At 38 years old, with over 500 goals on his account, a devastating goal-scoring campaign in the MLS behind him, a recurring Achilles problem to ponder, and no football in over 3 months, Zlatan transferred to Milan. The talismanic mercenary had played at all the historic clubs in his storied career, leaving broken ribs, tattered egos, and short apothegms in his wake. However, for the first time, he was not looking forward. This giant of a man, who had until now done nothing in his life but conquer new lands, was dreaming of the glory of a perfect homecoming.
Surprisingly, Zlatan’s return was greeted by the mainstream press with ridicule. At the time, the prevailing wisdom was, ‘Zlatan’s gone back to Milan to eat’ — understandably so, too. When Zlatan got off the jet at Linate, A.C Milan was not in great shape. The fans had endured a decade of banter, years since the last trophy, a failed takeover, a slew of subprime talents, and a constant change and no success.
In December 2019, Milan suffered a five-nil drubbing at Bergamo. Only a few weeks earlier, the club’s sporting directors, Maldini and Boban, had been forced to terminate Marco Giampaolo seven games into his tenure after 3 wins, and 4 losses (including embarrassing performances against Inter and Fiorentina), and a grand total of four red cards. Milan was crumbling.
To turn the tide, the club turned to Stefano Pioli. Prior to his appointment, they’d openly courted Spaletti after his work with Internazionale but failed to secure his signature because of issues related to his existing contract. Stefano Pioli, the humble bald with a priestly reputation and a quiet expression who until now, was an almost-man. Almost with Lazio, almost with Inter, and a so and so time at Fiorentina defined more by Davide Astori’s tragic demise than anything achieved on the pitch. In response, #PioliOut trended third on Twitter for a whole day — such was the fury of the Milanisti.
Pioli’s time in Milan started with a wicked twist. Milan picked the game against Lecce by the scruff in a way they simply couldn’t under previous management. One, two—pass: Hakan, Leão, goal clearance, and Paquetá with a rebound over the bar were the first movements on the pitch. The cadence was quicker, the steps lighter and players were occupying their actual positions. However, in spite of Milan’s dominance, Marco Calderoni’s piledriver ensured that it was going to be a stalemate.
Following the loss at Roma, Milan’s next games were against SPAL, Lazio, Juventus, Napoli, Parma, Bologna, and Sassuolo. They won three, lost two, and drew the games against Napoli and Sassuolo. And then, the trip to Bergamo. For Atalanta, 2019 was a wildly successful year. They had a top-four finish, played in the Coppa Italia final, and reached the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history.
The team from Bergamo had a solid squad, consistency in their coaching setup, and Gasperini’s version of Johan Cruyff’s total football in full flow. For the first stretch in their history, they were copping and retaining their spots in the upper echelons of the Italian game. So much so that the Juventus CEO Andrea Agnelli would later call out their inclusion as a slight on the more ‘storied’ teams that had built the myth of the Champions League out of nothing since 1992.
Atalanta, the minnows from the block-work district of Italy, started the game in charge. They held onto the ball, passed in crisp triangles, and choked the Milan midfielders of any chance to possess, let alone create any opportunities. The first goal was picture perfect : Josip Iličić picked the ball up from the right and sent a diagonal across to Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez who glided to the edge of the box unchallenged and went through Conti first and then Donnarumma. 1–0.
The rest of that game was a blur. Goal after goal, mistake after mistake — Boban, Maldini, and Massara sat in the crowd, Maldini more than anyone else took every punch that Atalanta landed. Especially so when Gianpiero Gasperini began to dance in little bobs on the sidelines as Atalanta laid siege to their Milan counterparts and drew blood time and time again.
At the end of the game, it was five goals without reply. In a business so insistent on perfection, so obsessed with results, this outcome was a scathing indictment of Maldini’s readiness for the job, Gazidis’ acumen at the helm, Boban’s usefulness to the team, and Massara’s chops at the transfer table. Everything was up for review and no one was safe from rebuke.
And so, at this moment of peril, by sheer luck or a stroke of strategic genius, the call was made to Mino Raiola and Zlatan’s arrival became a real possibility. A few weeks later, Zlatan arrived like a Hollywood character in a black suit, confidently striding in his matte black designer shoes and his trademark ponytail — and bringing with him a much-needed new life. The transformation was not immediate though. It took a few games in January and the COVID-19 pandemic for his sauce to fully distill to the whole squad.
