Heart Of Football

Fit-again Ibrahimovic ready to be a star in No. 10 shirt

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back, or almost back. Just hearing him talk, seeing the ego bubbling up again, makes you think that he will add the presence and personality that have been missing from Manchester United's billion-dollar team.

He will put some Devil into the athletic, automated, predictable Jose Mourinho line-up.

It is seven months since Ibrahimovic fell, wrenching his right knee and tearing the cruciate ligament at Old Trafford. Being 35 then, having turned 36 now, after a career spanning eight clubs in five countries and with all the wealth that accrues, a normal man might have called time on himself.

Not Ibrahimovic. Not the taekwondo black belt. Not the son of a Muslim Bosnian father and Catholic Croatian mother who emigrated to Malmo, Sweden.

We do not know when - if - Ibrahimovic will be restored to the starting line-up. We cannot yet say that there has to be enormous temptation for him to play for Sweden in the World Cup.

But it is crystal-clear that neither his club nor his country have anything like him. Nor indeed, does soccer.

He says he is driven "to finish what I started". He said last year that he retired after playing 116 times and scoring 62 goals at international level. The Swedish FA would be plain crazy to accept him at his word.

Now that I am back in the locker room, I feel the emotions, the heat, the grass. I think I am going to be better than before. Giving up was never an alternative. 

For sure, Sweden deployed impressive effort, organisation and teamwork to push a tired, old Italian team out of the World Cup play-offs last week.

Aside from a deflected goal in Stockholm, no one on either side scored in that stolid stalemate lasting 180 minutes. Ibrahimovic would have scored. Even on one leg, he would have found a way by force or imagination.

During the past week, he has featured in two videos. In the first, for the Swedish car maker Volvo, he exudes certainty, sincerity and hunger to be involved in finding the next No. 10 for his nation.

In an MUTV club video, he repeats some of the same lines, and talks about the emotions inside of him to get back into the red shirt.

"This was my first major injury," he says. "I know what I've come through. I'm closer now, but if it is this year or not, I'm coming to finish what I started."

In Swedish for Volvo, in English for MUTV, in his smile, you see beyond the camera lens. You sense compulsion. The ego of his past has gone, temporarily laid low by his fall. But he looks nothing like defeated, or even apprehensive.

He articulates until you can almost feel his pain, his isolation, in training on his own at United's Carrington training centre. Alone, with the key to the facilities, he went there to feel the grass, to follow his own training regimen, to then lock the gates after him.

One can almost hear Freddie Fu, the Hong Kong-American orthopaedic surgeon who operated on him seven months ago, counselling caution.

The cruciate ligament is, or was, the most dreaded strand in an athlete's body. Once snapped, it used to end careers. The most determined of athletes soldiered on through hard, long, lonesome recovery to, sometimes at best, three-quarters of their former glory. Ibrahimovic is not that ordinary. He stands 1.95m, and in his prime he could stretch out those long limbs (chiefly the right) to bring the ball under control or hit it ferociously. A human with the dexterous reach of an octopus.

Whether we see that again, whether his surgeon Dr Fu is right when he says that he saw in Ibrahimovic such exceptional physique that he can go on for years to come, we might soon discover.

"All the people talking, commentating from the outside, that's the easy thing," Ibrahimovic said on MUTV. "On the inside, it's different. It's seconds sometimes, it's going very fast. Now that I am back in the locker room, I feel the emotions, the heat, the grass. I think I am going to be better than before. That is the trigger. Giving up was never an alternative, but now it is closer, not rushing. Day by day."

Mourinho accepts that patience is necessary. He persuaded United to grant Ibrahimovic another year on the contract at the start of the rehabilitation process, and the manager now sensibly cautions that Ibrahimovic needs time to get back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness... "his everything".

In the clinical sense, Mourinho adds, it is fantastic already.

When Ibrahimovic does get back into the starting line-up (no longer if), he will wear a different shirt, perform a different role. United spent £75 million (S$134 million) on Romelu Lukaku to be the new No. 9, the goalscorer-in-chief.

Not a problem, says Ibrahimovic. He talks, and sounds as if he means it, of helping Lukaku to be that striker, to grow on the much bigger stage of being at a world-level club.

Which leaves Ibrahimovic to play what role? The No. 10, the link between striker and midfield, creator to the main finisher.

Read this. "To me, No. 10 is the star," Ibrahimovic said in the Volvo video. "The one who makes the difference, gets noticed, wins the matches and is the leader.

"And I see myself in that position but it is not something that is given to you; it is just something you are. That's just the way it is."

Ibrahimovic talks of finding, enthusing, guiding someone in his own role, although hardly in his unique image.

At Old Trafford, the focus is on himself. "To be honest," he says, "it is like a trigger for me coming back from that injury because I wore the No. 10 in the Swedish national team and PSG. I would have worn it at Inter, but I soon moved to Barcelona. I wanted it in Milan but took another number out of respect. In Ajax I didn't have it.

"I feel like a 10 and I stand for No. 10. It will go down in history that I always had No. 10."

Unfinished business, in an intended new form.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 19, 2017, with the headline 'Fit-again Ibrahimovic ready to be a star in No. 10 shirt'. Print Edition | Subscribe