Zlatan Ibrahimovic Will Not Go Quietly Into the Night at Undefeated AC Milan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
The boss | Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

When I reflect on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s time in Los Angeles back in 2019, I picture a young Grandfather, somehow convinced into moving to an old folks’ home by a family who thought his days in the sun were numbered.

Every morning, he wakes up, begrudgingly throws on his dressing gown and fluffy slippers, and trudges down to the breakfast canteen for his morning bite. With disgust, he inhales the mushy porridge and smooth orange juice provided – no lumps or bits, just in case.

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He shuffles into the entertainment room, only for the television to be immediately switched off by the nervous orderlies. “What was that on the screen?” Zlatan ponders. To his ageing and deteriorating eyes, it appeared to be 22 men kicking a bag of wind around. Something stirs inside him.

A series of unfamiliar emotions come flooding back. “I USED TO DO THAT! THAT WAS ME! ” he screams, pointing at the television. In a flash, the nurses are upon him, and with the popping of a pill, the last 20 seconds are wiped from his memory.

Weeks and months pass, and the numbing banality of routine sets in. He’s top of the class in aqua aerobics, slightly-inclined hill walking, and he has yet to be beaten in a game of Connect Four. “It’s not so bad here after all,” Zlatan mutters to himself, as he claims his opponent’s fruit juice following another dominant victory in Guess Who?

Then one day, he snaps. With his over-the-hill brainwashing treatment almost complete, the rumbling of a bingo machine awakens him from his subconscious slumber. Christmas Cake, 38!

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Suddenly, Ibra’s mind jolts into life. “38…38…38? Why does that number feel so familiar?” he thinks to himself. Then, it hits him.

“ZLATAN IS ONLY 38 YEARS OLD. ZLATAN DOESN’T AGE, AGE ZLATANS!” (Not his best work, but he was rusty at this point). It all comes rushing back: the football, the goals, the fame, the fortune. All suppressed and forgotten by one little trip to America.

Orderlies attempt to restrain him, but it’s too late. He is Zlatan again. Martial artsing his way through a series of dives and tackles, he karate kicks the door down, looks around at the elderly has-beens in his presence, and shakes his head.

“How could I have ever believed I was one of you?”

And with that, he was gone. He boarded a plane heading to Milan, ready to prove everybody – including his former self – wrong.

10 months later, and maybe not even he would have believed his return to Europe’s top table could have gone so swimmingly. The change of pace from MLS and LA Galaxy to Serie A and Milan was tipped to be Ibrahimovic’s downfall. Sure, he had been at football’s peak for almost 20 years, but one entire season away from the elite game off the back of a serious knee injury at Manchester United?

No way any player bounces back from that – especially one carrying the weight and strains of 38 years.

How wrong we all were.

Ibrahimovic settled back into Italian football like – well, like sliding into an old pair of slippers. In January 2020, the Swede arrived at a club spiralling towards yet another crisis: mid-table, underperforming, and destined for several more years of mediocrity.

Not on his watch. Zlatan grabbed Milan by its bootstraps, and singlehandedly dragged them up the table. His 10 goals in 18 matches fired the strugglers into the Europa League positions, starting an impressive unbeaten run of 22 games – a feat which still remains intact.

In half a season, the Milan legend had completed everything and more that he had set out to achieve. He had inspired the young crop of Rossoneri stars, taken them under his wing and helped develop them into the players they had threatened to become for a number of years.

His demanding guidance had set new levels of expectations around the club. They were no longer average in ability and effort – new powers had been unlocked, and they were now the bare minimum requirements.

Ibrahimovic’s job was done. He had proven that he was still an elite striker, even at the grand old age of 38. And yet, an unquenchable thirst lingered. It wasn’t enough. The old man decided to stick around for one last year, confident that his story deserved another chapter.

The Swede smelt blood. Fresh young faces arrived in Milan, wide-eyed and excited to learn alongside the great man. The likes of Brahim Diaz and Sandro Tonali have quickly got up to speed in their new environment, while starlets Rafael Leao and Alexis Saelemaekers are taking their game to greater heights.

Franck Kessie, Rafael Leao, Zlatan IbrahimovicFranck Kessie, Rafael Leao, Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Get yourself someone who looks at you the way that Leao looks at Ibra | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Coach Stefano Pioli has built an attacking, adventurous and wonderfully raw team which is gunning for glory, but at the front and centre of it all is kingpin Ibrahimovic. On the field, he has brought experience, knowhow, a winning mentality, and probably most unexpectedly, an unprecedented shower of goals.

Despite missing two games through illness, the former Barcelona star has hit six goals in three appearances this campaign, including a brace in Milan’s sensational 2-1 victory over rivals Inter in the Derby della Madonnina. He followed up this triumph with a typically hyperbolic Twitter post, publishing a photo of a fearsome lion, covered in its victim’s blood from its latest feeding. He captioned the post, “Fame.”

To the untrained English eye, the forward seemed to be searching for recognition with his caption, desperate for his status as a legend to be acknowledged. For the Italian speakers however, this post offered some very different connotations – for the word fame in Italian means “hunger”. And boy, is he famished.

He notched a further two goals in I Rossoneri’s 3-3 draw with AS Roma on Monday evening, a result which extended their unbeaten run, and consolidated their place as Serie A’s current leaders. Their role as pace-setters does coincide with Atalanta’s stuttering post-Champions League form, while Inter and Juventus look to find their feet following drastic changes in personnel over the extended summer transfer window.

That’s not to say they don’t deserve their place at the top. With or without Ibra, I Rossoneri are winning games in style, keeping clean sheets and looking the most settled and improved team in the league. And with I Bianconeri in transition, Napoli and Inter prone to a stumble and Atalanta not quite at their peak, there may never be a better chance for Milan to regain power from the stranglehold of current champions Juve.

Could the superstar really take this Milan side from complete mediocrity and mid-table misery to a long-awaited title success in the space of 18 months, all while approaching his 40th birthday?

Zlatan IbrahimovicZlatan Ibrahimovic
Age is but a number | DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Logic says almost definitely not. But we are talking about a man who defies logic on a daily basis. And we are also talking about a man who will do whatever it takes to satisfy his insatiable appetite for glory, and feed the ever-growing legend that follows his every move.

Ibrahimovic is not a man who will disappear quietly into the night. He won’t even go kicking and screaming against his will. He will go when he’s on top. When the final doubter has drawn his last breath, Zlatan will drop the microphone, exit the stage in a helicopter, and somehow leave the football world wanting more.

For even when we thought we’d taken our last bite out of the big man, he still came back for more.