Week 176 (25 February - 3 March)
An inspiration, a role model and a man who continues to defy logic, Zlatan Ibrahimović is everything an elite athlete should be.
It is incredibly rare for a 35 year-old to be the star of a football club. However, Manchester United striker Zlatan Ibrahimović is an incredibly rare talent. After he joined the club on a free transfer last summer, with his best years supposedly behind him, pundits were quick to question his ability to make it in the Premier League. But, in a typically “Zlatan” way, his rise to stardom at the club only took a matter of months; so much so that he has recently been likened to United cult hero – Eric “The King” Cantona.
By his own admission, Ibrahimović's success derives from the hours he puts in on the training ground. Speaking after the recent EFL Cup Final victory, where he scored a dramatic late winner, Ibrahimović said: “I’m from the old school where they work hard and get what they get from doing the hard work, not like the new school where it is easy to get what you want.” Behind the supremely confident superstar aura, Ibrahimović’s career has communicated a more serious, important underlying message: talent is nothing without hard work.
Ibrahimović has provided endless entertainment throughout his career, both on and off the pitch. On his wife’s birthday one year, he reportedly said: “I don’t need to give her a present, she already has Zlatan.” In fact, there have been so many amusing Zlatan moments over his illustrious career, a book of quotations would be an easy sell.
Whilst a lot of what Ibrahimović says is tongue-in-cheek, his comments after the EFL Cup Final communicated a different, more powerful tone: “The lion is born a lion – it means I’m a lion. I feel in good shape. I train hard. People who know me from the locker room know that I train very hard. I have an objective every season I go into. And to reach that objective I need to train hard and I need to suffer when I train; that is how I achieve what I achieve.”
Ibrahimović’s approach to elite sport sets an example not just for aspiring sportsmen and sportswomen, but for his own Manchester United teammates. Not only has he been United’s talisman this season, being the only player to score more than 10 goals, he also appears to be having a profound effect on the club’s next generation of talent.
Sky Sports commentator and ex-Premier League player Niall Quinn shared these sentiments last week when he said: "For the younger players at United to have shared the dividend of that sort of belief with their iconic striker at Wembley will be a lesson that will stay with them… Zlatan has taken United under his wing and strengthened them in a way that will endure long after the last crusade finishes for him… His students' progress could well be his greatest achievement."
In many ways Ibrahimović’s time at Manchester United communicates the message that will define his legacy: supreme confidence, outrageous talent and tireless commitment - a legacy all athletes should strive for.
Ibrahimović’s career is clear evidence to United’s future stars that to reach the very top, talent alone is not enough.
Photo: Manchester United