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Zlatan’s Revenge!

The inside story of how a superstar busted his way out of La Liga — and played Barcelona's management in the process

The year is 2010. The La Liga offseason. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is grappling with his late-season outburst at Barça manager Pep Guardiola — and plotting his way out of one of the most storied clubs in European Football. What follows is an exclusive excerpt from I Am Zlatan, on sale this week from Random House.

Sometimes, maybe, I go too hard on people. I dunno. That’s been a thing with me from the very beginning. My dad would go off like an angry bear when he drank, and everybody in the family would be scared and get out of there. But I stood up to him, man to man, and I’d shout things like, You have to stop drinking! He’d go mad: “Bloody hell, this is my home. I’ll do what I want. I’ll chuck you out!”

Sometimes, it was absolute chaos. The whole flat would shake. We never came to blows, though. He had a big heart. He’d be prepared to die for me. Honestly, though, I was prepared to fight.

I was prepared for anything, and sometimes, sure, I understood there was no point. It’d just lead to confrontation and rage. We wouldn’t take a single step in the right direction — quite the opposite. Still, I kept it up. I took those fights, and don’t think I’m trying to brag about me being the tough guy in the family. Not at all. I’m just telling it like it was.

That’s a trait I had from early on. I stepped up. I didn’t run away, and not just with Dad. It was everywhere. My entire childhood was filled with tough people who would go off on a hair-trigger — Mum, my sisters, the lads around the estate — and ever since then I’ve had it in me, that watchful side: What’s happening? Who wants a fight? My body is always ready for battle.

zlatan_bookcover_576

That was how I grew up, and sure, I’d changed a lot by the time I got to Barcelona. I’d met Helena and had children and calmed down, and said stuff like, Please pass me the butter. Most of it was still in there, though. Those days at the club, I clenched my fists and prepared to defend my corner. This was in late spring, early summer, 2010. The World Cup was coming up in South Africa, and Joan Laporta was leaving Barça.

They were choosing a new president for the club, and that kind of thing always generates unrest. A guy called Sandro Rosell was appointed. Rosell had been vice-president up until 2005 and he’d been mates with Laporta. But something had happened. Now they were enemies, people said. So, of course, people were concerned. Was Rosell going to clear out all the old gang? No one knew.

Joan Laporta was the one who’d bought me for a record amount, and it wasn’t unreasonable to think that Rosell might give him one in the eye by showing it was a stupid investment. Many papers even wrote that Rosell’s first task was to sell me. The journalists definitely had no clue about what had happened between me and Guardiola and, in a way, neither did I. But they’d twigged that was wrong, and really, you didn’t need to be a football expert to understand. I went round with my head hanging, and I didn’t react the way I usually did on the pitch. Guardiola had wrecked me.

The situation was uncertain. We won the league title, and then we went on holiday. I needed a holiday more than I had done in a long time. I needed to get away, so Helena and I travelled around to LA, Vegas, all over, and the World Cup was on then. I barely watched it. I was too disappointed. Sweden wasn’t in the tournament, and really, I didn’t want to think about football at all. I tried to block out the whole mess with Barça. It couldn’t last forever, of course. The days went by. I’d be going back soon, and no matter how much I tried to stop them, all the questions came back. What’s going to happen? What should I do? My mind was buzzing, and I realized there was an obvious solution. I could make sure I got sold. I didn’t want to let go of my dream that easily, though. Never, ever. I decided to work like a dog in training and get better than ever.

Nobody was going to crack me. I’d show them all. But what do you think happened? I didn’t get a chance to show anybody anything. I hadn’t even put my boots on when Guardiola called me in again. This was on July 19th, I think. Most of them hadn’t come back from the World Cup yet. It was pretty quiet around us, and Pep attempted some small talk. He clearly had an agenda. He was nervous and awkward. He probably wanted to be a bit pleasant at first, for the sake of things.

“How was your holiday?”

“Good, good!”

“And how do you feel, ahead of the new season?”

“Fine. I’m up for it. I’m going to give a hundred per cent.”

“Look…”

“Yeah.”

“You should be prepared to sit on the bench,” he said, and, like I said, this was the first day. The pre-season hadn’t even got underway yet. Guardiola hadn’t even seen me play, not even for a minute. There was no way to interpret his words other than as a new personal attack.

“Okay” was all I said. “I understand.”

“And, as you know, we’ve acquired David Villa from Valencia.” David Villa was a hot property. He was one of the stars of the Spanish national side, who were down there winning the World Cup, but still, he was a winger. I played in the center. He was nothing to do with me, not really.

