‘First time really clicking with a club’
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stone head no longer had a nose attached to it. Angry Malmö supporters actually demolished it from the statue next to the stadium after their hero became co-owner of arch-nemesis Hammarby.
They saw that action by Ibrahimovic, who played in Malmö’s training program, as the ultimate betrayal. Once again it seemed clear that the best Swedish footballer ever simply did not know club love. After all, he never attached himself to Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, FC Barcelona, LA Galaxy and PSG either.
But during his farewell as a footballer, Sunday night in a full San Siro, something surprising happened. With tears in his eyes, Ibrahimovic (41) declared his love for AC Milan. In his old age, it appeared he had found a soccer home after all.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (41) quits soccer: ‘I am free’
Urby Emanuelson got to know Ibrahimovic at Ajax and played with him at AC Milan between 2010 and 2012. He saw the Swede’s development from individualist to team player. “I got to know Ibra When I joined Ajax’s first team as a young player. There he was a huge talent, very eager to show the world how good he was.”
“But when I came in at Milan, he was a leader. A boss, who was hugely decisive in the dressing room. And he was incredibly loved there: he literally got appreciation and love from everyone at the club. And he deserved that.”
Hoisted on the shield
Before coming to Milan, Ibrahimovic had just finished a tumultuous period at FC Barcelona. In Spain, he could never settle in the shadow of Lionel Messi. They were perhaps the most difficult years of his career, marked by frustrations and conflicts with coach Pep Guardiola.
AC Milan released him from his Catalan suffering and offered him a stage where he could indeed be the shining centerpiece. And that was exactly what he needed.
“At Milan, he was really hoisted on the shield for the first time at a club,” says Willem Haak, a connoisseur of Italian soccer. “And in that role he finally embraced his popularity. Before that, Ibrahimovic was a kind of mercenary, going from club to club.”
“At Ajax you already saw that and at Juventus and Internazionale it was no different. At Inter the supporters were overjoyed when he was sold to Barcelona and Samuel Eto’o came in his place. At Milan, for the first time, it really clicked with a club. He immediately became the man everything was about.”
Before his arrival at AC Milan, Ibrahimovic had – entirely Zlatanesque – said that if Milan wanted to be champions again, they had to get him. He lived up to those words, still in his first season in red and black.
Emanuelson stood with him every day on the training pitch at Milanello, AC Milan’s iconic complex. He watched Ibrahimovic take things in stride. “I played behind him in the No. 10 position and learned a lot from him. Especially in terms of winner’s mentality.”
“At training sessions, Robinho, Pato and I were very frivolous. If we got a chance during a match play, we wanted to finish it as nicely as possible. Then Ibrahimovic took me aside to tell me not to do that: he demanded that we treat every chance in training like a chance in the last minute of a final.”
With that attitude – and of course through his genius inspirations at crucial moments in matches – he won the hearts of the San Siro crowd.
That he had a past with arch-enemy Inter, he was forgiven. “He also scored for us at one point in the derby, after that he became quite a hero. He was incredibly popular with the fans, but also with club people. It deservedly earned him some privileges: whatever happened, he was always the first to be treated by the masseur.”
Pioli’s right-hand man
After two years, Ibrahimovic left. He moved to PSG, which was working on a huge soccer project with Qatari investors. Via wanderings in Manchester and Los Angeles, he ended up back at AC Milan in 2020.
The Rossoneri were in deep trouble at the time, explained Hook. “Milan were having a very tough time at the time. Shortly before Ibrahimovic’s return they were losing 5-0 to Atalanta in Serie A. That he was brought back seemed like a kind of desperate attempt, but he proved everyone wrong. He still turned out to be top fit in his old age.”
And increasingly he assumed that mentor role with which he helped Emanuelson advance a decade earlier. Ibrahimovic became the extension of coach Stefano Pioli. Thanks in part to him, young players like Rafael Leão and Theo Hernández developed stormily.
Rapidly, Milan crawled out of the malaise, back toward the top of Italian soccer. It yielded the national title last season: the first since 2011.
“How important he had become off the field was best seen in a video that viral went viral after the championship game against Sassuolo,” said Hook. “That’s where you see how much he has brought on mentally.”
The last year was perhaps one too many for Ibrahimovic: physically he was spent. Off the field, he remained important, but a farewell was inevitable.
With tears in his eyes, he addressed emotional fellow players and fans. “The first time I came here, you gave me happiness. The second time I came, you guys gave me love. You welcomed me with open arms. I will be a Milanista all my life.”
He may have meant that literally, because it is not out of the question that he will remain associated with AC Milan in a managerial position. Emanuelson would not find that crazy at all. “I definitely see that for me. Because the great thing about Ibra is: when he says something, people listen.”