Zlatan Ibrahimovic is without doubt one of the world’s most gifted footballers. In recent years, the sight of the Swedish forward in full flow has been guaranteed to put fear into defenders at both club and international level. Yet even after helping Inter Milan monopolise Serie A, it was not immediately clear how his unique talents would fit in at new club Barcelona.
In a few short months at the Catalan giants, however, Ibra’s all-round displays have quietened even the most vehement of doubters. Ahead of his most pivotal period since joining Barça, with matches against both Inter and Real Madrid to come this week, before December’s FIFA Club World Cup 2009, Ibrahimovic spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Zlatan, you are already a key player at Barcelona despite having been at the club for just a few months. Did you expect to adapt so easily?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: I didn’t expect the season to start like this. I wanted to start as well as possible but I thought that it’d take me a while to adapt. You don’t normally start firing on all cylinders in your first week at a new club. But my team-mates and the coach helped me so much, and they still do. And when you’re out on the pitch, playing alongside people this talented means you only need to worry about doing your own job right. Everything else just comes naturally.
You had a freer role at Inter, while at Barcelona it seems that you have more tactical restrictions placed on you.
First of all, we played 4-4-2 at Inter and here the formation is 4-3-3. There’s also a big difference in terms of the two clubs’ mentalities. Here I’m playing up front as a No9 but the coach gives me the freedom to drift wide left or wide right, as long as I get one of the wingers to fill in for me. At Inter I was more isolated, so there was more space for me to move around in attack.
You’ve played under great coaches at both teams. How do Josep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho differ in their approaches?
The main difference is that Guardiola is more active, by which I mean when he explains something on the training pitch he can physically demonstrate what he’s looking for, because he was a top-class player. Mourinho never played at such a high level, but both have a great attitude and a huge desire for success. They’re both able to explain very clearly what they want and are direct when dealing with players. They’re both winners.
And how about on a personal level?
I think that both have a good relationship with their players, they’ve very professional. I can’t speak for anybody else but I always got on extremely well with Mourinho. Just as I do now with Pep.
Have any of your new team-mates really surprised you?
No, because I already knew how they played. The likes of (Andres) Iniesta, (Lionel) Messi, (Thierry) Henry, (Yaya) Toure and (Seydou) Keita are so good that I knew all about them even before I’d been on the pitch with them. That’s why I wasn’t taken by surprise, it’s a real honour to be playing with them.
You have joined a team where the level of expectation is huge. Are Barça capable of repeating last season’s treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League?
I want to win everything, whichever club I play for. That said, repeating the treble will be a tall order. That would need the team to play at its very peak for two seasons in a row and I think that’s very difficult. On the other hand, we’re very strong mentally and we’ve got last year’s experience under our belts, so why not?
How do Barcelona manage to keep performing to such a standard, particularly with the physical demands involved?
We work really hard. There’s a fine balance made between training and matches. We have a group of specialists at Barcelona who prepare everything to make sure that we aren’t put under too much strain and we go into matches in tip-top shape. When you’re playing at this level you know that the games will come thick and fast, that’s why the right physical preparation is so important.
In December you and your team-mates are set to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. What would winning that competition mean to you?
The Club World Cup is something that so many players want to win, while remaining a competition in which relatively few take part. Barcelona have that opportunity now and we’re really fired up for it. Particularly because it’s a trophy we haven't won yet. It’s one of the main objectives for the club, players and fans this season.
With Sweden having missed out on a place at next year's FIFA World Cup™, could this December’s tournament be your chance to prove yourself on the world stage?
It was disappointing not to have reached the World Cup with Sweden, so the Club World Cup is very important for me. I treat every competition I take part in as vital, and I always want to win. And this tournament even more so. I’m going to be excited to be there and I’ll do everything I can to help my team to success.
Does that setback with Sweden still rankle?
It was a shame. I’ve already appeared at two World Cups and two EUROs and I love tournaments like that. That’s why it hurts not to be in South Africa. But I’ve also got to be realistic, I play for a national team that isn’t a global powerhouse. We’re never among the favourites to win and though we’re usually able to do enough to qualify, this time luck was against us.
Will we see Zlatan Ibrahimovic grace the FIFA World Cup in future?
At the moment I’m sticking to my decision not to play for Sweden anymore, but nobody knows what can happen in the future, so I’m not ruling anything out for the time being. We’ll see what happens.
Returning to the present, you are set to take on old club Inter this week. How does that make you feel?
Inter are a very good team and this is a vital match in which we have no margin for error. If we win then we’ll take charge of the group. So far we’ve had a lot of bad luck in our Champions League games. It’s a very big game for me and I’m in an optimistic mood, I believe that it will turn out the way I want.
Then on Sunday 29 November comes El Clásico against Real Madrid. You’ve quite a week ahead.
Of course it’s a very important game. Not just for us, but for the club, the supporters, even for the neutrals and the world at large. Nobody is indifferent to this match. We’re playing at home and I’m sure we’re going to win.
Is a repeat of last season’s 6-2 scoreline at the Bernabeu possible?
I don’t know if it’ll be so one-sided, I don’t even think about how many goals we’ll score. But Barcelona have a very attacking mentality and I’m sure that we’ll win and score plenty of goals.