Post-COVID lockdowns, Milan became a completely different team. Other than Zlatan and Kjær joining in January as Piatek departed for Hertha, nothing was fundamentally different about the squad since that annihilation in Bergamo. However, the results changed significantly. By October 2020, Milan had played 16 games, winning 13 and drawing just 3 of them. They’d scored in 24 straight games for the first time since the 1970s, conceding only once by the fourth game of the 2020/21 season: a complete turnaround. Unlikely as it was, this outcome was forged two decades earlier in Sweden when Zlatan chose violence.
Of his time in the Swedish Allsvenskan, Zlatan said: “They were all against me. They didn’t want me to succeed…It was impossible to be a foreigner and come through the Malmö team..but I broke all the walls down.” Statements such as this or others uttered in the direction of legendary figures such as Cristiano Ronaldo about the level of the challenge in Turin have defined a somewhat dislikable public persona. However, for Zlatan’s personal narrative, adversity has always been a necessity.
As a child, Zlatan had to grow up quickly. He was born into a dysfunctional home in a part of Sweden that was exactly like the biblical Nazareth: a town of misfits. His time in Malmö was colored by rebellion and a feisty spirit. With a head full of dreams and a messianic ego, he then went to Amsterdam at Ajax, became a man at Juventus, morphed into a superstar at Inter, and endured a painful stint at Barca.
His experience at the Catalan club was immediately contrasted by the adulation of the Milan supporters when he transferred to the club in the 2010/11 Serie A season, earning the club its eighteenth league title. Later, he put France on the map in Paris and dominated the Premier League at age 36. And then, he journeyed across the Atlantic to conquer North America.
Maldini’s decision to bring Zlatan to Milan was a dangerous one. He was 37 years old, coming off a stint in the MLS where for the second stretch in his career, he hadn’t won anything. In spite of his 50-plus goals in the league, he’d sustained an achilles injury and been the subject of much controversy on and off the pitch. Worse still, he hadn’t played in months. This could have very easily been a Mandzukic-esque situation for Milan: big wages, no legs.
In many ways, Milan was an unhappy club before the big Swede returned. And then, improbably, he opted for one last campaign, one final challenge and the prospect of true legendary status at the Giuseppe Meazza. Against all odds, against the expert opinions of well-paid pundits, against the general consensus, against opposition banter, against the world — once again, Zlatan took a risky turn.
At 38, when greats such as Beckham, and Pirlo were riding off into the sunset, taking money deals in the U.S, when Ronaldo and Messi were trophy hunting with the biggest clubs in the world. When his bones were frail, and his body tiring from three decades of torturous work, Zlatan picked the worst place possible for a footballer his age, and then he turned it around.
In retrospect, barring death or a complete inability to participate in the Milan establishment, this outcome should have been obvious to everyone. Especially so since I, a casual football nut, saw it from a million miles away. It was the savior, the rebel, the migrant, the complete reject. It was the big man from a small village, Leicester in 2016: the brilliant underdog. It was Sisyphus and Olympus, Odysseus and Zeus. For all the resources that are devoted to statistics and understanding the science of football, stories and personal narratives are infinitely more predictive.
In Zlatan’s mind, he was 19 again and Milan was Rosengård. Only now, instead of leaving to take on the world, he was coming back home to restore its old glory. In a few weeks, A.C. Milan will mount a true challenge for Italian glory. They’ll begin what will turn out to be a new epoch for a rapidly growing team in a cycle of success that’s barely begun and if well managed, will last for ten or fifteen years.
Not for want of trying, Zlatan does not come up a lot in conversations about football genius. He’s never compared to Ronaldo or Messi in terms of raw talent. However, he made a group of ‘average’ players — wantaways, bad boys, long-sufferers — aspire for greatness and find it where they least expected: within themselves. Granted, he didn’t do it alone. He had the magisterial presence of Maldini, the stoic simplicity of Pioli. He had the brash exuberance of Hernandez and a team of talents who were willing to follow their leader to the death: he had the ingredients and according to his nature, he brought the fire.
Zlatan Ibrahimović, son of Sefik and Jurka, father to Max and Vincent, husband to the lovely Helen Seager. Now at the end, he stared right into the abyss of his many weaknesses and then he rebelled viciously against them. Just like he had when he almost quit football for the docks at age 15, just like Ajax, Barcelona, and the brutal fight with Onyewu. Zlatan the Lion, the God, the Champion but never, not even once, the Perfect.
Zlatan being Zlatan, has a lot of interesting takes about life after football. However, in an interview last year, he showed a rare moment of public reflection when he said “I like to suffer through my work.” That sentiment, more than his machismo and persona, more than all his blunt statements and his never-to-be-repeated 50-yard goal against England, revealed what lies at the core of his being: a profound appreciation for sacrifice and an unbreakable will. If you ever want to resuscitate a football club or live well, that’s the sauce.