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Photo Gallery: Football's Larger-Than-Life Star Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Foto: Yoan Valat/ dpa

Swedish Superstar Ibrahimovic 'Guardiola Has No Balls'

Swedish soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic talked to SPIEGEL about his childhood living in the "ghetto," his beef with Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola and the creative potential of the German national team.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic shows up an hour late for the interview. Sweden's best-known sporting figure strolls casually into the lobby of the Scandic Park Hotel in Stockholm. He's accompanied by his wife of 11 years Helena, an "evil super bitch deluxe," as he says. Their sons Maximilian and Vincent, age seven and five respectively, are also there. Vincent is sporting a Mohawk haircut and nerd glasses. Ibrahimovic is wearing worn jeans and a red hooded sweatshirt.

A football  star, he is one of the best strikers in the world. In the past 12 seasons his teams have been champions of their respective countries 10 times. He has won titles in the Netherlands with Ajax, in Italy with Juventus, Inter and AC Milan, in Spain with Barcelona and, most recently, in France with his current team, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). In clinching the French championship last year, he scored 30 goals in 34 games. His father came to Sweden from Bosnia; his mother from Croatia. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was born in Malmo and grew up in the city's tough Rosengard district. His autobiography, "I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic," was released in June in English and on Oct. 1 in German translation by publisher Malik Verlag. Some 675,000 copies have already been sold in Sweden. Ibrahimovic is arrogant, eccentric and unwieldy.

SPIEGEL recently sat down with the football player for an hour-long interview.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Ibrahimovic, is it true that you know a lot about bicycles?

Ibrahimovic: I think you could say that, yes.

SPIEGEL: What is the best way to steal a bicycle?

Ibrahimovic: That depends on the lock. It's easiest in the dark, when no one can see you. But it's not as exciting then.

SPIEGEL: Were you talented?

Ibrahimovic: I would say I was quite a talented thief. I swiped a lot of bicycles.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Ibrahimovic: Well, it was a long way to the football  field, and at some point I asked myself: Why the hell do you always go there on foot? My father didn't have any money to buy me a bicycle -- so I took one. Incidentally, it was later stolen from me while I was at school. I stole another. And that went on and on. Once there was this wonderful bicycle, which belonged to the postman, and he hadn't locked it.

SPIEGEL: The fool.

Ibrahimovic: Yes … I mean: no. In actual fact I was the fool. When the man disappeared in the entrance with the post, I jumped into the saddle and rode off. Once I got round the corner, I stopped and looked inside the saddle bags. There were letters inside. So I said to myself: No, you can't do this. So I parked the bicycle and ran away. I was young. A child.

SPIEGEL: You were no longer that young when you were playing for Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League and stole from Ikea.

Ibrahimovic: I was there with a friend. We were on our way to the checkout and one of the transport carts with our shopping on it didn't stop, but just kept on rolling. When the cart was almost past the lady at the till, I gave it another push.

SPIEGEL: It can't have been for want of money.

Ibrahimovic: It was about the kick. When I go into a supermarket these days with my old friends, they will open their jackets afterwards in the car, and all sorts of stuff will fall out. I say to them: Are you out of your mind? I could buy the entire shop. But that's not the point. They do it for fun. That's how we grew up. I have become more sensible, and I am rich. But I will never be able to deny where I came from. How does the saying go? You can get the boy out of the ghetto, but you can't get the ghetto out of the boy.

SPIEGEL: Did you often get into fights as an adolescent?

Ibrahimovic: Yes, often. Where I come from, you don't call the police when there's a problem. You sort it out between yourselves.

SPIEGEL: What about school?

Ibrahimovic: Sometimes I only went there for lunch, sometimes not at all. I preferred to play football.

SPIEGEL: Did you have it easier on the field?

Ibrahimovic: My neighborhood, Rosengard, was home to Turks, Yugoslavs, Palestinians and Poles. I was 16 when I first went to the city centre of Malmo; I never watched Swedish TV. My teammates at (football club) Malmo FF were called Mattisson, Persson or Ohlsson. I was an outsider. My coach wanted me to play in a way that served the team: making simple passes, and running more. I thought to myself: Fuck you, if I can dribble round three players, I'm going to do it. I am never going to be a real Swede anyway, so why should I play like one? The coach often took me off the pitch. My teammates had an easier time. They were blond, played in a way that served the team, and they ran. But instead of giving up, I became angry and tried to become even better. That is what made me the player I am.

SPIEGEL: Do you have to be angry in order to play well?

Ibrahimovic: Yes. Back then there was no one to show me a path. I had to build my own road. I was driven by anger.

SPIEGEL: And what is it like today?

Ibrahimovic: That's a part of me. It's not easy to motivate yourself every day. Sometimes I get up in the morning and think to myself: Fuck, I have got to play again. Fortunately I get worked up easily, even about small things.

SPIEGEL: When you were playing for Ajax, the former striker Marco van Basten advised you never to listen to a coach. One gets the impression that you have been following that advice until now.