“And what do you say to that?” he continued.

Nothing, I thought at first, beyond “Congratulations.” But then it struck me: Why not test Guardiola? Why not check whether this has anything at all to do with football, or whether it’s all just about driving me out of the club?

“What do I say to that?” I began.

“Yes.”

“Well, that I’ll work harder. I’ll work like a madman to earn my place in the team. I’ll convince you I’m good enough,” and, to be honest, I could hardly believe it myself. I’d never sucked up to a coach like that before. My philosophy had always been to let my playing do the talking. It’s just ridiculous to go round saying you’re going to give a hundred per cent. You’re paid to give a hundred per cent. But this was my way of trying to understand. I wanted to hear what he’d say. If he said, Okay, then we’ll see if you make it, that would mean something. But now he just looked at me.

“I know that. But how are we going to continue?” he asked.

“Just like that,” I replied. “I’ll work hard, and if you think I’m good enough, I’ll play in whatever position you want, behind or in front of or underneath Messi. Wherever. You decide.”

“I know that. But how are we going to continue?”

He kept repeating the same thing, and not once did he say anything that made sense. It wasn’t necessary, though. I understood. This had nothing to do with whether I earned a place or not. This was personal, and instead of coming out and saying he didn’t like my personality, he was trying to sugarcoat it in a single, obscure phrase: “How are we going to continue?”

“I’ll do like everybody else, I’ll play for Messi,” I said.

“I know that. But how are we going to continue?”

It was ridiculous, and I suppose he wanted me to go off on one and shout, I won’t accept this, I’m leaving the club. Then he’d be able to come out and say, Zlatan was the one who wanted to leave, it wasn’t my decision. Maybe I’m a savage, a guy who goes in for confrontations too often. But I also know when I need to restrain myself. I had nothing to gain by announcing I was for sale, so I thanked him calmly for speaking to me and got out of there.

Zlatan-Pep-Tri

Of course, I was furious. I was seething. Still, the meeting had been productive. I understood where things stood. He had no intention of letting me play, even if I learned to fly, and the real question now was: Would I be able to cope with that, go to training sessions every day and have that guy standing in front of me? I doubted it. Maybe I needed to change tack. I thought about it. I thought about it all the time.

We headed to South Korea and China for pre-season training, and I got to play a few matches out there. It meant nothing. The key players hadn’t returned from the World Cup. I was still the black sheep, and Guardiola was keeping his distance. If he wanted anything, he’d send others to speak to me, and the media were completely out of control. It had been like that all summer: What’s happening with Zlatan? Will he be transferred? Will he stay? They were constantly after me, and it was the same for Guardiola. He got questions about it all the time, and what do you think he told them? Nice and straight, like, I don’t like Zlatan, I want to get rid of him? Not exactly. He looked uncomfortable, and came out with his waffle:

“Zlatan will decide his own future.”

What rubbish. Something started ticking inside me. I felt under fire, and I was furious. I wanted to do something explosive. But also I understood that things had entered a new phase. Now, it wasn’t just war. Now, the fight on the transfer market had begun, and I like that game, and I had the guy who’s the best of them all at that on my side — [my agent] Mino Raiola. He and I talked all the time, and we decided to play tough and hard. Guardiola deserved nothing else.

In South Korea, I had a meeting with Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club’s new vice-president. We sat in the hotel and talked, and at least that guy was clear.

“Zlatan, if you’ve got any offers, think them over,” he said.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I replied. “I’m a Barcelona player. I’m staying at Barça.”

Josep Maria Bartomeu looked surprised.

“But how are we going to resolve this?”

“I’ve got an idea,” I replied.

“Have you?”

“You can phone up Real Madrid.”

“Why should we phone them?”

“Because if I really have to leave Barça, I want to go to Real. You can make sure I get sold to them.”

Josep Maria Bartomeu was horrified.

“You’re joking,” he said. I looked deadly serious.

“Not at all. We’ve got a problem,” I continued. “We have a coach who isn’t man enough to say he doesn’t want me here. I want to stay. But if he wants to sell me, he’ll have to come out and say so himself, loud and clear. And the only club I want to go to is Real Madrid, just so you know.”

I left the room, and now there was no more messing about. It was game on. Real Madrid, I’d said. Of course, that was just the kick-off, a provocation, a strategic bluff. In reality, we had Manchester City and AC Milan in the works.

Sure, I knew all about the incredible things that had happened at Man City and all the money that seemed to be there since the crew from the United Arab Emirates had taken over. City could surely become a big club within a few years. But I’d soon turn twenty-nine. I didn’t have time for long-term plans, and money was never the key thing. I wanted to go to a team that could be good now, and there was no club with a history like AC Milan.

