Speaking in an exclusive interview with France Football, AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic talked about his legacy, the Ballon D’Or and more.
Did you ever find Fido Dido (his BMX bike as a kid) again?
No. It was stolen from me and I was never able to get it back. But it was maybe also return fire, with all the bikes that I stole myself too. It is a shame, it was my favourite bike.
If you could hunt down the man who stole it, what would you do?
I would buy him a new bike and get mine back.
You speak a lot about this story in your autobiography. Do you feel like it was a turning point in your career? That in some way, it forced you to leave the side of the victim to enter the camp of the victors?
No. I was young, stupid. I did things to survive. I needed a bike to get here and there. I put myself up to stealing to manage my situation. When my favourite bike was stolen, I no longer stopped stealing those from others. But it was because I could not afford mine. It was a question of survival. Even though it was not something positive… you do these sort of things to be able to move forward, no?
What would you like to steal from football today to be able to give to little Zlatan?
Nothing. I would simply tell him to have more patience. That the hard work will pay off. I worked hard but I did not have a lot of patience. I wanted it all to come very fast. “Zlatan, have patience. Keep working and believe in yourself.”
How did you deal with that apprenticeship in being patient?
It is very difficult when you are young. When you have experience like I have now, you understand what patience is. But when you are young, full of ideas, with a lot of energy, motivation, when you want to discover the world and you have a lot of things to learn, it is not simple. You need to be surrounded by people with experience, that enable you to stay calm and can tell you things to your face.
What will remain of Zlatan Ibrahimovic after his career?
I do not now. I hope something, if something remains, it means that I have done my work well. Maybe my ideas. Believing in yourself, having your own personality, not being scared to hold your own if you think something else, always being open-minded.
Have you made mistakes?
I make mistakes every day. Like now, speaking to you, this is a mistake (laughs)!
It might be an error for us too… (laughs)
No… Everyday, we make mistakes. It is thanks to that that we become better people. Nobody is perfect.
What are you proud of?
I am proud of what I have done. I come from a place where everyone judged me, said to me that it was not possible. People would speak about me: “Yes, he is not good enough.” And I am still here, standing, at 39, comfortable in my boots. And I am proud.
Could you have done better?
I think that we can always do better. It is a question of mentality.
Everyone can do better. In my head, I try to do my maximum, and I do the maximum. Could I do better? Some would say yes. It is debatable.
Certainly, today, do you get tired of the media’s opinion, fan opinions, everyone’s opinion?
That is part of my job. I did not chose that, but when you are as good as me, it comes all on its own and you have to take it on.
What would you say to those who say you are a great player in small matches?
Everyone has opinions. Everyone has the right to say what they think.
When you were younger, did it annoy you?
No. It was like putting fuel on the fire. It enabled me to do even more. On the contrary, it motivated me. I advanced with that and it served me to never be satisfied. All these criticisms, I use them to rekindle my flame and I drew energy from them.
Do you have regrets?
No. Everything that happens to you in life is supposed to happen to you.
Even never winning the Champions’ League?
No. Do you think I would have been a better player if I had won it?
Not necessarily no. Ronaldo, the Brazilian, didn’t win one either…
Exactly. If I had won it, it would have been marvellous. I did not win it, but it does not make me a less good player. It is like people who say to me: “Zlatan, you did not win the World Cup, you are not a good player.” Ok…. it is easier to win the World Cup when you are French rather than Swedish. Aside from that, to come back to the Champions’ League, the longer you wait, the more amazing it is to win it no? I still have objectives. At club level, I have won everything except the Champions’ League. But I am not complaining because I have done more than a lot of others. I am happy.
You have not won the Ballon D’Or either. Are you missing the Ballon D’Or, or is the history of the Ballon D’Or missing you?
I think that the history of the Ballon D’Or is missing me.
You finished 4th in 2013, your best result. Do you find it abnormal that you didn’t win it?
I want to stay… Everyone wants to win a trophy that says that you are the best player in the world. Deep inside me, I feel that I am the best player in the world. It would be prestigious to win it but it is the voters who decided. You, the people who vote, you know why I have not won it (laughs)!