Ibrahimovic: It's easy for him to talk; he's a legend. Van Basten thought I would help my team by attacking, not by defending. He was right.

SPIEGEL: You don't like playing defense, do you?

Ibrahimovic: It doesn't suit me. Wherever I go, there's someone getting worked up about it. Every coach thinks he knows better. And another person running around at Ajax was Louis van Gaal. He was the technical director, and he took a pencil to explain to me where I should be running. I told him: Listen, buddy, I don't need to listen to you -- go back to your office and write some letters! His manner really got on my nerves.

SPIEGEL: Van Gaal later sold you against the coach's wishes.

Ibrahimovic: I had an argument with Rafael van der Vaart. He claimed I had deliberately fouled and injured him. I told van Gaal: I've apologized to Rafael but he just won't stop hassling me; he is my captain and he is attacking me -- if that guy is playing, I'm not.

SPIEGEL: How did van Gaal reply?

Ibrahimovic: He ordered me to play. I said: No, fuck off. A week later I was playing for Juventus. You need to have a feel for your fellow men -- van Gaal doesn't.

SPIEGEL: You once mocked Pep Guardiola, your coach at Barcelona, for being a "philosopher". Why do you object to the man?

Ibrahimovic: Guardiola is a fantastic coach. But as a person? He is a coward. He is not a man. During the first months at Barcelona, everything was fine. I scored lots of goals. After that, he avoided me. He hardly spoke to me any more, and he didn't choose me to play any more.

SPIEGEL: Why not?

Ibrahimovic: You'll have to ask him! I don't know.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps he noticed that your style of playing did not fit his own ideas of football.

Ibrahimovic: No idea. You tell me! You know what I think?

SPIEGEL: What?

Ibrahimovic: That he sacrificed me for Lionel Messi. And he didn't have the courage to tell me. Guardiola has no balls. Messi is a brilliant player, no question about it, but I scored more goals than he did. Messi complained to Guardiola, and that's a problem -- Messi is his star. Suddenly, Guardiola didn't want me playing alongside Messi any more, but in front of him. He wanted me to run up and down the pitch. I can do that, but not for long. I weigh 100 kilograms (220 pounds); after four or five sprints, I'm tired.

SPIEGEL: Did you tell him that?

Ibrahimovic: I told him: If I don't fit in here, just say the word -- and I'll be gone. I didn't go to Barcelona to cause problems. Guardiola sweet-talked me: Ibra, you're wonderful, you are doing everything right. But he still put me on the substitute's bench.

'A Coach Must Convince His Players'

SPIEGEL: How did the other players get on with Guardiola? Andres Iniesta or Xavi, for instance.

Ibrahimovic: Those are good guys, I have nothing against them; but whenever Guardiola said anything they just nodded. Like pupils standing in front of their teacher. It's a question of personality. At AC Milan, I was on a team with Filippo Inzaghi, Gennaro Gattuso and Mark van Bommel. If the coach told us to run anti-clockwise, we'd ask: Why? He had to convince us. If a coach doesn't manage to do that, he might as well give up his job. He's had it.

SPIEGEL: You left Barcelona after a year. You could have tried to assert yourself.

Ibrahimovic: When it became clear that I was leaving, I asked myself: You are leaving the best team in the world -- is that what you want? Yes, because I want to be happy, and I can only be happy if the people around me show me that they like me. Guardiola didn't do that.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that you are unable to subordinate yourself?

Ibrahimovic: It's simple -- without a team I can't win anything. But I need space within the team so that I can come into my own. When you buy me, you are buying a Ferrari. If you drive a Ferrari you put premium fuel in the tank, you drive onto the motorway and you floor the accelerator. Guardiola filled up with diesel and went for a spin in the countryside. If that's what he wanted, he should have bought himself a Fiat from the start.

SPIEGEL: At Inter Milan, you played under Jose Mourinho, Guardiola's greatest rival. Guardiola's image is that of a gentleman; Mourinho's is that of a cur off the streets. You presumably think differently.

Ibrahimovic: At least the villain has remained true to himself. Mourinho doesn't need to act a part. The other guy wants to be perfect. Tiger Woods wanted to be perfect too. And what happened? It's the same with Guardiola. Everyone has their dark side.

SPIEGEL: What is Mourinho like?

Ibrahimovic: I've said this before: I would have killed for Jose Mourinho. He is an outstanding coach. Very intelligent, an incredible motivator. With the other guy, it was football, just football. These philosophical speeches in the changing room -- for advanced players, those are nothing but crap. Mourinho can deal with strong personalities; he's able to forge 11 different characters into a team. The other guy couldn't do that. And Mourinho always took on difficult jobs. Guardiola doesn't. Otherwise he would have gone to Chelsea. Why did Guardiola opt for Bayern Munich ?

SPIEGEL: Tell us.

