Just last month, Zlatan Ibrahimovic declared in typically boastful fashion that he would not step down until he saw someone better than him.
“So, [that’s why] I’m still playing,” he quipped in an interview with UEFA’s official website.
But while Zlatan, the public figure, continues to exude confidence and invincibility, the man Ibrahimovic has never really hidden his insecurities and vulnerabilities, especially when it comes to retirement.
He still plays for the pure love of the game, of course, but it goes beyond that for him. He openly admits he’s addicted to the “adrenaline” that comes with playing top-flight football.
He has pointed out that he and his peers are “programmed” from an early age and are therefore totally dependent on the routines that form the basis of a professional footballer’s career.
“We do the same thing every day,” explained Ibrahimovic. “We wake up, we prepare, we train, we eat and we rest. The next day it’s the same.
“You’ve been doing these things for 20 years and you get adrenaline from them.
“So if you suddenly quit, you don’t have that agenda anymore, you don’t get any more adrenaline.
“And when it stops, you have to take it from there and start from scratch and start something new.”
It’s a terrifying prospect for 40-year-old Ibrahimovic, who made his debut in Malmo as a teenager in 1999.
He only realized how much he would miss the game when he spent seven months on the sidelines with Manchester United in 2017 with a cruciate ligament injury.
“I understood then that football is everything for me,” he told reporters in San Remo last year. “I’m afraid to quit because I don’t know what to expect afterwards.”
However, a post-football future is something Ibrahimovic has to think long and hard about now.
On Tuesday it was confirmed that the Swede will be out of action for at least another 10 days after suffering a nagging knee problem in last weekend’s 0-0 draw with Torino.
The news is particularly worrying as Ibra was only just trying to regain full fitness after an Achilles tendon problem forced him to sit out all four matches of the Milan series in February.
In fact, he’d only played 31 minutes before collapsing again, meaning he’s played through injury in just under 40 per cent of the Rossoneri’s games this season.
And it should be noted that he wasn’t plagued by breaks, dents and bruises, but soreness, aches and pains – the telltale signs of wear and tear.
He’s maintained a good physique for a footballer, not least because he’s still the first man to come to training and the last man to leave.
It’s just that his body is breaking down and, as Milan coach Stefano Pioli says: “He just has to live with his ailments.”
Milan too, at least for now.
Ibrahimovic’s current contract expires at the end of the season but the hope was that he would sign a one-year extension.
However, the question now arises as to whether this would really be the right step for both sides.
If he’s fit, Ibrahimovic remains an impressive proposition.
As told by Brazilian legend Ronaldinho sports media set“Zlatan is a phenomenon: at his age, he’s still better than some young players! He can play until he’s 50. It doesn’t lack quality.”
The latter statement is, in fairness, undeniably true.
Despite missing 16 of Milan’s 41 games this season through injury, he remains joint top scorer in Serie A with eight goals alongside Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leao.
However, that says as much about the Rossoneri’s failed strikers as it does about Ibrahimovic’s continued excellence.
Having catapulted themselves to the top of the Serie A standings thanks in no small part to massive victories against title rivals Inter and Napoli, Milan’s position looks increasingly dangerous due to their lack of frontrunners.
Consecutive goalless draws have allowed Inter to come within two points of Pioli’s side while still having a game in hand that the Nerazzurri will play in Bologna later this month.
Milan are therefore under a lot of pressure ahead of Friday’s clash with Genoa at the San Siro and Ibrahimovic’s absence will again be felt strongly.
The veteran striker is a true leader on and off the field for one of Serie A’s youngest squads.
His experience, professionalism and, believe it or not, willingness to help those around you have seen him play a key role in the Rossoneri’s re-emergence as a major force in Italian football over the past two years.
Given his considerable influence in the dressing room, the value of an increasingly injury-prone Ibrahimovic to Milan is difficult to quantify.
However, there is no denying that if he signs an extension this summer it will be on significantly reduced terms, with the centre-forward currently trading at €7m (€5.8m season.
Paolo Maldini & Co. could consider themselves worthwhile simply because of their role model character.
Ultimately, however, Ibrahimovic will not want to play the role of a glorified cheerleader.
“It would be sad to see a champion like Ibra not getting enough playing time or not up to the task,” said former Italy international Luca Toni Gazetta dello Sport earlier this week.
“A player like him should go to the top, where he’s been all his career.”
Ibrahimovic himself would no doubt agree. He will want to finish with momentum and on his own terms.
Of course you don’t always get what you want in football, not at your age.
Francesco Totti knows this only too well. He didn’t have as many physical problems as Ibrahimovic in his last season at Roma, but he still hardly played.
Totti felt he could still make it in Serie A; The then Roma boss Luciano Spalletti thought differently.
Milan, Maldini and Pioli could well come to a similar conclusion about Ibrahimovic, albeit for slightly different reasons.
“If you don’t play consistently, especially at a certain age, your body doesn’t rest, it rusts,” Totti explained in an interview with the newspaper on Thursday.
“When you’re used to being introduced as a substitute, you lose the rhythm. Your mind knows what to do, but your legs aren’t fast enough. You know you’re better than the others, but your body isn’t allowed to cooperate.
“Right now Zlatan is not playing and I can imagine his difficulties because his body is a demanding machine.
“The way I see it from the outside, he wants to stay on the pitch as much as Milan want to keep him.
“The problem isn’t technical, the problem is his playing time.
“I know what he’s feeling, I think I know the questions he’s asking and about his desire to confront reality.”
Ibrahimovic certainly won’t want to give up.
As I Am Zlatan co-author David Lagercrantz has pointed out in the past, Ibrahimovic’s entire career has been driven by a desire to prove people wrong, which is why he’s continued to do extraordinary things well into his 40s.
“Actually, it shouldn’t be possible,” said Jacob Johansson FIFA.com the remarkable longevity of his former Swedish teammate.
“He’s been struggling with injuries lately but we all know Zlatan. Anything is possible on the pitch. That’s why he’s a superstar.”
And why Ibrahimovic will find it so difficult to leave.