How fitting it was that on this weekend of all, when ageing legends rolling back the years became the theme, that Zlatan Ibrahimovic marked yet another milestone. The world was too busy watching on as 43-year-old Tom Brady won a seventh SuperBowl, his first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on Sunday night, but earlier that day, at the San Siro, football’s own evergreen superstar was scoring his 500th club career goals in a 4-0 Serie A victory over Crotone.
It certainly fit the narrative that Zlatan and Brady achieved their respective feats at the same time. While one is invariably more impressive than the other, both serve to represent proof of both men’s ability to defy logic and convention. The AC Milan striker, who is 39, has never shirked in his self belief against a barrage of criticism and dismissal from people desperate to see the back of him.
In his younger days, at Ajax, Juventus and Inter, he was called overrated. At Barcelona he was ostracised, a black sheep who never felt at home. By the time his quality was widely accepted, particularly in England where he was perhaps most commonly belittled, he was on the home straight in his career. The key moment opinion shifted for his most harsh of demographics was an international friendly between his Sweden and England in 2012. It took a sublime and frankly bizarre overhead kick from a difficult angle in a 4-2 win for him to finally bring an end to the long-running debate.
By then, he was already on an incredible run of successive league title wins spanning time in Holland, Italy, Spain, and Italy again during his first spell with Milan. He would go on to add to his haul in France with Paris Saint-Germain, too. Eventually, he proved himself in England at Manchester United — albeit with a League Cup and Europa League double in a 28-goal season at the age of 36 rather than a Premier League title — and, like Brady, Stateside.
Playing in Major League Soccer, where he scored 56 goals in 52 games for LA Galaxy, is supposed to bring the curtain down on legendary careers. Ibrahimovic suffered a serious knee injury at the end of his first season at Old Trafford which initially brought his time at the club to a halt, and he was eventually let go a year later because even his friend, Jose Mourinho, thought he was done.
For anyone, that would have been a difficult moment, for most in his situation, it would have forced a decision on their future. He made an astonishing recovery and bounced back from what was assumed was his early retirement and there proved to be at least one more chapter for the Swede. Back at Milan, he has knitted together a crisis club, who fell from genuine contenders to the ultimate sleeping giant, and it has taken his sheer force of personality to wake them up again.
The most stark observation about the Indian summer of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, if it can even be called that, is that he saw it coming. In the social media age, he has marketed himself as some sort of ‘super human’, abnormal and special compared to the every day footballer. It may be slightly cringe-inducing when he speaks about himself in the third person, compares himself to Benjamin Button — a fictional character who ages backwards — and refers inwardly to a lion, but it cannot be denied that he has made a career of proving doubters wrong and himself right.
In so many ways, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has pushed the boundaries. Both he and Brady are controversial, arguably difficult characters for a number of reasons but they are both showing that the metrics for an athlete’s peak being in direct correlation to their age are not necessarily correct. While they are simply too unique to become the new norm — both are thriving just as they did 10 years ago, rather than holding on to the past in the face of a decline — there is a growing trend of elite sports men and women continuing well into their 30s or even 40s.
Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Cristiano Ronaldo are just three other examples. Milan sporting director Paulo Maldini, himself an example of longevity having played at the highest level until his fifth decade, has already made it clear that renewing Zlatan’s contract, which is up in June, is high on their priority list.
His form is not only spearheading their first genuine Serie A title push since he won it with them in 2011, but it is also halting their search for a replacement. It simply isn’t urgent. Milan is the perfect club for him, too; not only because he has said himself he is at his happiest in the city, but because they once put their resources towards conditioning for ageing players, even at the expense of the next generation.
Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta and Filippo Inzaghi — some of whom were disregarded because of their age during the successful 2007 Champions League victory before maintaining a place in the squad and winning Serie A alongside Zlatan four years later — were among the chief beneficiaries.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is more durable than them all, though. Even those who were playing at his stage of life were not still key protagonists like him. Some may say he didn’t conquer England or the USA like he says he did, because he didn’t win the biggest prize in either country. Some may say he hasn’t gone the extra mile to prove his greatness in other ways. He is susceptible to the same impossible criteria against which some people quantify football achievements but his 500th club goal won’t even be close to his last and, given the circumstances of his career, that shows just how incredible he really is.