Arguably the world’s best player who will not be competing in World Cup 2014 is Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden and Paris Saint-Germain. That’s a shame, of course, since Ibra is one of the world’s most entertaining and lethal strikers.
But Ibrahimovic has also written a terrific memoir, I Am Zlatan, with David Lagercrantz, that was released in the United States on Tuesday.
Far more insightful than your typical jock memoir, Ibra’s book tells his story of growing up as the son of immigrants in Sweden and pulls no punches when it comes to his opinions of some of the biggest names in the game (including managers José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola). I spoke 1-on-1 with Ibrahimovic recently about the book and other things, and as you would expect, he was extremely revealing.
Let’s dive in (answers have been edited lightly for length and clarity):
SI – Congratulations on your book, which I thought was fantastic. You were very honest throughout. Why did you want to write a book?
IBRAHIMOVIC – I mean, people often write after they finish their career or they don’t play anymore or they are not anymore active. So I say why do that? And let’s do it differently. While I am active let’s do a book because I have a lot of things to say, a lot of things happened, and in Sweden, where I come from, I am in the headlines 24 hours [a day]. People are very curious and have written a lot of things about me. Right or not. I never comment on those things, because it’s not much of my thing to comment on everything that’s written about me.
Even when the book was finished I had the choice of saying yes or no [to certain passages], but I choose to go ahead. And that’s the way it is. I mean, doing a book and being honest is better than doing a book and telling people things that they already know. I mean, people know that I won a lot of trophies. People know that I’ve played in this club and this club and this club. But they want to know the real story behind it. So that was my own story. This was my chance to say how really things happened.
SI –You write about growing up as the son of immigrants in Sweden. Did you ever feel like you were part of Swedish culture growing up?
IBRAHIMOVIC – No, no. I felt like they had more advantages than me, and I had to be 10 times better than them. I felt I wasn’t accepted. But that’s maybe what drove me, what gave me the will to do even better, to give me the adrenaline to do even more. So that made me angry to become better. And luckily they didn’t make me angry to do stupid things.
SI – You write about stealing bicycles all the time as a youth. Why did you do this?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Because I had to come to the training [sessions]. It was a long distance. And my father was working and I was living alone with my father, and instead of walking, let’s say, 10 kilometers, I stole a bike and I took myself there with the bike. I needed a transport vehicle. Something to bring me from Point A to Point B, let’s say.
SI – You start the book by writing about Guardiola and talk about how he wanted ordinary guys and Barcelona players acting like school boys, and that you didn’t fit into that. And that at one point you screamed at Guardiola in a game at Villarreal. What was it about Guardiola that bothered you so much?
IBRAHIMOVIC – In the beginning he was pretty involved to bring me there, and he convinced everybody to bring me there and even myself. Once I came there, everything was fantastic the first six months, and then something happened. I still don’t know yet what happened. If somebody has a problem where I come from—my area, let’s say—if I have a problem, I resolve it. And this never happened. I’m not the guy that goes to somebody and asks him, “Do you have a problem or something, though?” I train, I’m professional, and I respect the decision of the coach.
So I really don’t know what happened. He never called me in his office and said, “Listen, you don’t play good. You don’t play like I want you to play. You don’t look good. You don’t talk good.” Whatever. I don’t know why, but it didn’t happen, so for me that is a mystery because you buy somebody for 70 Million euros and after six months you don’t talk to him anymore. If you call yourself a man after that … That’s my opinion and my experience from what happened. And at the same time I learned a lot of things and it made me stronger. You learn from the negatives and from the positives. That’s the way it works.
SI – You also write about Mourinho, and you say, “Mourinho would become a guy I was basically willing to die for.” Why?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Because that’s the guy who convinces you and manipulates you into doing things that he wants. Where[as] the other guy, Guardiola is a fantastic coach [but] as a person I see him differently. And Mourinho is like the different one. He is convincing you. He is manipulating you to do what he wants. And that’s why he was so successful and even a fantastic coach. So he has two things in one. So it was a totally different kind of character and personality.
SI – You write a little bit about Louis van Gaal, who was your manager at Ajax. He’s about to take over Manchester United. You don’t seem to like him all that much. Why not?
IBRAHIMOVIC – No, because he’s the old tradition. The old general. He’s the boss and everybody else can, how do you say—they’re soldiers. I mean, you have to have a little bit of feeling in the whole thing. Many big stars have problems with him because of the way he is. I understand if you’re 15 to 20 years old, you put the discipline there. Which is normal, because I was in Holland, I was in that school where he built up Ajax. And I understand it, but when you come to a team with 22 big stars, that’s what you treat them like? Like small boys?
We were in a dining room and sitting there until he says, “Ok, go ahead, now you can eat.” Then suddenly we could eat. So we could not eat before he says. And he was acting – we had a, we had a situation where he was the Director in Ajax and he was, yeah, he was the boss then. No problem. You’re the boss. And he was saying to me … We had a situation with [his Ajax teammate Rafael] Van der Vaart.
