Zlatan Ibrahimovic: ‘I feel mentally very strong’... gulp
The Swedish captain is typically confident in advance of his team’s opener against Ireland
Zlatan Ibrahimovic controls a ball during a Sweden training session at the Stade de France in Paris ahead of the game against the Republic of Ireland on Monday. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
“Because the legend can still deliver,” Zlatan Ibrahimovic says by way of explaining why he wants to keep playing football late into his 30s. It was undoubtedly the most Zlatan-ish moment of his Sunday afternoonappearance in a rainy St Denis. Part of the fun of international football tournaments is the ease with which the half dozen true rock stars of the game integrate with the lesser lights of their respective countries.
But Ibrahimovic possesses such a comically gigantic persona that you have to keep reminding yourself that there will be 10 other guys in yellow playing against the Republic of Ireland this evening. As team captain, he sat down alongside Eric Haman at Sweden’s pre-match media appearance and the coach could have sat back and enjoyed several coffees and a flick through the sports pages of Aftonbladet before anyone thought to ask him a question.
The public fascination with Malmo’s big, sallow, pony-tailed folk hero is enduring and is led by the man himself.
Among Ibramhimvovic’s range of abilities is his skill at delivering farcically pompous pronouncements as if he is entirely unaware that they come across as anything other than universally accepted fact. Here he is theorising on subtle but crucial differences in his methodology for dealing with the cast of superstars at Paris Saint German versus his Swedish colleagues.
“I think it is all about balance and being patient. I play differently with PSG obviously but you must be patient in what you expect.
“Here I can’t make the same demands from the players. I have got the maximum of what I have got so far out of the national team. I work for them and they work for me. Even the ones on the bench are important.”
A real morale boost, then, for the ones on the bench. And here he is, a veteran now of five major international tournaments, elaborating on the pressure which these players bring to bear.
“There are many new players in the squad and we always have pressure. Probably I have the greatest on my shoulders.” Magnificent shrug Of course, that goes without saying. And he shrugs magnificently when he is told of Swedish striker Marcus Berg’s observation that the Irish centre halves might be on the slow side.
“I’m also slow, so it doesn’t matter. They can still be good even if they are slow.”
One can only guess at the knock-on effect of having such an eccentrically confident figure in the dressing room. It can’t hurt the collective self-belief. That Sweden’s first game is in Ibrahimovic’s adopted city of Paris makes it all the more special. He loves the place.
“It’s all actors and singers; everyone leaves me alone,” he said in a recent interview with the Guardian to promote his fashion range, A-Z, which is based on subtlety and affordability. He’s no Paul Galvin but the lad has an eye for a thread. His anticipated new home in Manchester has Corrie and a host of bands but it is not Paris. Still, the prospect of Ibrahimovic at Old Trafford is enormous fun even if it is hard to see how he and Jose Mourinho could be in the same room without the place exploding with kinetic energy.
Ibrahimovic flew into Nantes separately to his team-mates and already had a request to nip across to Manchester from the team base turned down by Haman. It’s hard not to think that if he really wanted to leave, he would have done anyway. But he is clearly relishing his role as Swedish captain and speaks about it with the solemn tone Samuel Jackson uses in disaster movies when the future of mankind is on the line.
“I take responsibility on and off the field. To become a leader is not something you choose: it is something you grow into. I’ve had this role the last few years and it has made me stronger mentally on and off the pitch. I am comfortable with that. You become the best by having team mates around you who make you the best.” Inimitable excellence He stands on the threshold of becoming the first ever player to score in four consecutive European finals, a feat which he acknowledges “would be great”.
Ibrahimovic hasn’t properly lived in Sweden since his late teens. It is difficult to imagine any one country being big enough to contain him and his unconscious boastfulness is wonderfully at odds with the Swedes’ stereotypical cautious understatement.
There has been increasing speculation that Martin O’Neill may be tempted to include the 6’5” Shane Duffy to try and cope with Ibrahimovic’s height and all-round inimitable excellence. Whoever marks him is in for a night to remember.
“I feel really strong at the moment. I feel I am getting better with every year that passes.” (Imagine what he’ll be like at 50).
“I play football day in and day out and I feel good. You have to have the hunger to be a better player. I feel I have accomplished something when I learn new things and I demand of myself that I work hard on the pitch.
I know what I want and I know I am going to do it. I have been dominating wherever I go. I have no issue about that. I feel very confident. I feel mentally very strong.
“ I come here to enjoy. I come to France and I know the country very well and I am 100 per cent better. They know me better than I know them. I am happy and I have been dominating wherever I go. No worries.”