Zlatan Ibrahimovic: the Benjamin Button of football
When AC Milan signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic in January 2020, the Rossoneri were languishing in mid-table obscurity in Serie A, they looked out-of-sorts and struggled to maintain anything nearing a semblance of consistency.
The former champions had picked up just six wins from their opening 18 matches of the season and hopes of European qualification looked like a distant reality.
Ibrahimovic’s return helped change all that and the end result was that his initial six-month loan was extended for another full season.
When news of interest in the Swede surfaced, fans of AC Milan were beyond themselves with excitement, as Ibrahimovic is a bonafide world-class player with a track record of delivering the goods at every club he has played for.
He had represented Milan for two seasons earlier in his career and helped the club to their last Serie A title but rival fans goaded the Milanese for expressing excitement over a 38-year-old.
They pointed to his recent struggles with injury and the fact that he last played top-level European football in 2017 as proof that he might not be the messiah that the club was calling out for.
Zlatan’s return to the San Siro began anonymously enough, as he started on the bench of a dour goalless draw with Sampdoria.
Just five days later, he was handed a start and made a mark on the game by scoring the second goal of a 2-0 win over Cagliari.
The goal saw him achieve the landmark of scoring in four different decades (1990s, 2000s, 2010, 2020) and it was the first of many records to come.
His next big moment came in the derby against Inter Milan and despite losing 4-2, Ibrahimovic weighed in with a goal and an assist, which saw him become the oldest goalscorer in the Derby della Maddonina, at the age of 38 years 129 days (breaking Nils Liedholm’s previous record).
The league got suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic not long after, but after its restart three months later, Ibrahimovic got right back into the thick of things (despite suffering a slight calf injury).
At the end of his half-season with Milan, Ibrahimovic had an impressive tally of 11 goals and five assists from 20 goals in all competitions, helping Milan to a sixth-placed finish in the league and qualification for the Europa League.
This was hardly conceivable eight months earlier and Milan ended the Serie A campaign as the most in-form team post lockdown, with an impressive 12-game unbeaten run helping them soar up the table.
It would not be entirely right to pin down their upturn in fortunes to the arrival of Ibrahimovic, as several other factors also came into play.
The decision to start playing Ante Rebic regularly in January played a major role, as the Croat has been one of the finest players in the calendar year, while Stefano Pioli also got his act right after the disaster-class that was the reign of Marco Giampaolo.
However, it cannot be denied that the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at San Siro helped transform the club’s fortunes and brought a breath of fresh air to what was a club bereft of ideas.
His presence on the field also opened spaces for his teammates, as his higher standing and profile in the game naturally attracts the attention of opposition defenders, allowing Rebic and Rafael Leao the opportunity to wreak havoc.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish maestro who gets better with age
Love or hate him, you cannot deny Ibrahimovic’s greatness and beyond his abilities on the field, the Swede is also blessed with an incredible amount of self-belief that almost borders on arrogance.
He is responsible for some of the cockiest one-liners in history and whenever the former Manchester United man describes his talents, headlines are made all over the world.
This is not a case of some random player who has deluded himself into believing his own hype, no. Zlatan is a bonafide game-changer who has made a mark on some of the greatest and biggest clubs in the world.
From Malmo to Ajax, Inter Milan to Manchester United, Barcelona to LA Galaxy, Juventus to AC Milan, Ibrahimovic has endeared himself to fans of clubs he has played for and proof of his greatness lies in the fact that he is one of a handful of players who is loved by fans of both Milan clubs.
He is the only player in history to have scored 50 goals for both AC Milan and Inter, while he also departed Paris Saint-Germain as the club’s all-time goalscorer.
He turns 39 in October but that has not stopped him from doing what he does best and with the start of another season, he has already started proving good value for his contract extension.
Having scored Milan’s first goal of the campaign in the 2-0 victory over Irish side Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League qualification stage, Ibrahimovic was at it again on matchday 1 of the Serie A campaign.
He opened the scoring against Bologna with a thumping header 10 minutes before half-time and just six minutes into the second half, he doubled his side’s lead with a brilliantly taken penalty.
There were several chances to add to his tally, including one where he rounded goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski – when played in through on goal – but inexplicably shot high with the goal gaping.
These misses robbed him off the opportunity to become the oldest player to score a hat-trick in Serie A, but it takes nothing away from his brilliance (in any case, in this form, he would definitely get another opportunity).
Speaking after the match, an elated Ibrahimovic said:
”I’m fine, I’m working, this is the second official match.”
”We won, I could have scored more goals. If I was 20, I could have scored another two. I’m like Benjamin Button, I was born old and I would die young.”
This is as close as you would get to Ibrahimovic admitting his age as a factor but even more curious was his decision to describe himself like Benjamin Button.
Like everything else the Swede says about himself, this was outrageously brilliant in its aptness and it rings true in more ways than one.
For those who might not be aware, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a 2008 Hollywood blockbuster, directed by David Flincher and starring Brad Pitt in the titular role.
Benjamin Button pic.twitter.com/RtYq2TH0Wr
— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) September 21, 2020
The film was loosely adapted from a 1927 short story by acclaimed writer Scott Fitzgerald and tells a story about a man with a unique condition that saw him age in reverse order, such that while his mates got older, he got progressively younger to the point where he had the body of a baby in his old age.
It dominated the Academy Awards that year, got 13 nominations which were justly deserved, and was one of the best movies released in that decade.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was 27 the year the movie was released – in the middle of leading Inter Milan to a third consecutive league title – and here we are, 12 years later, and he is still going strong in the same league with the club’s great city rivals.
It would not be entirely true to say that Ibra does not feel the effects of aging. There have been signs over the last few years that he is no longer the same player, while injuries have also become a recurring theme in recent years.
However, what he lacks in physicality, Ibrahimovic makes up for with his experience and overwhelming drive to excel and win.
Many parallels can be drawn with the fictional Benjamin Button. At 17, while at Malmo, Ibrahimovic reportedly turned down a chance to sign for Arsenal simply because Arsene Wenger wanted him to have trials.
”Arsene Wenger asked me to have a trial with Arsenal when I was 17, I turned it down. Zlatan doesn’t do auditions.”
Even at 17, Zlatan already had the confidence and self-belief of a man. How many 17-year-old’s can turn down the great Arsene Wenger or even Arsenal for that matter?
Well, the answer lies in the fact that Zlatan is not like most people and that has been the secret of his greatness throughout his career.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic began his professional career in 1999 and in the intervening 21 years, football has taken him to eight different countries on two continents, with several titles won along the way.
At 39, most footballers have retired and started enjoying the gains of their labor, while others are in one of the lesser leagues for one final big payday.
Not Ibrahimovic, he is still in the thick of things, helping a fallen giant try to claim their pride of place in the upper echelons of one of the best leagues in the world.
The Milan board have not made too many right decisions in the last decade but extending Ibrahimvic’s contract is one of the few exceptions and with the great Ibra leading the line, fans of the Rossoneri can look to the future with a renewed sense of optimism.
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