I talked about it in the book. [Van der Vaart] got injured and he was blaming me that I did it on purpose. I said to him I didn’t do it on purpose. And so it went on, and at the end I said will not play if Van der Vaart is to play because my own captain is attacking me and blaming me for injuring him. Instead of protecting your team as a captain outside the team and also inside the team, he is doing totally the opposite. He is trying now to attack me and get everybody against me. And we had a meeting with Van Gaal and he says, “Listen. I’m the boss. If I tell you to play, you play.” And I was like, “You’re the boss but if I tell you I will not play as long as Van der Vaart is playing, I’m not playing. If you can’t understand nothing just sit and wait and you will see me that I will not play.”
That was my last week at Ajax.
SI – Did you tell everyone that you’d be telling these stories about them before they were published?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Which one?
SI – The people that you write about in the book. Did you tell them ahead of time: “I’m going to say some interesting things about…”
IBRAHIMOVIC – No, no, no, no, no. I mean, I talked to my family. I told them I’m writing a book. I talk about what happened from my own experience. It’s the real story for what happened in my own experience of it.
SI – You also write that you always like hanging out with the black players and the South American players on a team in Europe. I found that interesting. Why is that?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Because when we came to Ajax, it was like a club with a lot of talent. So what happened? Every talent wanted to go further. So every talent was thinking about himself and not helping the other one. And especially the Dutch players, they were like in that group and helping each other but not the players that came from abroad.
So what happened? The players from abroad, they were hanging with the other players from abroad. So we were together and that was black players, South American players, players from Brazil like Maxwell that I have been playing with for 10 years . We were always together and trying to help each other because we were in the same situation. We were like helping each other to go further while the Dutch guys were like, “We go further and not you.” It was a kind of combination there.
SI – Interesting. You also write about the training-ground fight you had with the American player, Oguchi Onyewu, who was your teammate at AC Milan. I’ve asked Oguchi about what happened, and he won’t say any detail.
IBRAHIMOVIC – Yeah. I read something that he said that he has the real story and that I didn’t say the whole thing. So if he has something that I don’t know, absolutely, he should talk about it. Because maybe I missed something or maybe I forgot something. I don’t know, but this is what I remember and let’s see what he says.
SI – You broke a rib in the fight. Who won this fight? Did you win it or did he win it?
IBRAHIMOVIC – I think nobody won it because the guy is a monster. He’s as big as me and he’s really strong, so I don’t see it like a winner there.
SI – OK, time for a couple really quick questions that I like to ask the biggest stars. What do you think is the best goal you have ever scored in a game?
IBRAHIMOVIC – I think my goal against England was a goal that people will remember for very long time. And I also have a trophy for it [the FIFA Goal of the Year award] so it makes it even extra special. And then also that it’s against England makes it even more special.
SI –Who is the best teammate you have ever had?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Patrick Vieira.
SI – Why?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Because when he came to Juventus he came with big qualities, he had a strong mentality and every training he was like a monster. He wanted to destroy everybody, but not destroy in a negative way. In a positive way. Like how you train is how you play, and I watched him and I learned a lot.
SI – What is the achievement on the soccer field that you are most proud of?
IBRAHIMOVIC – That I played with many big stars, learned a lot from them and also have won so far 22 trophies.
SI – Who is the toughest defender you have ever faced?
IBRAHIMOVIC – I have many, many good defenders. I think [Paolo] Maldini is the one that was … he had everything. He was complete. He was strong, intelligent, aggressive—everything a defender should have.
SI – Who is the toughest goalkeeper you’ve tried to score on?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Gigi Buffon.
SI – Why?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Because when I came to Juventus, I came as a young talent and suddenly in the locker room I saw Lilian Thuram and I saw [David] Trezeguet, I saw [Alessandro] Del Piero, I saw [Fabio] Cannavaro, I saw Emerson, I saw Pavel Nedvěd, I saw Buffon. That was like, “Jesus. Am I in a locker room where I see all of these superstars?” But at the same time I was thinking I am here because I am good, and, I mean, this is my confidence. And when we were training, to pass the defenders was already difficult, Cannavaro, Thuram, [Gianluca] Zambrotta—Jesus—but when I pass them, then Buffon came. And to pass him, it was like impossible to pass him, and that was in the training. Imagine that in the game. Even more difficult in the game.
SI – Who is the best player you have ever played against?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Oooff. Best player I ever played against? I mean I played against many, many good players, so I don’t know who to keep. I would say Ronaldo the Fenómeno.
SI – Why?
IBRAHIMOVIC – Because he was my idol and he was, as a football player, he was complete. There will never be, in my opinion, a better player than him.
SI – OK, last question. When do you want to come and play in the United States? We’d love to have you.
IBRAHIMOVIC – [Laughs] I don’t know. I mean, it’s a question a lot of journalists have been asking. I have a contract for another two years, so let’s see how I am physically in two years and if the opportunity is still there. I will really think about it because I find it very interesting to come over to America because my friend Thierry Henry is playing there and he’s doing fantastic there. And he talks a lot of positive about the Major League Soccer, so it’s an interesting thing if the opportunity is still there in two to three years.