MILAN - He has long been one of the game’s most divisive characters, with team-mates, managers and pundits all struggling to decide whether Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is worth the hassle that seems to come with him.
From Ajax to Juventus and Inter to Barcelona, his talents have been overshadowed by the perception that he is a negative presence in the dressing rooms he has frequented, yet the man they call ‘Ibra’ has still been the subject of huge transfer fees.
His latest fall-out with a manager saw his dreams of glory in a Barcelona shirt ended prematurely, as he was offloaded to AC Milan just a year after the Catalan giants splashed out a reported €45 million (plus Samuel Eto’o) to sign him. Now he speaks to ESPNsoccernet about Barca, his reputation and the new-look attack at Milan.
Q. After only one season at Barcelona, you were shown the door. Many have described you as a flop at Camp Nou, but what is your take on the story?
A. That’s not how I see it at all. Look at the statistics: 16 goals and several assists in the Spanish championship and four more goals in the Champions League. I thought I settled in well at and contributed a lot to what was a successful season for the club. I kept my part of the bargain and I have nothing whatsoever to reproach myself for.
Q. So what went wrong?
A. It all comes down to one man - the coach (Pep Guardiola). At first we were on the same wavelength and the same philosophy, that of free-flowing attacking football. I felt we had a healthy boss-player relationship and then he just froze me out last spring. There was no more dialogue, no explanations. All of a sudden I didn’t exist anymore.
Q. You sound angry about the treatment you received from Guardiola. Is that a fair assessment?
A. He went down as a person in my estimation. He avoided me and wouldn’t even look me in the eye. If he had a problem with me, he should have told me to my face as I would have respected that sort of honesty. Instead, I got nothing and it was a mystery to me. You have to ask him why he brought down the shutters.
Q. Is your reputation as a disruptive influence in the dressing room justified?
A. I totally reject it. Ask some of my former coaches such as Ronald Koeman, Fabio Capello, Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho. Even though I have a strong personality and like to speak my mind, they handled me well. I was not a negative influence to them.
Q. Was there ever a chance of you staying on at Barca and fighting for your place?
A. From whatever angle you looked at it, there was no way back for me. When you are the invisible man to the head coach, the only option is to head for the exit. I’m 28 years old, in my prime, and sitting in the stands or on the bench is no use to me. If I’m not playing, the best thing is to go as I didn’t want to end up like Thierry Henry, who became a virtual spectator at Barcelona in his final season.
Q. Do you have you any regrets at all about leaving Barca so soon?
A. Of course. Camp Nou is a magical arena to play in, the fans are as passionate as I have seen and, above all, I was part of a exceptional side. Who wouldn’t want to be combining on the pitch with a Messi, Xavi or Iniesta?
Q. So why did you opt to join Milan?
A. Their project was easily the most exciting put in front of me. They have been starved of success for a few years and now they are going all out to get back on top both in Italy and Europe. I was flattered that they picked me out as one of the players to give them the boost they are looking for. I can’t remember the last time they won Serie A, so let’s make it happen.
Q. What kind of Zlatan are Milan getting? Are you damaged by your Barcelona experience?
A. My confidence can come back very quickly. I’d like to think I’m a spectacular player, a guy who can do extraordinary things and I’m at the perfect club with this mentality. With brilliant attackers and creators like Robinho, Ronaldinho, Pato, Pirlo and Seedorf around me, this is the perfect stage. I know the Milan fans have been snapping up season tickets - I can see why. We are the new dream team.
Q. Is there a danger that the Milan side is too attack-minded and a little unbalanced with so many attacking superstars?
A. This is the top level in Italy, you know. Tactics and defensive organisation are never ignored here, so I trust coach Massimiliano Allegri to get the blend right. However, when you look at the players in the Milan team, we cannot play with the handbrake on. In the attacking third, we will be putting the emphasis on instinct and risk-taking. That’s my game in a nutshell.
Q. You’ve already had five highly successful seasons in Italy with Juventus and Inter (2004-09), so do you expect to acclimatise quickly?
A. Every player needs a little time to adjust to new team-mates and the mentality of the coach when you change clubs. Despite this, Italian football doesn’t hold any secrets for me and the style of play in Serie A suits a technical attacker like me.
Q. After starring for Milan’s arch-rivals Inter, is it strange to be on the other side of the fence?
A. Inter fans will not appreciate seeing me in red and black, but the reality is footballers move around a lot these days. Nothing is written in stone as a career is an unpredictable journey. I had a great time at Inter but now my allegiance is with Milan and it’s my duty to make a difference for them. Rather than worry about me, Inter should focus on defending their European and Italian titles. Hopefully I can help to take those titles from them this season.
Q. What are your targets for your first season as an AC Milan player?
A. I have a good feeling about this move. Milan are on the up again and I’m really enthusiastic about this campaign. After winning trophies at all my clubs, I don’t want it to be any different this time.