This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue 2018. Read Sam Borden’s feature on Ibrahimovic’s first weeks in Los Angeles here.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not a modest man, so perhaps it’s not surprising that LA’s newest celebrity decided to pose for the 10th anniversary of the Body Issue. But there’s still plenty for the global soccer icon to open up about. Ibrahimovic sat down with ESPN’s Chris Connelly recently and revealed the details of his brutal knee injury, how he’s adjusting to his new team and that oh-so-memorable debut.
ESPN: You’re here to pose for the Body Issue. So what’s different about you physically from every other footballer?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: When I do something, I do it powerful. Is not about the beauty because everybody can look good. But not everybody is powerful. And I bring that.
You also bring creativity and style. What is the moment like on the pitch when you know you can be creative? What has to happen?
I need to be angry. I need to be very angry. Then I bring out my [moves] that you will not expect … in a good way. And I see things that is difficult to describe. I can see holes in the game that I can use. And then I can see the vision, the second and the third step, what will happen, and I predict those things.
What motivates you?
I find the haters. I make that to give me energy. That is what I had all my career — I had people that didn’t believe in me. I had people who said that I will never make it. They judged me even before I even got a chance. But all that I turn around and I made it a driven power for myself. I was driven to do everything better, never be satisfied. That’s how I kept on, and I still find those holes where I get that energy. But the problem is, I make my haters become fans. So I need to have more haters.
It’s going to be hard to find those haters if you keep going like you have been. [Laughs]
Yeah, but I’ll find them. I’ll make them upset in some way.
Your accuracy is phenomenal on the pitch. In your book [I Am Zlatan, 2001] you talk about a coach [former Real Madrid manager Fabio Capello] who put you right in the penalty box and just fired balls at you over and over again.
Every day. He put me in front of the goal and I made, like, 50 to 100 shots every day. When I say every day, it was every day. And he continued to push me, push me, push me, and at the end he didn’t need to call me. I went there by myself, and I did it because it became my medicine. I needed to repeat it, and I needed to train on it. You train hard, and hard work pays off. And that’s why I hit the target maybe more than normal.
What part of your body do you feel the most confident in, as far as your strength? The whole package. There is no weakness.
Even at 36? That changes things a little bit, right?
No, is perfect. I am like the wine: the older, the better. Age is just a number, it’s all in your head, how strong you are, how young you are and how you prepare yourself. I do a lot of training. I prepare very well and I like it because it drives me. It never makes me satisfied because when I feel good, I want to feel better. I’m a workaholic.
You suffered a catastrophic knee injury [in April 2017], though. What was that like? It was very strange because I never had a major injury. When it happened, I even said to myself, “I’m not injured.” And I tried to walk straight after. There is another player who got injured in the first half — he was carried out. I was walking out because I said I’m not injured. And when I came in, I still said to myself, “I’m not injured, it’s just a small bruise or something.” But something felt different. Then the next day it was swollen, and we did MRI and it showed that everything was off. Then you hear all the comments: It’s all over. He will never come back. He will never be the one he is. So now the haters come out. And all this gives me energy, all those people that are speaking. So I said, “I decide when I stop football. I decide how I will finish this story. I will not end this story by injury. I will walk out the way I want to walk out.” When I walk out, I will feel just like when I began to play, powerful and feeling perfect.
How did you take the mindset that you bring to every match to your rehab?
I trained every day, boring training. But I needed to do it. And I had people around me that believed in me and gave me that extra push. I had my family. I had my agent. I had my physio. We worked every day. And when I signed the extra year with Manchester United [in August 2017], I asked [coach Jose] Mourinho, “Can I do [rehab] from distance? Because if I see the teammates every day, I will go crazy.”
Because I want to be with them. I am that kind of person. When the coach needs me, I’m there even if my knee is not there or I have a broken leg or something. I will be there for them because that’s how I work. When they need me, I will stand up for them. And I will defend them in every moment. So I asked to keep distance, to do my training isolated. I give a big thanks to United [for letting me do that], to my teammates that was in United, to Coach Mourinho — that gave me that confidence. And I’m here now, and I’m enjoying my football here now.
Will it be hard for you to watch the Swedish national team play without you in the World Cup?
No. In the beginning, the first games was different because I felt I can do it much better than them, obviously. And still I feel that. But there is a time when you say let them do it and let them enjoy because where I came from, I was not welcome. I was different. I came from a different background. And I went through all those things and I became the captain on my national team. I mean, bigger than that it cannot be.
You heard the cheers here in LA with your phenomenal debut. You’re smiling just remembering it. What did it feel like there on the pitch?
It felt amazing because the buildup was amazing. The only wish from Galaxy was please be ready for March 31, and that’s the game against LAFC. Just prepare for that game and be ready and be here. And I say, “Don’t worry, this is my job. Just make my visa so I have it so I can come over.” [Laughs] So everything was ready. I came here. I trained for 20 minutes. I didn’t know anybody. The next day I’m selected for the game. The coach asked me, “Are you sure you can play?” I said, “Just give me some minutes. I’ll show you.” And they were all asking, “How’s your knee?” I say, “We just have to find out how it is.” And we were losing 1-0, so I’m sitting on the bench and was, like, no problem, we can still do this. After 2-0 I look at my left, I said to him, “I don’t know if Zlatan is enough for this.” After 3-0, I say, “Listen, this will be a long season.” And then I heard the crowd shouting, “We want Zlatan.” OK, would they put me in or not? Or they will rest me? I didn’t know anything. So I started to warm up. We did 3-1. OK, now it’s your turn. You go in and then magic happens. So I gave them Zlatan, like I said. They wanted Zlatan, I gave them that.
You’ve heard cheers in every great football cathedral in the world. What was it like to hear those cheers in LA?
It was amazing because when I changed clubs I had a special connection with the supporters. I feel the welcome. I feel the energy. I feel the adrenaline. And I just want to give back. I want to give back as much as possible, and especially to the kids out there because they are the future. And I know they don’t get to see me every day. Like, “You have the luck now to see me here.” So I just want to give back to them as much as possible and by doing what I’m good at, playing football. And that is where the creativity comes in. You want to do something extra. I want to be the example they take after.
By Chris Connelly
Essayist and Reporter