Ibrahimovic: Because the team worked without him. It was complete. He has collected some new players, but he doesn't need them. Guardiola made a clever move, because nothing can go wrong for him in Munich. He is bound to be successful. Just imagine if he had gone to Paris -- a new project, starting from scratch. That's a challenge. I like that kind of thing. Mourinho likes that kind of thing. Guardiola avoids it.

SPIEGEL: Could you imagine playing in the Bundesliga one day?

Ibrahimovic: Why not? Bayern Munich has first-class credentials. But only once Guardiola has left.

SPIEGEL: In two weeks, Sweden are playing Germany in the World Cup qualifiers. The final score of the first match, a year ago, was 4-4, even though Germany was leading 4-0 at one point. What happened back then?

Ibrahimovic: Whatever it was, it was bad for us.

SPIEGEL: Really?

Ibrahimovic: During the first half, we were redundant extras; the Germans could have scored even if you had blindfolded them. Then I scored a header bringing the score to 1-4. I grabbed the ball and carried it to the center-spot. It was meant as a sign, because I still had hopes -- hopes that it would not end up as quite such an embarrassment for us. Then came the 2-4. Suddenly we started to grow, and the Germans started to shrink. 3-4. I thought to myself: Oh, that's a good result; it's no longer a disgrace, now. I noticed how empty the German players had suddenly become. Their fear was written in their faces. 4-4. At that point, I didn't know what was going on any more either. We were floating on air. After the game we felt as though we had already made it to the World Cup. That was a mistake.

SPIEGEL: What was wrong?

Ibrahimovic: We imagined ourselves to be stronger than we really were. The next two games were poor. We would have been better off losing against Germany and winning against Ireland and Austria.

SPIEGEL: After the game, the German team was accused of having once again played too tamely when it mattered. It was said the team needed a team leader.

Ibrahimovic: Someone like me? Nonsense. Germany  has a football DNA, and that's in the process of changing. The blood flowing in your team now is different from what it used to be. Please don't misunderstand me: Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthäus were fantastic players. But your team is no longer that German machine. It's no longer a Mercedes, it's a Bugatti now. Creative. Elegant. Playful. That's because of the children of immigrants, because of Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan, Jerome Boateng and Sami Khedira. How many inhabitants does Germany have? 50 million?

SPIEGEL: More than 80 million.

Ibrahimovic: Fuck me! You have such possibilities. You don't need a team leader, you need quality. Who is the team leader at Barcelona? No one. And everyone. Shall I tell you what it's like in Germany?

SPIEGEL: Go ahead.

Ibrahimovic: You always need something to complain about. And if you can't come up with anything better, you come along with team leaders. I don't believe in this chitchat.

SPIEGEL: What are you expecting in the return match?

Ibrahimovic: We are outsiders. For us, all the other matches in the group are more important. You will be going to the World Cup, as usual. You could even win it. But it will be difficult. Brazil  will be strong.

SPIEGEL: At the end of last year, the verb "zlatanera" was adopted into the Swedish language as a new word by Sweden's Institute of Language. What does it mean?

Ibrahimovic: I ask myself the same question. I suspect it describes a situation where you dominate something. Or do something your own way. In which case, you do it the Zlatan way. It's crazy: I am giving the world a word. But that way, at least I have done one thing of significance.

SPIEGEL: You have your own word; songs are sung about you; your biography was one of the most successful books ever in Sweden; in France you make appearances as a puppet in a satirical show. Can you explain why you are so popular?

Ibrahimovic: Because I remain true to myself. Because I don't allow myself to be twisted. And because I keep daring to try things out.

SPIEGEL: Tell us about the goal against England, the overhead kick from a distance of 25 meters.

Ibrahimovic: Nine out of ten players will stop the ball and then shoot. Not me. I did the unexpected. Because I was certain that I would get the ball in. I believed in myself.

SPIEGEL: Could it be that you think you are wonderful?

Ibrahimovic: I like being the one who makes a difference. On the pitch, I always try to create a special situation. I don't want to score 40 goals per season; I want to score 30 goals and make 20 assists. I want to be like Zinedine Zidane. He made sure that his fellow players became little Zidanes. That is what made him one of the best players in history.

SPIEGEL: Sweden has something called the Law of Jante, which consists of 10 rules and describes the cultural etiquette. One of the rules is: You are not to think you are more important than us.

Ibrahimovic: Everyone is equal -- a strange Swedish mentality.

SPIEGEL: You enjoy being different?

Ibrahimovic: It is nice when people recognize me and approach me in the street. That's why I do all this stuff. Anyone who says they don't like that is lying.

SPIEGEL: Real Madrid recently signed the Welsh player Gareth Bale for a transfer fee of €100 million. So far, your clubs have paid a total of about €170 million for you. You are the player with the highest turnover.

Ibrahimovic: And now you want me to tell you, whether I am worth it.

SPIEGEL: Are you?

Ibrahimovic: Barcelona paid €76 million for me four years ago. I was not worth that amount. €100 million for Bale? He isn't either. The system is sick. The contracts we are given -- crazy. No football player is worth that kind of money.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ibrahimovic, thank you for this interview.

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