It is not just France Football who vote, but journalists across the globe.
Ah, ah, ah!
Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they, they have collected the trophies. What do they have that you don’t?
If you are talking about intrinsic qualities, I have nothing less than them. If you look at the trophies, yes, but I have not won the Champions’ League… But I don’t know how you calculate these things. I am not obsessed by that. Because when you do good things collectively, the individual stuff follows. An individual cannot be good, if the team is not good.
Where would you place yourself in the history of football? If there was a table, where would you be sitting?
What do you mean?
Who would sit with you around the table?
I do not think that it would be pertinent to compare players with each other. Each one played in their own generation, with different team-mates… Difficult to compare. I think that each person has their own story and must face that. My table is therefore filled with problems.
Do you think that your personality has taken you outside of the world of football?
I am simply me. People always try to be perfect. I always say: “Be yourself and that it is what perfect means.” I do not change for success, for nothing, I am continuing to be myself, and whatever happens, be myself. I am just playing my game, I want to win with my team, and the rest comes on its own. I did not choose to become famous, I did not choose… I do not know what you mean by “outside of the football frame.” It is part of the job when you become good. That has consequences. People recognise you and you become famous.
No “outside of the frame,” we wanted to say that you are outside of the pitch…
Ah, but that, that relates to what I do no the pitch. I want to say, people speak a lot, but if you are not good on the pitch, you are not an icon. For me, you are a clown.
Are there a lot of clowns in football?
A package… a package.
When you said earlier: “Be perfect…”
I said that people try to be perfect and some create a persona. I said to be yourself is to be perfect within yourself. Like when you asked me if I made mistakes. Of course I make mistakes, but anyone who thinks that they are perfect, they, they think that they do not mistakes.
Yes, but in the end in your eyes, to be yourself, is to be perfect?
That is what I say, that is to be perfect. But I am not trying to be perfect, I am simply myself. That means to be perfect. That does not mean that I do not make mistakes, I do. I remember, when I arrived in the United States, people had to choose 20 athletes to make the perfect team. I was in there. Simply because I am myself. I do not need to ask for your questions in advance even though everyone wants to know what they are. And when you do your interviews, people want to read it back to see if it was good or not. Me, I do not want to see it. I don’t care!
At PSG, you declared when you left: “I arrived as a King, I left as a legend.” Is there another legend who has succeeded you in Paris?
As I said, each person has their own story. I have my own with PSG. Now, it is time for someone else to leave their motto engraved in the stone. I have written mine: “I arrived as a King, I left as a legend.” Nobody can pick that up, they will need to find another.
Is life a succession of stories, always with a beginning and an end?
Always. The most important thing is how you start them and how you finish them, these stories. But if you achieve something, we will remember you.
Is it really important for you that we always remember you?
No. I am good in my job and I am here to help. To try to win and make a difference on the pitch. I am not here to force people to remember me. The people who remember you, it is because you achieved something. Nothing more.
Are you arrogant or pretentious?
I am confident. Not arrogant, not pretentious. Someone ignorant would call me arrogant. An intelligent person would say confident.
Is it a nice feeling for you to be considered as someone unique?
I am not special. I am normal.
Your story and your career make you special, no?
That, that is something different. Everyone is normal. We are different in our own ways but we are all the same at heart.
With your way of reacting and your personality, have you looked for a way to hide your weaknesses?
When you reach the level that is my own, you do not have a choice. I am not here to share my life with the whole world. I am a professional footballer, I share what I want to share. I am not a clown on Instagram who gets up and who asks themselves what the best photo would be to say hello. I want to share things from my professional life. For me, I have a private life, which is very important. That, I do not share. And there is a professional life, which I share because that is part of my job. I am not hiding anything. I am just keeping my private life for me.
You talk about confidence, is that a way of hiding a more fragile part of you?
No. When you are confident, you believe in what you do and you believe in yourself. That makes up who you are. Maybe that gives you an advantage, that allows you to feel good. It is not about hiding anything. It is a mentality, not a question of weakness. It is a power, a strength.
