'I need to realise I'm not Superman' - How 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic is inspiring Milan's title charge

Zlatan Ibrahimovic AC Milan Serie A 2021-22Getty

It's not easy for a 40-year-old to remain relevant.

And yet earlier this week Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the big reveal in Khaby lame's latest viral video – a parody of the hit Netflix show 'Squid Game'.

The Swedish striker accompanied his own post of the same clip with the words 'My game, my rules.'

And it does feel like that sometimes. 

Ibrahimovic remains one of the most influential figures in football – and not just because of a carefully cultivated public persona, which amuses some and antagonises others.

At 40 years of age, he is still making and scoring goals, and, on Sunday, will most likely lead the AC Milan attack in the Serie A co-leaders' massive Derby della Madonnina showdown with reigning champions Inter.

Wherever one stands on Zlatan the character, Ibrahimovic the player is remarkable. 'Super Ibra', as the Corriere dello Sport referred to him last weekend, is still performing miracles.

"Zlatan is an absolute phenomenon," his former Inter team-mate Hernan Crespo told the Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this week. "Being able to do what he does at 40, in the Italian championship, which is one of the most difficult in the world, is really incredible.

"In every match, even when he’s not brilliant, he always proves to be at a higher level than both his team-mates and the opponents. He’s at a different level.

"When we played together at Inter, he was already a champion. But he didn’t have the maturity and ability to lead the team that I see at Milan today.

"Now, he’s a real beacon, his team-mates just have to follow him to continue to grow and aim to win."

That's no exaggeration either. Ibrahimovic has become a true leader since his return to San Siro in January 2020, a wise old head guiding one of the youngest squads in Serie A.

He's admitted that he's never had this level of responsibility before, so he's revelling in the role. Excelling in it, too. 

Milan coach Stefano Pioli says he had got into the habit of rarely speaking to his players after a game because he wanted to give them time, and space, to talk among themselves.

However, he's now completely stopped going into the dressing immediately after the full-time whistle because he knows that Ibrahimovic will chair the initial post-match inquest.

"His arrival raised the bar," Pioli told DAZN. "The thing that surprised me was his intelligence in calmly entering a group that was not yet formed. 

"Then, after that, he started making himself heard. He expects a lot from himself and from others. He raises the bar and others recognise him as one who can make them grow.

"Even with everything he has already shown, Zlatan still wants to prove that he is a champion and a pro. So, he is here all day, gritting his teeth to overcome objective difficulties and pains."

And he is dealing with more difficulties and pains with each passing day. 

Ibrahimovic is now missing games through injury on a regular basis. More than two decades at the highest level is finally taking its toll, physically.

When he returned from his latest injury setback, an achilles problem, he was sluggish and sloppy, even scoring an own goal in last month's clash with Bologna. However, Ibrahimovic ended that game with a sublime finish into the bottom corner to seal a 4-2 win for Milan.

The following weekend, amid dreadful racist abuse from Roma fans, he scored the opener in a vital 2-1 victory at the Stadio Olimpico that means the Rossoneri have now won seven games on the spin.

Ibrahimovic, then, remains just as influential on the field as he is off it, meaning retirement is the last thing on his mind right now. He's already admitted that Milan might not be his last club, while his dream of representing Sweden at the 2022 World Cup could well become a reality.

“The secret to my longevity is in the mind, as I am trying to prove that 40 is just a number and I can continue to do what I love," Ibrahimovic told Telefoot.

“I want to keep improving every day. Obviously, I can’t play the way I did before, but I am more intelligent now and have more experience."

He's arguably slightly humbler, too. Or maybe he's just letting the mask slip a little more often. Indeed, these days, we're getting more glimpses of the real Ibrahimovic.

“He is a nice person, accommodating inside the dressing room and a great professional," Milan's summer signing Olivier Giroud told the Gazzetta.

"From the outside, he could seem focused on himself, but it’s not like this with those working with him every day."

Indeed, all of his team-mates talk of an agreeable, approachable person who is always willing to help. Certainly, his influence on Milan's sensational start to the season cannot be overstated. Whether he plays or not, Ibrahimovic, at 40 years of age, will have a major say in the Scudetto race.

Still, given he has three goals from just three Serie A stars, the Rossoneri will obviously be hoping that he can remain fit for the remainder of the campaign and the encouraging thing is that he know feels he better understands his body than ever before.

“When I was young, I just played, even if I felt pain in my tendons," he told Sportweek. "I wanted to win and score, stop. With time and experience, I started using my head and I realised how important it is to listen to your body.

"My head is fine, but my body is getting old. It doesn’t always keep up with it [the head] and it’s a problem. This year, I have to listen to my body, every little signal it sends me. Only by doing so, can I avoid worse consequences.

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"So, I need to think slowly, day by day, and realise that I am not Superman."

He's still Ibrahimovic, though.

Still relevant, still playing the game, and still breaking all the rules.