Talking football, life with Zlatan
Zlatan Ibrahimovic doesn't need introduction anymore. He reminds everybody in this interview (in case some had forgotten) that he has already won 23 titles already in his career. At 32, the PSG star is without a doubt among the top five strikers in world football, even if he fell short again in Europe last season being knocked out in the quarterfinals against Chelsea, just a few weeks before winning the French league for the second year running.
On Wednesday, during his lunch at the PSG training ground, he gave ESPN FC a long and exclusive interview. His childhood, his career, the PSG project, the Ballon d'Or: it's Ibra at his best.
The state of the game
ESPN FC: How has football changed compared to when you first started out?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Now, it's a business. At the beginning when I started, everything was fun. I was doing what I wanted to do. Now it's all more serious. You represent a club and you need to win. If you don't get results, someone else comes and takes your place. It is a totally different situation. But I am still here for a couple of years and then I will watch in front of the television.
FC: Have you changed the way you play too, then?
ZI: I think I have changed a lot. You don't have the same body and physical strength. You don't have the same mental strength and thinking. Now, everything depends on me in every occasion but it's not like I am 20. I can't run like I used to then! I play more intelligent today and more complete.
FC: But the goal you scored against Bastia last season, the back-heel volley, that with your instinct like when you were 20!
ZI: Yes, but that is something I bring with him. I will never lose my instinct. I play differently all around but the things I have in myself, like my instinct, will always be there and I will always play with them. That goal was pure spontaneity. It was not planned or thought about. It just happened.
FC: Surely this was your best goal ever, better than the one for Sweden against England!
ZI: [Laughs] I won prizes for both of them. I rank them very high but I have to say the one for Sweden is top. It was a different situation: it was the first game in the new stadium, against England, and I scored four goals that night as well. People also forget the one against Italy at the Euros 2008. All of them are goals people will remember forever, so I am happy with that.
FC: Is it important for you to be remembered? To be part of history?
ZI: I am sure people will remember those goals for a long time and that's what you want as a player. Not all the players will be like that. Everybody tries to score a great goal, and I am lucky I have netted a few.
FC: You never talk much about the Ballon d'Or. Why?
ZI: I think it's not only about who is the best. I think there is a lot of politics around it, the good boy/bad boy thing and all of that. For me, what's important is what I think and what people around me think. What the judges [of the Ballon d'Or] think is not important for me.
FC: Do you watch football on TV?
ZI: Ha, no, I don't watch it. Come on, man; I play every day. Big games or the World Cup, sometimes I watch. But I never think: oh, at 9 o' clock there is a game and I need to sit in front of the television.
Getting ready for the new campaign
FC: How are you feeling as the season has just started in France?
ZI: I am still in the phase of preparation but I feel really good. We went to China for the French Super Cup and then we started the league at Reims with a draw. I am not 100 percent yet but it's going the right way.
FC: You have scored five goals already in three games if we count the Napoli friendly. It must feel pretty good already?
ZI: It is always good for the confidence. It's true. The team is doing well at the moment too. Hopefully I can continue like that.
FC: Four years ago, you would have never thought you would play in Ligue 1 one day ...
ZI: After what happened to me at Barcelona, I said that anything can happen in football. And it's exactly what happened. I had never seen myself playing in France before now I am here. I am very happy in France. I am enjoying my time here. I take pleasure to play here in France and I think the French are appreciating watching me play too. I want to continue to deliver like I have done since moving here.
FC: Can you see the difference at PSG compared to when you arrived?
ZI: Totally. All around the club, with the fans, with the media, everything is different. A lot of things have happened in the past two years. I have seen so many changes from the training ground to the stadium, the city. Everybody talks about PSG. I was told that now PSG even have fans in the South of France! PSG never had fans in the South of France before. That would never have happened before. It is amazing, and things are going very fast.
FC: Is it exciting for you to help the club reaching another dimension?
ZI: It is very special. I was here from the beginning. I wanted to join PSG for the project that I believed in at the time and still believe in. I knew it would be a great choice, and so far it has gone exactly like I expected to be. I am very happy and proud. To see how the club was on day one and now is fascinating. And hopefully, the future is even brighter.
FC: Be honest: does Ligue 1 feel too easy for you at times?
ZI: No, not at all. We are preparing in the best way possible and yes, we have a very good team. And when you play in a strong team, it's not easier, but you have better opportunities to shine.
FC: What are your objectives this season?
ZI: I think that to reach the next step, I have to do better than last year. I have reached the level I am at now because I have always wanted to be better than the season before. I have to score more, to give more assists, to be decisive more. I want to get to a higher level.
FC: Some people say Ibra is PSG now. How does it make you feel?
ZI: I don't feel like that at all. I would be nothing without the team and my teammates. I am playing with very good players, players who respect me. I respect them. Respect is a very important notion for me. You can't do well if there is no respect. We work hard every day to reach the same goals and objectives. Everything comes with hard work.
FC: How would you qualify your role in the dressing room?