Do you not think that you block out all vulnerability with the way in which you act? Is this reminiscent of your childhood in Rosengard, where being called a “wimp” was the worst insult? Is vulnerability a “wimp” thing?
No. I do have some vulnerability. I have emotions, weak points, things that hurt me. I am not Hulk. I am not Superman. You see me on the pitch always confident, off of it as well, but I have some vulnerability. I have my weaknesses, my emotions. That is natural.
You have however played that role no? Superman, Hulk?
I do not think that I have played a role at any moment. I am just myself. Nothing more… I want to say, I was brought up like that, I have gone through my life, I have had my experiences, I have grown up. Now, I have a family, two kids, that is a part of my life. You go through new chapters. I have had some difficult moments, wonderful instances, normal moments too. You go through it all and that makes you who you are. Today, I am the person that I am. Maybe on 6 months, a year, I will be someone else. It depends on what you go through. I am no longer 35, 30 or 25 years old. My way of thinking is no longer the same. But I have remained myself. That is the most important thing. I am more mature, I manage situations differently, on the pitch and off of it. I want to profit from my playing at the highest level, share my experience with my team-mates, for as long as possible.
At nearly 40, can you still be the hard man or is it no longer possible?
But, guys, do you really take me for a gangster? (laughs) You have an image of me… I am not a gangster. If I am nearly 2 metres tall and still strong, it is because I train and I work, it is not because I work out on Venice Beach and that I am “muscle guy” all day. I was born like this, my parents are big, that is who I am. I try to adapt my game to my span and age. I am not as fast as I was when I was 25 or 30, I do the best to help my team. But I am not a hard man or whatever.
Are you nice then?
I am. When you know me, I have a big heart. When you do not know me, you hate me.
Do you want to be liked by all now?
No. I just want people to recognise when I do something well. To be loved or hated… I want to say, what is love? Tell me! Those people who are close to you, that, that is love. The supporters, for example. Let’s take those at Inter for example. When I was there, they loved me, when I left, they no longer loved me. So, what is love?
Family, those close to you…
Exactly. When you do something good, you are loved, and then, all of a sudden, you are on longer loved. Is that love? No. I do not need to be liked. I just want people to be fair and appreciate what I do if I do it well. But that is part of a more global thing. I am not seeking love liker those who participate in certain charitable causes for people to say about them: “Wow, he is a good guy!” That is fake. If I do something, it is because I want to. Nobody will know about it. I do it with my heart. But some people, they, they do it with their head. They do charity so that we say about them: “F*** he is a good guy. He sent money to a hospital, he sent money for COVID-19.” I do it, but I do not talk about it: “Big difference.”
Is that the worst thing in football currently?
But it is part of the world right now! People want to be perfect. They want to build an image, like: “Wow!” In the end, they will all be caught up by reality. We will know who they really are. Look at Tiger Woods. He was supposed to be the most perfect man on the earth… Be yourself, don’t try to play yourself and be someone who you are not. Otherwise, in the end, you will pay. If you want to do it, you do it. Don’t do it because someone has told you it is good or that it will help or make you perfect. That is simply manipulation. I do not want to be involved in manipulation. What you see on my social media, that is real life. One person. Not two.
When we ask you if you want to be liked, we think about the fact that you learned the Swedish anthem by heart. We have the feeling that you want to reach a level of unanimousness in your country. Are we wrong?
When I was little, I did not feel Swedish (his father is Bosnian, his mother is Croatian). Because they made me feel like I was different. I was treated differently, judged differently, looked at differently… That is why I did not feel 100% Swedish. I was made to feel that. But if they had me feel like one of theirs, I would have looked at myself as 100% Swedish. But today, I say it, I am 100% Swedish. When I was young, I thought about it differently, but now, older, I have experience, I am 100% Swedish. I represent new Sweden. It is the world now. In France, it is the same.
