inter was back to defend a Fiorentina corner. The cross whipped in, not a bad one but nobody from Fiorentina was there, so Inter won the ball easily and shifted into a break. Maicon, Inter’s adventurous right back, led it down the center. Ibra was all the way back, defending the corner, but an attack was on, and he wasn’t going to lose a chance to ply his trade. He sprinted like a madman nearly the length of the field to get ahead of the play, even putting his hand on old man Figo’s shoulder and pulling him back: Nothing personal, just the king coming through.
Maicon passed the ball to Ibra, and he drove it farther down the field, then cut it back and passed to Figo. Cowardly, Figo passed it right back — maybe revenge for holding him back — but Ibra’s defender had stepped up already. He cleared the attack and Ibra fell to the ground.
Laying there, he thought about Messi slashing through a defense, then dropping a beautiful pass to his feet. He dreamed about Iniesta, getting the ball at midfield, turning his guy with some deft touch, then passing Ibra a genius through ball, and he was in to goal.
Not so at Inter.
The referee added five minutes of extra time, and in the second minute Inter won a free kick, deep in Fiorentina territory. Instead of attacking, Figo enlisted Muntari, the Ghanian midfielder, and they took it short and tried to kill the clock by dribbling around the corner. Figo took his man on, made room to cross. Ibra was waiting in the box, ready to pounce, but old man Figo never fired. He circled back when he reached the end line, killing more time. He passed to Muntari, who was covered, another hospital ball, and it got the African whacked. Foul. Again, Figo went short with the free kick.
Ibra couldn’t take it anymore.
Old man Figo trotted to the touchline, waiting for Ibra's pass.
Ibra ignored him.
The second attempt became one of the greatest free kicks of all time. What was behind it? Frustration, high expectations, a do-it-yourself attitude, a wink at Barcelona so they saw what they could have, and a whole lot of pride: The kind that flares when the king feels challenged.
Muntari jumped on Ibra’s back and celebrated. Ibra pushed him off. He whipped himself away from another teammate who was grabbing his jersey, and he screamed up into the air, yelling at someone. At his critics? Hard to tell.
After the bittersweet season, Ibra announced that Barcelona wished to buy him. He said playing for Barca was his boyhood dream, so he had to go. Ciao. But one can imagine that if King Ibra thought things were going to be good at Inter, he would have stayed, taken championships and glory over fulfilling a boyhood dream. Dreams are a dime a dozen. Ibra’s ego decided he must go for the best, so his eyes were focused ahead, looking higher, looking to achieve more. He didn’t see the potential in front of him.
He underestimated Mourinho, and Mourinho loved him. He wanted him, but he understood that players have their own wills and that not everyone prefers his style, so he blessed the move and used it just how Ibra would have. Mourinho didn’t show his anger. He shook Ibra’s hand. Then he locked himself in his office and worked ten times harder because that motherfucker, his best attacker, a man he loved, Zlatan!, just quit on him, just told him he was no good, and that Pep Guardiola was better!? That’s broccoli and carrots for Mourinho. It makes him stronger.
So Ibra was sold, and in return Inter got Samuel Eto’o and cash. Mourinho bought himself a new core — Wesley Sneijder, Lúcio, Thiago Motta, and Diego Milito. Milito was a striker who devoted himself to kings and never thought of himself as one. A true knight. Mourinho exiled him to the tip of the attack where he served loyally.
As we all know, at Barcelona Ibra and Pep got along terribly. Kings and philosophers don't often see eye to eye. Ibra refused to play out wide. He wanted the center but so did Messi (shrug). Pep found someone else to play out wide, and King Ibra took the lack of a conversation about why he was being benched as an insult. Does a professional deserve that conversation? He’d like it, but he’s used to not being extended the courtesy. But a king thinks he’s owed it. He wants to talk about why he’s not getting what he wants.
Pep just benched him, put some guy named Pedro in his place. That’s how things work at Barcelona. No player is special, and each must prove his willingness to sacrifice his ego for the team or suffer the consequences. Ibra wrote in his book, the players call the coach “sir”, drive the same car, and act in in this polite, uniform way that is the exact thing Ibra is not. That’s what Ibra left in Sweden. That’s what makes him rebel.
More importantly, in ’09/’10 Inter got hot. Mourinho’s men, the new core intact, old man Figo trashed, trebled! They faced Barca in the Champions League semifinal. In the first leg, Inter stabbed and stole like thieves, got a 3-1 lead, and then in the second, they drove their bus from Italy, parked it in front of the goal, and got tighter and meaner than anyone had ever played Barcelona.
Inter endured 90 minutes of Messi and Barca pounding them in the chest. They lost a man early to a fishy red card, but Mourinho had his team linked through mind, body, and soul. They threw themselves at shots, happily collected yellow cards, defended like bees for the queen and the comb. They only let in one goal and got in a couple good whacks to screw with Barca’s psyche, so they won the tie 3-2 on aggregate and won the game inside the head too. Pep knew where to stab Ibra, so he yanked him with thirty minutes left. He needed goals, and was showing the world that Ibra didn’t have his trust.
That year, Barca won the league and a few of the lesser cups but no Champions League and no Copa del Rey. It wasn’t surprising when the club announced Ibra would be playing for AC Milan in ’10/‘11. It was back to Milan but now across town. His year in Barcelona lowered his value by €40 million, a trivial, materialistic detail, but the number was big. It pissed Ibra off. He wasn’t a worse player. He’d learned from the lectures of Thierry Henry, gained inspiration from witnessing Messi, and even picked up a thing or two about the game from the philosopher Pep. And now that he was pissed, motivated, his mind full of his critics stupid faces and stupid words. He was ready: ready to work, ready to learn, ready to get better. His value should have gone up €40 million.