“Let’s go for Milan,” I said.

Ibra-Messi-Tri

We realized we were stressing Guardiola and the management out. That was entirely according to plan. The idea was that those guys would become so demoralized, they’d have to let me go cheap. We had a meeting with Sandro Rosell, the new president, and we could sense it right away: Rosell was in a tight spot.

“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “But things are the way they are. Do you have a particular club you want to go to?”

Mino and I gave him the same line we’d played against Bartomeu.

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” I said, “I do.”

“Good, very good.” Sandro Rosell’s face brightened. “Which club?”

“Real Madrid.”

He went pale. Letting a Barça star go to Real is tantamount to high treason.

“Not possible,” he replied. “Anything but that.”

He was shaken, and both Mino and I could tell: now we’re playing our game. I continued calmly, “Well, you asked a question and I gave you an answer, and I’m happy to say it again: Real Madrid is the only club I can see myself going to. I like Mourinho. But you’ve got to phone them up and tell them yourselves. Is that okay?”

It was not okay. There was nothing in the world that was less okay, and of course we knew that, and now Sandro Rosell was starting to panic. The club had purchased me for the equivalent of £40 million. The guy was under pressure to get the money back, but if he sold me to Real, which was Mourinho’s new club, Rosell would basically get lynched by the fans. He couldn’t keep me because of the manager. He couldn’t sell me to their arch-enemy. The guy had lost the upper hand, and we kept up the pressure.

“Just think how smoothly it’ll go. Mourinho’s said himself how much he wants me.”

We knew no such thing. That was the line we took, though.

“No,” he said.

“That’s a shame. Really! Real Madrid is the only club we have in mind.”

We left the room, smiling. We’d gone on and on about Real Madrid. That was our official line. But we had AC Milan on the go, and we were working on them. If Rosell was desperate, that was no good for Barça. However, it was good for Milan. The more desperate Rosell was to sell, the cheaper it would be to buy me, and that would benefit us in the end. It was a game, and it was being played on two levels: one in public and one behind the scenes. Still, the clock was ticking. The transfer window was closing on August 31st and, on the twenty-sixth, we had a friendly match against none other than AC Milan at Camp Nou. Nothing was set yet. But the matter was out in the media anyway. There was speculation everywhere, and [Adriano] Galliani, vice-president of AC Milan, formally announced that he was not leaving Barcelona without Ibrahimovic.

In the stadium, supporters waved signs saying, “Ibra, stay!”

There was a lot of attention on me, of course. It was mostly Ronaldinho’s match, though. Ronaldinho is like a god at Barcelona. He played for AC Milan, but he’d been at Barça before, and he’d been voted World Player of the Year two years in a row. Before the match, we were going to be shown clips of his best moments on the big screen, and he was supposed to run a lap of honor around the pitch. But, that guy…well, he just does what he wants.

We were sitting in the changing room, waiting to run out on to the pitch. It felt odd. I could hear the roar of the crowd outside. Obviously, Guardiola wasn’t looking at me, and of course I was wondering, Is this my last match with the team? What’s going to happen? I didn’t have a clue. Then everybody sat up. Ronaldinho looked in through the doorway — and Ronaldinho, he’s got charisma. He’s one of the true greats. Everybody was staring at him.

“Ibra!” he shouted, grinning.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Have you packed your bags? I’m here to take you along with me to Milan!”

Zlatan-Milan-Tri

Of course, everybody’d had their suspicions. Nobody’d heard it straight out like that before. Now it was being repeated over and over again. I got to play from the start. The match didn’t really mean anything, and just before kick-off Ronaldinho and I carried on joking about it. Photos of us laughing on the pitch appeared everywhere. The worst thing was in the players’ tunnel on our way out after half-time. All the big names were calling to me: Pirlo, Gattuso, Nesta and Ambrosini.

“You have to come, Ibra. We need you!”

AC Milan hadn’t been having an easy time recently. Inter had dominated the Italian League in recent years, and of course everyone at AC Milan was longing for a new era of glory, and I know now that many of the players, especially Gattuso, had put pressure on the club’s management:

“For Christ’s sake, buy Ibra. We need somebody with a real winner’s mindset in the team.”

It wasn’t that simple. AC Milan didn’t have as much money as they used to, and no matter how desperate Sandro Rosell was, he carried on trying to extract as much money for me as possible. He wanted 50, 40 million euros. But Mino continued to play hardball.

