Zlatan Ibrahimovic thrives on challenges. Tell him he can’t do something. and chances are he’ll prove you wrong.
“Covid had the courage to challenge me. Bad idea,” Ibrahimovic wrote on Twitter.
Ibrahimovic emerged from a 2½-week quarantine to score six times in four games and push Milan to the top of the Serie A standings, part of a record-breaking resurgence that has seen the towering Swede help one of Europe’s iconic clubs recapture past glory.
And he’s done it at 39, an age by which most top soccer players have retired.
Ibrahimovic’s header in stoppage time Sunday not only salvaged a 2-2 tie with Hellas Verona, keeping Milan (5-0-2) unbeaten in league play, but also made him the first player in the franchise’s modern era to score in seven consecutive league matches.
He leads the league with eight goals on the season, two better than Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo, who also returned after battling COVID-19.
“I feel like a child. I want to play,” said Ibrahimovic, one of just three players age 39 or older to score six goals in a top-five European league in the past decade. “It could be the opposite, that I can’t manage to play anymore, so it’s better like this.”
Ibrahimovic’s strong performance isn’t so much a resurgence as it is a continuation of the dominance that started in response to another challenge. In 2017, near the end of his first season at Manchester United, Ibrahimovic sustained a gruesome knee injury that appeared to end his career at 35. After reconstructive surgery and a grueling rehab routine, Ibrahimovic was unable to regain his spot in United’s lineup. So he moved to the Galaxy and MLS and proved his fitness by scoring a franchise-record 52 goals in 56 games, leading the team to its only playoff appearance in four seasons.
That earned him a six-month trial with Milan last winter, and when he scored 10 times in 18 matches, the Rossoneri gave him another year and $8.3 million in August — a deal sporting director Paolo Maldini is already talking about extending.
“Ibra is certainly special,” Maldini said.
So is his influence on Milan. One of Europe’s most prestigious clubs, Milan had changed owners twice, had not finished higher than fifth in Serie A in seven years and stood 12th in the 20-team standings when Ibrahimovic arrived last January.
Two months later, the team embarked on a 23-game unbeaten streak. It now leads the league and is on pace for its first Serie A title in a decade. Ibrahimovic, by the way, was the leading scorer on that last championship team.
“You need to always have objectives,” said Ibrahimovic, one of four active players with 500 goals for club and country. “We don’t play because it’s fun. Or rather it is, but you need to have objectives. At least that’s my philosophy.”
Ibrahimovic hasn’t limited his impact to the field, either. Shortly after his arrival in Milan, northern Italy became Europe’s first COVID-19 hot spot, and Ibrahimovic staged an online fundraiser for hospitals at the center of the outbreak.
Milan-area hospitals are now under renewed stress from a deadly second wave, so Ibrahimovic, who spent his 39th birthday in isolation after being infected himself, recently posted a characteristically cheeky educational video for his 26 million Facebook followers.
“The virus has challenged me and I won. But you are not Zlatan, do not challenge the virus,” he says in Italian. “Use your head, respect the rules. Social distance and masks, always. We will win.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.