There are still people who speak about old France. Oh! We are in 2021! The world is filled with mixtures, different contrasts. And it is not because you are like that that you cannot feel 100% French or 100% Swedish. But when I was young, that, you cannot understand that. You are in a phase where you learn and you collect information to have the weapons to understand. You suffer a bit. But there are consequences for all that. Mentally, when you are treated differently, because you are different in their eyes, it is hard. It is like kids who bully others at school. People would say: “Don’t worry, it will pass.” They do not know that there are psychological consequences for years later. The person who is bullied can become mentally unstable and then have trauma. I always say that it is easier to take a big hit because that hurts for 5 minutes. When you are bullied, the consequences can exist for the rest of their life.
But these people are poorly brought up, ignorant and think that they can still live in the old world. My wife is 100% Swedish. So my children have a contrast, but they are also 100% Swedish. It is wonderful. It is the world now. A world of open-mindedness.
Do you still feel this racism in Sweden?
Not me, but it still exists, of course. Everywhere in the world. There will always be ignorant people. Even though we are here to share love and joy on this Earth and in what we do best. I, I play football. I don’t play a game outside of football to spread this love. My best way of spreading this love is with my football. That is all.
Does your opinion still diverge from that of LeBron James, who you have clashed with?
I said that we are not politicians. Politics divides people. Football, in my world, unites people. Big difference. Because I have had the chance to meet and get to know people that I would never have known if I did not play football. I have met people from all four corners of the world. We unite people. Politicians divide. If I wanted to be a politician, I would do politics. We should only do what we’re good at. Sports and politics are two different categories. If you are intelligent, you understand.
Is it not more that you fear to take a position?
Whether I take a position or not is not a question. It relates to what you do, and what message you want to send. Us, footballers, we produce love and joy. You cannot bring your politics into the world. I am not here to send a bad message to people. I am just here to unite, spread love and joy. This is the best means we have to do it. Football or sport. Because we are good for that. I am good for that. I am good at football.
What are the things that pain you?
For those things, you look at different phases. I have a family now. With the situation that we have lived through, with quarantine, COVID-19, the face of the world has completely changed. It is better in Italy, I was able to eat outside recently. I have started to see people. It was different, bizarre. I am no longer used to it. I had just one wish, to go home. I am not at all used to that. I was used to being at home, wearing a mask for a long time, and that continues, Mentally, it will not be easy to get back to it, I hope that everything will be sorted out and that we will get used to all that. That everything returns to how it was. But there will be consequences for the future, that is for sure.
What are you scared of?
What is fear? It depends on which prism you want to talk about. I am not scared to take on challenges. I am not scared to try things. Scared of… Scared of getting sick, yes. But you can’t focus that, otherwise you turn crazy. Of course I have fears but I am positive. I try to be, at least.
When talking about fear, when you become a parent, that increases even more no?
You cannot talk about fear when you talk about children. However, you can talk about weakness. When you have children, they become your weakness. We are talking about sensitivities and emotions. Your children become your weak point. Because your life is no longer in your hands, it is in theirs. They become the most important thing. What happens to them is more important than what happens to you all of a sudden. That becomes your weakness… Guys we have been going for 30 minutes! I am not giving you more. I am too expensive to continue to speak to you!
How much do you cost?
A lot… Ask PSG!
Do you have 5 or 10 more minutes?
Ok! Let’s do that, but I have other things I need to do!
We want to talk to you about retirement. Will it be weird for you to cut out football?
I think so. For each player it is very hard when you retire. During your career, you have a programme. Everyday, you get up, you eat breakfast, you train, you finish training, and then someone does warm down, they make you lunch, you go home, you recover, you spend time with family or something, and then the day after, it is the same. You hit “repeat.” We are programmed in our heads. And that’s how it has been for 20 or 25 years for me. The day you stop, the first morning, you wake up and you say: “What the hell do I do now?” You are no longer programmed and you enter into a new chapter in your life. And that, that scares me. What am I going to do? But I am not there yet, I don’t want to think about it. When it comes, I will deal with it.
In France, we talk about it like a little death.
It is that, exactly that. Aside from that, it depends on your personality, how you rebound, how you fight, how you react… It is not easy…
Do you not want to relax when you retire? Drink what you want, eat as you like…
After my career, I want to disappear… When you live in this world for as long as I have, you know what you have been through mentally and physically. So I just want to disappear and enjoy my life.