Zlatan Ibrahimovic was asked if one of his ‘concrete offers’ had come from Manchester United and he considered his words, scratched his lip and broke into a grin. A big grin. And then a chuckle.
‘Let’s see what happens,’ he said. Across the previous 10 minutes in this suburb of Stockholm he had spoken about his ‘great relationship’ with Jose Mourinho, a ‘winner’ who will ‘bring United back to the top’. He would also explain his utter conviction that, aged 34, he can still dazzle in the Premier League after four years of bullying on a flat track in France.
If these are pieces in a transfer puzzle, then the picture they are slowly revealing is that the two biggest egos in football could soon be reunited in United’s great reawakening. It would be extraordinary and entertaining if it happens, and that appears a more distinct possibility than ever, with both parties keen on the deal.
But this being Ibrahimovic, who really knows?
In his mind, he is the great puppet master and the world is on his string. As he put it yesterday: ‘There is a lot being written about my next move, and I enjoy reading what you come up with.
‘One day I am moving to this club, the next I am 90 per cent sure to go there, and 10 per cent sure to go there. It is like cat and mouse. I enjoy being the mouse.’
So perhaps his flirtations are all part of a game for his amusement. With an offer worth well in excess of £500,000 a week on the table from China, the mouse can certainly find more cheese away from United, who are believed to have been asked for £220,000 a week by a player five months shy of 35.
LA Galaxy are also thought to have gone big and he revealed an offer had arrived from Italy.
But it is telling that the one question which made him bristle yesterday was about a perception he is too old to handle the rigours of England’s top flight.
‘I am just warming up,’ he said. ‘I had a great season, a fantastic season so I proved age is just a number. Everything is in your head. Everything you want to do, you do. If I want to make it, I will make it. If I want to do it, I will do it.’
He stopped just short of quoting his figures - the 156 goals he scored in 180 games at PSG or 12 trophies he won in those four years.
But the sense, shared by those in Sweden who have chronicled his career, is that the ego which directs the feet is not quite ready to accept pension-pot football just yet. There might well be one last big-league surge from a man who, legend has it, once woke his Juventus room-mate Adrian Mutu in a panic because he had a nightmare that a young Cristiano Ronaldo was better than him.
If he has mellowed in the subsequent decade, it is not at all obvious. His parting tweet to Paris this month was glorious: ‘I came like a king, left like a legend.’
His opening to yesterday’s press conference was equally well delivered. He had been told to arrive at 12.15pm, local time, after training with his national team at the Friends Arena. After 20 minutes, no sign of him. Likewise after 40. A senior media handler was dispatched to apologise to a crowd three times the usual size of a team press conference. The handler explained Ibrahimovic would be there at 1pm. He wasn’t.
He ultimately rocked up more than an hour late and looked at more than 100 reporters with a grin. ‘You shouldn’t have come so early.’
Most of the room laughed and he raised a hand. This is often how it goes in the court of King Zlatan and he plays up to it.
For years he has cultivated this image of self-obsession and arrogance. For instance, he is said to particularly enjoy the Twitter gag that when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he had a missed call from Zlatan.
The fascination now is whether communications have reached such a point between himself and United that the move is on. Certainly, the indications yesterday all pointed that way.
And then the real learning can start. Is Ibrahimovic still able to dominate games when the opposition is strong every week? Did the French league conceal something that the Premier League would expose? Will he be one of the players who forges a lasting relationship with Mourinho or will it go the same way as so many others that play under the Portuguese? After all, last time they worked together, in the 2008-09 season, Ibrahimovic was 27 and at his peak. Even he lacks the arrogance to think he will outrun his age forever.
But right now, he appears convinced he has one more big fight in him. United certainly need the goals and the arrogance of players who believe they will win at whatever they try. Their aura and winning attitude is missing these days; Mourinho and Ibrahimovic would be a marvellous and rapid way to change that.
At the very least, Ibrahimovic loves being at the centre of the drama. If this crazy move comes off, there will be a lot more of it.
Original source: I'm not too old to be a United star, says Ibrahimovic