ZI: I am one of the leaders. There are a few. We have a good group here. We have a great atmosphere in the dressing room. We never had any problems. It is a funny dressing room. Everybody likes to have a laugh and take the piss of the other ones, so it's good. I like it.
FC: What do you think of Laurent Blanc?
ZI: He is very calm. He knows what he wants and he gives the players the space they need. He likes to play good football. He has a winning mentality. It's his second season at the club, so it will be easier for him because he knows the squad better.
FC: Would like to be a manager one day?
ZI: I don't know, man. It is too early. If I say no today and then become a coach, I will disappoint you.
FC: Will you finish your career at PSG?
ZI: I have a contract until 2016. I will be 34 next season and I don't see myself continuing to play at the top level after that. So probably the answer is yes.
FC: Then you can become sporting director at the club like the chairman Nasser al Khelaifi mentioned once ...
ZI: [Laughs]. We will wait and see what happens then. First, I will try to bring great results to the club on the pitch.
Chasing the Champions League
FC: The only missing, at club level, in your trophy cabinet is the Champions League. Is this the year for you?
ZI: I think we can win it. We have a good opportunity. This team is made to play in good tournaments. You need to work hard and to have a bit of luck with you. In the key moments, you need to have the small details on your side. I think we have that in our team now. We have more experience too, especially after last season. So we can do it.
FC: Is it an obsession for you to win it?
ZI: No, it's not. Because if it becomes an obsession for you, it feels that you have not reached what you wanted in your career. Me, I have achieved what I wanted in my career, 100 percent. I have won 23 titles. I have given my best and done everything I could through my career to win as many trophies possible. Of course, it would be nice to win the Champions League, and I feel I can and will win it. But if my career finishes without it, I would still be happy and proud.
FC: Does it annoy you when people keep saying you haven't won it?
ZI: [Gets animated] No. When someone is on top, people always want to find something to criticize him. The real Ronaldo didn't win the Champions League either. What do people say about him? It's the same thing [with] me. You win because you win, but it doesn't change the player you are. If Maradona hadn't won the World Cup, would people not say he was still the best? They would.
FC: Do you feel PSG need one or two more players to win the Champions League?
ZI: I think we are stronger than last year already. It's not always the best team that wins the Champions League. Anything can happen in that competition. There are years when the winners are not the favourites at the start of the tournament. That's why it is so interesting.
Talking about Zlatan
FC: It's your third season in Paris now. Do you feel like a real Parisian?
ZI: [Laughs] For sure. I know Paris much better now. I understand the people and the city much more than before. It's my third year now and everything is going like I expected to go. The more time passes, the more a real Parisian I feel. The first year was not so easy but now it's much better. Helena and the boys [Vincent and Maximilian] feel the same as well. They are settling down and everything is going like we want. It is important for me that they are happy. If they are happy, I am happy. So they have made it easier for me.
FC: Is it difficult to be Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
ZI: The problem is that I am not free to do what I want when I want. I am used to it. It's part of my job. I didn't choose things to be like that. It's the way it is. There is nothing I can do about it so I try to find a way to enjoy it somehow so you don't lock yourself in.
FC: Do you wish things were different?
ZI: I wish I could do much more than what I am doing today, yes. It doesn't mean that it stops me but sometimes I wish I could be more free.
FC: Do you have any regrets?
ZI: No. I don't think so. Anything that happens in your life was meant to happen. It is your destiny. I was destined to have the life I have now and I can't have any regrets.
Growing up Zlatan
FC: In your book "I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic," the updated version of which will be released soon, you talk a lot about your childhood and how you grew up. Do you still think a lot about it now, about Rosengard, the tough neighbourhood of Malmo where you were raised?
ZI: Of course. Wherever I go, I represent Sweden but I also represent Rosengard. For me, my neighbourhood is Rosengard. It is part of me, and wherever I play, I am Zlatan from Rosengard. You never forget where you come from. It was my home when I was a child. And it is still my home. I wish I could go back there and live there, hang out with my friends there. The problem now that I am famous is that I can't do it. And it's a shame.
FC: Do you talk about those years sometimes with Sanela, your sister, or with Helena, whom you met when you were quite young?
ZI: Yes, it happens, often. I realise the incredible journey from Rosengard to Paris. It all happened very fast but I haven't lost my head. I remember everything, where I came from, what happened, what I came through. I still have my feet on the ground. It is a fantastic adventure that I had, and hopefully I can continue a bit more.
FC: In the book, there is the story about the fridge and how at your dad's place, growing up, the fridge was always empty, and that now you always want to fridge to be full for your two sons.
ZI: It is still the case. It is one of my principles at home. The only thing I ask Helena to do is to make sure the fridge is always full. I wish anyone in this world could go to his fridge and pick whatever he wants. Because the day you open your fridge and there is nothing in it, it is difficult. Hunger is one of the worst things on earth. It was the case for me. I could not have had more because it was like it was and I was still happy. But now I have children and I demand of Helena to have the fridge always full.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter @LaurensJulien.