“You won’t get a damn thing. Ibra’s going to Real Madrid. We don’t want to go to Milan.”

“How about 30 million?”

Time was getting short, and Rosell lowered his price again and again. Things were looking more and more promising, and Galliani came to visit Helena and me in our house in the hills. Galliani is a real heavyweight, and an old mate and business partner of [Silvio] Berlusconi. He’s a bastard of a negotiator.

I’d had dealings with him before. That was when I was leaving Juventus, and, that time, he’d said, “I’ll offer you this, or nothing!” Juventus was in crisis then, and he had the upper hand. Now the tables were turned. He was the one under pressure. He couldn’t go home without me, not after the promises he’d made and the pressure from the players and fans. Besides, we’d helped him. We’d made sure we got the transfer fee down. It was like he was getting me in the sales.

“These are my conditions,” I said. “It’s this, or nothing,” and I could see how he was thinking things over and sweating.

They were some pretty tough terms.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay.”

We shook hands, and then the negotiations for my transfer fee continued. That was between the clubs, and I wasn’t bothered, not really. It was quite a drama, and there were a number of factors involved. Time was one. The clock was ticking. The seller’s unease was another. The fact that the manager couldn’t deal with me was another. With every hour, Sandro Rosell got more nervous, and my fee kept going down. Finally, I was sold for 20 million euros. Twenty million! Thanks to a single person, my price tag had gone down by 50 million euros.

Because of Guardiola’s problem, the club was forced to do a disastrous deal — it was crazy, and I said all this to Sandro Rosell as well. Not that I really needed to. He knew it, and I’m sure he’d been kept awake at night, cursing the situation. I mean, I’d scored twenty-two goals and fifteen assists during my season at Barcelona. Yet I’d lost nearly 70 per cent of my value. Whose fault was that? Sandro Rosell knew all too well, and I remember how we were all standing there in the office at Camp Nou: him, Mino, me, Galliani, my lawyer and Josep Maria Bartomeu. The contract was lying there in front of us. The only thing remaining was to sign it and then say thanks and goodbye.

“I want you to know…” Rosell faltered.

“Yes?”

“I’m doing the worst deal in my entire life here,” he continued. “I’m selling you off dirt cheap, Ibra!”

“You see how much rotten leadership can cost.”

“I know it wasn’t handled well,” he said, and then he signed. Then it was my turn. I took hold of that pen, and everybody was watching me, and I felt I ought to say something. Then again, maybe not. Maybe I should have kept quiet. But I had a few things I wanted to get off my chest.

“I’ve got a message for Guardiola,” I announced, and of course that made everybody nervous. What’s happening now? Hasn’t there been enough arguing? Can’t the guy just sign?

“Do you have to?”

“Yes. I want you to tell him…” I began, and then I told them exactly what I wanted them to say to him.

Everyone in the room gulped, and I could tell they were thinking, How come he’s coming out with this stuff now? Believe me, I needed to say it. Something happened in my head then. I got my motivation back. Just the thought of being able to do my thing again got me fired up — that’s the truth.

When I’d put my signature on that document and said those words, I became myself again. It was like waking up from a nightmare, and, for the first time in a long while, I was itching to play football. All those thoughts of quitting were gone, and after that I entered a phase when I played out of sheer joy. Or rather, I played out of sheer joy and sheer rage — joy at having escaped from Barça, and rage that a single person had destroyed my dream.

It was as if I’d been set free, and I also began to see the whole thing more clearly. When I was caught up in the middle of it, I’d mainly tried to buck myself up: It’s not that bad, I’ll get back in, I’ll show them. I kept that up all the time. Then, when it really was over, I realized it had been tough. It had been hard. The person who was supposed to mean the most to me as a footballer had given me the cold shoulder completely, and that was worse than most stuff I’d been through. I’d been under immense pressure, and in situations like that you need your coach.

What did I have? A guy who avoided me. A guy who tried to treat me as if I didn’t exist. I was supposed to be a huge star. Instead, I’d gone round there feeling unwelcome. Bloody hell, I’d been with Mourinho and Capello, the two most disciplined managers in the world, and I’d never had any problems with them. But then this Guardiola…I was seething when I thought about it, and I’ll never forget when I told Mino: “He wrecked everything.”

“Zlatan,” he replied.

“Yeah?”

“Dreams can come true and make you happy.”

“Yeah.”

“But dreams can also come true and kill you.” 

Filed Under: Soccer, La Liga, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola, AC Milan, Sandro Rosell, Zlatan Ibrahimovic

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