To get an idea of how deep the resentment lies – and Zlatan Ibrahimovic has never been one to go in for superficial niceties – perhaps the best place to start is the interview he gave to CNN last November, as a Paris Saint-Germain player, and his response to the question about what it was like playing for Pep Guardiola. “As a coach he was fantastic,” Ibrahimovic said. “As a person I’ve no comments about that, that’s something else. He’s not a man, there’s nothing more to say.”
Alternatively one could flick through the pages of I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a book the Guardian’s Richard Williams described as “the most compelling autobiography ever to appear under a footballer’s name” – and examine some of the lacerating words the Manchester United striker reserves for his former coach at Barcelona. Guardiola is a “spineless coward”. By the end Ibrahimovic does not even want to use Guardiola’s real name. Instead he calls him “the Philosopher”, with barely disguised contempt.
He has used that tag ever since and nobody should be in any doubt how fired up he will be against his old coach this weekend. As Ibrahimovic once noted of the formidable former Italy defender Marco Materazzi: “He’s like me. Hatred and revenge are what gets him going.”
On Saturday he will get his chance for revenge when the two Manchester clubs resume hostilities, United versus City at Old Trafford, and Guardiola locks horns again with José Mourinho, with the two managerial adversaries sticking, for now, to their pre-season pledge that they see little point in public quarrelling.
Mourinho, probably odds-on favourite to break the pact first, says it would be self-defeating for him to view Guardiola as his enemy when English football, unlike its Spanish equivalent, has many clubs who can win the league. Guardiola has even suggested that one day they might have dinner. Nobody really believes it but City’s failure to get Sergio Agüero off a charge of violent conduct has removed one potential cause of friction – just imagine Mourinho’s reaction if Agüero had been found innocent of that assault on Winston Reid and scored this weekend – and a truce has been called, albeit temporarily.
Whether the same applies to Ibrahimovic is doubtful, however, if we go back to his time at Barcelona and the resentment that has festered about the man who signed him, abandoned him and, in the words of the Swede, treated him like “a disturbance, an alien”.
Ibrahimovic was the second most expensive transfer in history, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, when he signed from Internazionale in 2009 but perhaps in hindsight his personality was not suited for Guardiola when we are talking about someone who grew up as a bike thief and regards himself as an adrenaline junkie. “I like guys who drive through red lights,” Ibrahimovic once said. “I always drive like a maniac. I’ve done 325km an hour in my Porsche Turbo and left the cops eating my dust. I’ve done so much mental stuff I don’t even want to think about it.”
Not at Barcelona, though. Guardiola told Ibrahimovic early on he was not welcome to drive his Porsche into training and to get behind the wheel of one of the club’s Audis instead. Ibrahimovic obliged but came to realise very quickly that he did not properly fit in. “Barcelona was like school, or some sort of institution,” he has said.
Lionel Messi was the prefect and Ibrahimovic found that out the hard way. “Messi started saying things,” Ibrahimovic wrote in his autobiography. “Lionel Messi is amazing. He’s totally amazing. He joined Barça when he was 13. He was brought up in that culture and doesn’t have a problem with that school crap. But now I was there, and I was scoring more goals than him. He went to Guardiola and said: ‘I don’t want to be on the right wing any more, I want to play in the centre.’ I was the striker. Guardiola didn’t give a damn about that, though. He changed the tactical formation. Guardiola had to listen to him. But I mean, come on, I had scored loads of goals at Barça and I’d been pretty awesome as well.”
This, ultimately, is the nub of the relationship breakdown and like many things with Ibrahimovic, it is to do with ego as much as anything else. Guardiola, he says, eventually stopped talking to him. “He was a wall – a brick wall. I felt like shit when I sat in the locker room and Guardiola glared at me.” Ibrahimovic finally exploded after a match at Villarreal, kicking over the kit box, after playing only the last five minutes, as a substitute. Guardiola, he remembers almost triumphantly, said nothing, “picked up the metal box, like a little caretaker, and left”.
It is not difficult to imagine Ibrahimovic and Mourinho, his former manager at Inter, have swapped notes since then. “My problem at Barcelona was with one man, and that was the Philosopher,” Ibrahimovic said in an interview in 2011. “With Mourinho I could go out and kill for him. That was the motivation he gave me. With the other one it was football … football … but you have to adjust with the players you have, especially when you buy a player for 70 million [euros]. You don’t buy him to watch the birds on the trees.”
Guardiola, according to Ibrahimovic, had “a hang-up about Mourinho” when the current United manager was in charge of Real Madrid. “José Mourinho is a big star. He’s nice. The first time he met Helena [Ibrahimovic’s partner] he whispered to her: ‘Helena, you have only one mission – feed Zlatan, let him sleep, keep him happy.’ That guy says whatever he wants. I like him. He’s the leader of his army. But he cares, too. He would text me all the time at Inter, wondering how I was doing. He’s the exact opposite of Guardiola. If Mourinho lights up a room, Guardiola draws the curtains.”
This is all six years ago now. Another player might have put the episode behind him, rather than allowing the grudge to fester. With Ibrahimovic, however, there is always the impression he is simply biding his time. “My entire career has been built on the desire to strike back,” he has said, and so far he has not managed it with Guardiola. After Ibrahimovic moved to Milan, he faced Barcelona in his second season, in the Champions League group stages. He scored but so did Messi and Guardiola’s team went back to Catalonia with a 3-2 win. The teams played each other in the quarter-finals as well. Barcelona drew 0-0 at San Siro and won 3-1 in the return leg, Messi scoring two penalties.
Since then Ibrahimovic has not faced a Guardiola team. It is revenge he wants, undoubtedly, and Guillem Balagué’s biography of Guardiola certainly corroborates the Swede’s version of events. “When Ibra received the plaudits during his first few months at the club [Barcelona], Messi spoke with Pep and said either he played as a number nine or he didn’t play at all. ‘And what am I supposed to do with Ibrahimovic?’ said Pep. Messi was adamant: ‘I play here or I don’t play at all; stick the others out on the wing.’”
Ibrahimovic believes he was “sacrificed” and is said to have told a senior Barcelona executive that if his move to Milan did not go through – and he initially demanded they set up a transfer to Real Madrid – there would be repercussions. “I’ll wait until I’m together with the coach in front of the media and then I’ll punch him … I’ll do it, I will.”
Guardiola, meanwhile, chooses not to discuss Ibrahimovic if he can help it. It is a cold, studied indifference and that, perhaps, bugs Ibrahimovic more than anything – the impression he gets that he is not important in the eyes of his former coach. His ego has been pricked. He will get his chance on Saturday to caress it better.