Leave it to Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score a match-winning bicycle at 39 years old, as he did in the 83rd minute of Milan’s 2-1 win over Udinese. While the skill rightly received the attention, the goal overshadowed his hold-up play inside the box to assist Franck Kessie for the opener. The win kept Milan on top of Serie A, with Stefano Pioli’s side slowly creating separation in the table. In fact, Milan haven’t lost in Serie A since the league returned from suspension in June. Correlation isn’t causation, but of course, that wouldn’t stop Ibrahimovic from carving his own narrative since he returned to the team on a free last winter. Scoring every 51 minutes, he leads Italy with seven goals. He is currently averaging a career-high of two goals and assists per 90 minutes.
Ibrahimovic guaranteed that Milan, who finished 17 points behind Juventus, would have won Serie A last season had he been there from the start. Those are the declarations we’ve come to know from the striker. With a full year ahead of him, Ibrahimovic slightly calmed down the brashness, saying that winning Serie A this season is “still a long road.” And despite the stats, even he had to admit that time and aging were inevitable.
“If I was 20 years old, I would have scored another two,” said Ibrahimovic following a 2-0 win against Bologna to open the Serie A season.
Milan’s current side is Ibrahimovic and everyone else in many ways. The average age of their goalscorers this season outside of Ibrahimovic is 22-years-old. Not one to rage against the dying light, aging has suited Ibrahimovic as “everyone follows me.” And with a youthful squad around him, he can focus on deciding matches inside the box. Bologna manager Sinisa Mijhalovic said that the difference in the opener was that “they had Ibrahimovic and we didn’t,” but “apart from that, it was an even match.”
We are in the post-post-retirement phase of Ibrahimovic’s career. His move to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2018 was supposed to be the end of his European dominance. There was even an inevitability before then, with Ibrahimovic’s last three transfers since 2016, from PSG, Manchester United, the Galaxy, and Milan all on a free. His return to Serie A last January was a low risk, high reward move that was made for the digital era: at the very least, it would attract social media attention to an aging striker and a club in need of inspiration. That Milan would be in a position to sign a then-38-year-old striker, much less relying upon a player of that age, showed the state of the squad.
We can intuit how a personality adds weight and gravity to a team. This idea clashes against the development of analytics due to its immeasurable quality. But we - ranging from teammates, to boardroom executives, to supporters - can feel the meaning that a superstar gives to matches, and the lack of importance when it’s no longer there. The return to Milan was initially born out of modesty: show the younger plays how to train with intensity. Pioli described Ibrahimovic’s personality as “decisive.” The goals, assists, and game-winning performances are just bonuses. But could we really imagine a world in which Ibrahimovic actually shows his age on the field?
This second wind almost never happened. Ralf Rangnick, the architect of the Red Bull’s high pressing, youth oriented team-building approach, was supposedly close to taking over Milan this summer. Rangnick previously said that Ibrahimovic’s signing “was a contradiction” to what he would have built at the club, to which Ibrahimovic replied “I don’t even know who he is.” The stability in staying with Pioli and Ibrahimovic has been rewarded with results. With Andrea Pirlo still finding his voice at Juventus, there is an opening to win Serie A for the first time in a decade. And knowing what we know of Ibrahimovic, he read the landscape and foresaw the opportunity to add to his legend.
His form brought rumors of a potential return to the Sweden national team. Actually, there were no rumors - Ibrahimovic reignited the discussion with a single tweet. It was social media pressure turned into real life momentum, knowing that we all would side with him. Has any player in his generation built a persona better than Ibrahimovic? After all, what do we actually know about him? His character building contrasts the idea of using social media as a tool to personalize athletes. Instead, he’s used the platform to lean into his image and create further distances. He’s likened himself to Benjamin Button, something human and relatable - but neither human nor relatable once you get past appearances.
His aura of invincibility was stressed when he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year, tweeting that “Covid had the courage to challenge me.” Playing an otherworldly genius is one thing as a goalscorer, but another during a pandemic with real-life implications and tragedies. The invincibility and arrogance of his character clashed against science that could potentially save lives. And if Ibrahimovic wouldn’t break character for a pandemic, then when? This was supposed to be a moment in which athletes became more human as we all experienced consequences from the same virus.
Yet even during a public campaign to wear masks, Ibrahimovic could not give in. He said how “the virus challenged me and I won” but “you are not Zlatan, don’t challenge the virus.” We were just as complicit in creating this. The three-dimensional space of social media only allowed Ibrahimovic to dig deeper into his persona. Whether in the artifice of a soccer field or in real life, it’s too late to turn back now.
“There’s definitely a better feel around the place for sure,” said Sebastian Lletget of this season’s Galaxy without Ibrahimovic. He added that “it’s tough to play against him and tougher to play with him” due to his demanding personality.
We must be careful of what we wish for. Ibrahimovic was replaced by another goalscorer in Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Chicharito would replace the goals, but more importantly, bring positivity to the team. Instead, he’s scored two goals in eleven matches (Ibrahimovic had 52 goals in 56 matches in two seasons). Guillermo Barros Schelotto was fired midway during the season. At one point, Chicharito took to Instagram to reiterate his commitment to the Galaxy.
The sequence could be an example of how much further the league has to go to match its European counterparts, where challenging teammates is the expectation. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic continues to score goals. His consistency is especially impressive when compared to peers like Messi and Ronaldo, who had to shift their games as they age. There were no moves to the wing, or forays as an attacking midfielder; he has played the same way and occupied the same spaces his entire career (some managers prefer a striker who never leaves the area).
Even during a pandemic, even on his last legs, Ibrahimovic is playing how he’s always played, embodying the character he’s always been, making us feel close but keeping a distance, as he’s always done.