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Zlatan Ibrahimovic was already annoyed with Romelu Lukaku, believing that his one-time Manchester United teammate and now Serie A rival had tried to present himself as the new king of their domain. It was October 2020, Ibrahimovic was in the red-and-black of Milan, Lukaku the blue-and-black of Internazionale and the former had drawn first blood in the first Milan derby of the 2020-21 season, scoring twice in a 2-1 win. “Milan has never had a king, just a god,” Ibrahimovic tweeted, in trademark self-effacing style.
It was never going to take much for tempers to flare when next they met. The way that Ibrahimovic tells it in his new book, Adrenaline: My Untold Stories, it is unapologetically his side of the story. It started when Lukaku argued with Alexis Saelemaekers, the young Milan midfielder, in the 45th minute of last January’s Coppa Italia quarter-final at San Siro.
Ibrahimovic, as his team’s leader and senior professional, knew that he had to step in and he told Lukaku to pipe down. “What’ll you do if I don’t?” Lukaku replied. “I’m going to break every bone in your body if you open your mouth,” Ibrahimovic said.
It was on, the players bumping heads and trading insults, with Ibrahimovic, in his words, going for Lukaku’s achilles heel. “Go tell your mother to do a voodoo spell for you,” he shouted.
After Lukaku had left Everton in 2017 for United, having initially wanted to join Chelsea, it was said by Farhad Moshiri, Everton’s majority shareholder, that the player did so after receiving a voodoo message. Moshiri inferred that Lukaku’s mother had encouraged him to take the advice. Lukaku has hotly denied this.
According to the Swede, Lukaku saw red as the players headed for the interval and yelled at him from a distance: “I’m going to put three bullets in your head.”
Despite Ibrahimovic being up for a physical fight in the tunnel, it did not happen. At which point, consider what happened next to Ibrahimovic. He was sent off in the 58th minute for a second yellow card and Inter won 2-1, having been 1-0 down at half-time, Lukaku scoring the equaliser.
The following month, Inter beat Milan 3-0 in the league, Lukaku again on target. And, in early May, Inter wrapped up their first title since 2010. “The real god has crowned the king,” Lukaku tweeted. “Now bow down.”
It was a tough period for Ibrahimovic as he suffered injuries while his personal physiotherapist also got Covid. “Could it have been that Lukaku had performed some voodoo ritual to hurt me?” Ibrahimovic reflected. But what he was perfectly clear about was his need for revenge.
“In my mind, I decided that I had to settle things with Lukaku out on the pitch, the same way I had done with [Marco] Materazzi,” he continued in a nod to his long-running feud with the former Italy defender. “Unfortunately, he left Serie A [in the summer of 2021 for Chelsea] and we didn’t come up against them in the Champions League. But there will be other opportunities …”
Such as this coming season, it turns out, with the Belgian back at Inter on loan from Chelsea and Ibrahimovic having extended his contract at Milan for a further year, despite a knee injury that is expected to keep him out until January. The second Milan derby of the league campaign is scheduled for the first weekend in February.
A reminder about Ibrahimovic’s history with Materazzi: in 2005, Ibrahimovic was at Juventus and he had been injured by a scissor-tackle from the Italian, then at Inter. Ibrahimovic vowed revenge and he got it in 2010 when he was at Milan for his first spell, with Materazzi still at Inter. Contesting a 50-50 ball in the derby, he leaped into Materazzi and cracked him hard across the temple with his elbow, putting just enough disguise on it to make it look like a routine clash. Materazzi was taken to hospital.
“This is how things work in my world – you never forget and you wait patiently for the right time to take revenge,” Ibrahimovic said. “I told myself over and over: ‘When I get my hands on him, I’ll hurt him badly – so badly that he’ll remember what he did to me.’ And I’ll take my revenge in the light of day, making my motives and intentions perfectly clear to everyone.”
There is a reason why “Adrenaline” is written in big letters across the cover of Ibrahimovic’s book. He is addicted to it, he seeks it in every challenge and he loves to stoke it by casting himself as having a score to settle. Such as against the English, who he felt had disrespected him as he laboured to score against Premier League clubs during the first-half of his career.
Ibrahimovic would rip up the narrative with his four goals in Sweden’s 4-2 win over England in 2012, including that overhead kick. “One day I’ll build myself a museum and the football from the bicycle kick against England will enjoy pride of place,” he said.
Ibrahimovic’s ego is stamped across every chapter of the book; at the age of 40, it shows no sign of softening. The references to himself as a god or an angel or Superman are matter of fact because, on Planet Zlatan, there is no arrogance, merely straight-talking and truth; his truth.
“Hakan Calhanoglu is a fantastic kid,” Ibrahimovic wrote of his former Milan teammate, who went to Inter last summer. “He grew and matured immensely, thanks to me. Now the only challenge facing him is this: ‘Will I be able to achieve the same things without Ibra?’”
The book is funny and entertaining, containing love for his loved ones, particularly his wife, Helena, his sons, Maximilian and Vincent, and his agent, Mino Raiola, who died in April, and drive-bys for his enemies. Pep Guardiola, who could not handle his personality at Barcelona, is an inevitable target, Ibrahimovic noting that: “The ‘Philosopher’ prefers players who obey without talking back.”
Ibrahimovic’s core values recur. Be yourself, warts and all. Give everything. Be prepared to suffer, to walk on fire. Thrive on it. The anecdotes, meanwhile, are plentiful. He details the lack of discipline at Paris Saint-Germain and the weird, petty-minded bureaucracy at United.
He said he was once docked £1 from his wages for taking a fruit juice from the mini-bar at the team hotel while he quickly grew tired of being asked to show ID on his way into the training ground. “I’d tell the guy at the gate: ‘Listen, friend, I’ve been coming here every single day for the past month now. I’m the world’s best football player. If you still don’t recognise me, you’re in the wrong line of work.’”
Ibrahimovic knows that he does not have long left as a player and there is rare vulnerability when he admits the prospect of retirement terrifies him. How will he get his adrenaline fixes? Before then, though, there is a fitness battle to win, more goals to score, another title to chase. And a confrontation with Lukaku.
Adrenaline: My Untold Stories by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, published by Penguin, is out now and available from the Guardian Bookshop