Jonah Freedman
Tuesday August 25th, 2009

It's decided: Zlatan Ibrahimovic's new nickname is "Elite Status."

Is it because he's one of the most prolific strikers in the world, with 29 goals in 46 games last season, and can do jaw-dropping things like this? Sure, that makes sense. Is it because at a reported $17 million a year, he's one of soccer's best-paid players? That, too. Maybe it's his reputation for an ego befitting his towering 6-foot-5 frame? Why not.

But more than anything else, the Swede probably logged more frequent-flier miles this past summer than the Space Shuttle.

In July, he traveled with Inter Milan across the U.S. as part of the four-team World Football Challenge exhibition tournament. Then, midway through, it was announced that his long-awaited transfer to FC Barcelona -- involving three players and nearly $100 million -- had come through. And with it, of course, another summer tour of the U.S. with his new club.

Bleary-eyed, he recently recalled his summer itinerary as something like this: "I went L.A.-Boston. Then Boston-Copenhagen ... no, Boston-Germany. I don't know if it was Munich or Stuttgart. Then I was home [in Sweden] two days and then I went to Barcelona and did the presentation, signed the deal, everything, then went to Los Angeles again."

Hopefully Ibra got his rest, because the Spanish season kicks off Sunday and the pressure is on the 27-year-old to make Barcelona -- the team that swept the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey trophies last season -- somehow better. He'll have no excuses: As the replacement for Samuel Eto'o in Barça's vaunted attack, he'll be paired up front with Thierry Henry and FIFA World Player of the Year front-runner Lionel Messi.

Zlatan is still recovering from surgery for a broken hand he suffered in Inter's match against Chelsea at the Rose Bowl last month, but he should be ready to go. SI.com recently caught up with the Swede and discussed the challenges ahead and where he fits in the pantheon of the world's best.

SI.com: Has this transition been easy for you?

Ibrahimovic: Now that everything is finished, yes. But before this it was a lot of talks, a lot of meetings. Every day, something new happened and my Inter teammates were like, What's going on, what's happening? I was like, I don't even know myself.

SI.com: Have your new teammates been quick to embrace you?

Ibrahimovic: Yeah. Everybody has been very kind, very friendly. They have accepted me with open arms, so I'm very happy. That's fantastic, because when you come to a new club and everyone makes you feel very welcome, it can't be better than this because it makes it easier for you to adapt to the team, to come into the team in an easy way.

SI.com: How long do you figure it'll take to adapt to the style of play and the Spanish league?

Ibrahimovic: That's a good question. First, I'm trying to do everything possible to adapt to the team. About the football quality, I'm not worried. It's just to adjust to the group and the rest will come automatically.

SI.com: Inter Milan is a pretty big club. Why were you so set on Barcelona?

Ibrahimovic: As soon as I heard they really wanted me -- [manager Pep Guardiola] wanted me a lot -- I said, This is a big opportunity I don't want to lose. If I wouldn't take this opportunity, maybe I would have said to myself in a couple of years, Why didn't I take it? For me, if the best team in the world really wants you, then it means something special.

SI.com: Inter president Massimo Moratti said he always believed you'd eventually leave.

Ibrahimovic: I think my will to come to Barcelona was too big. Moratti did everything for me. He made me feel so good, he gave me a lot of confidence. Whatever you can give me, he gave me. And I'm very thankful. I show a lot of respect for him because he helped me a lot. We had a meeting with him and I said every club can come and knock on the door, but I want you to say no to everybody but Barcelona. When Barcelona comes, I want you to sit down on the table and discuss, try to find a solution -- not force yourself, but try to find a solution. If you are happy, then I want to move.

SI.com: With this team intact, obviously, you have a better chance to win the Champions League with Barça. Was Inter ever good enough to win it?

Ibrahimovic: I think every team has the opportunity to win the Champions League because it's not about the best team always wins. Sometimes it's about luck, it's about small details, it's the moment. Sometimes smaller teams win and they're not even the favorites, like Porto [in 2004]. Everything can happen in the Champions League.

SI.com: But was the chance to win it a big part of your decision to leave?

Ibrahimovic: I'm not desperate to win it. It's the only club trophy I'm missing, yes. But I'm not desperate, because once you're desperate for something, you will not reach it. I have it as an objective in my head to win it, yes, but if I don't win it, it's not the end of the world.

SI.com: Still, Barcelona won everything last year and scored nearly three goals per game. You have said you're not going to try to replace Eto'o, but how do you make a team like that better?

Ibrahimovic: Exactly. The team is already on top. I come in to learn and I come with my quality, I come to bring something different that I'm good at. Just to adjust and to play with these players.

SI.com: Barcelona's first date with remade Real Madrid is on Nov. 29. Is that going to be one of the highest-stakes rivalries you've ever experienced?

Ibrahimovic: I think so. Real Madrid is trying to buy a team to become champions, and Barcelona is already champions. We made two transfers: me and Maxwell. Real Madrid bought a lot of players. They want to make a winning team, which is understandable, because if you're Real Madrid, you have to win. And if you haven't won in a couple of years, then you have to buy if you don't have the structure from underneath. Real doesn't have that like Barcelona does. For us, our team is going to be something special to watch. I am very excited.

SI.com: Who were your favorite players when you were coming up?

Ibrahimovic: I like players who make a difference. Ronaldo, for me, is a complete player. He has everything a football player needs to have. He makes a difference. Romário made a difference, too.

SI.com: That can't be a coincidence -- both played for Barcelona. Were you a fan of Barça growing up?

Ibrahimovic: I watched a lot of them because a lot of big players played here. Ronald Koeman, my manager when I was at Ajax, was one. [Ibrahimovic spent three seasons at the Dutch club after leaving Sweden in 2001.] He taught me a lot about the club. When he coached Ajax, he got the ideas from Barcelona. They're very similar because of Johan Cruyff, who was a big star for both clubs. At Barcelona, everything is styled on Cruyff.

SI.com: One of the greatest of all-time. That's a nice segue. You get mentioned these days in the same sentence as Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi as "best in the world." Do you think you belong there?

Ibrahimovic: I think I've kept a very high level. I've worked a lot and I've demonstrated a lot on the field. I take it as a compliment.

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