Sunday 18 August 2019

How Zlatan Ibrahimovic took charge of his recovery

Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to Manchester United action on Saturday less than seven months after suffering a career-threatening knee injury. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP
Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to Manchester United action on Saturday less than seven months after suffering a career-threatening knee injury. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP

Jason Burt

'Lions don't recover like humans," Zlatan Ibrahimovic said after his remarkable comeback from the type of knee injury which would have tempted other players of 36 into retirement. But there is a far more relevant quote which describes the scale of what he has achieved.

It comes from Roberto Baggio, who also suffered a horrific anterior cruciate ligament injury, who was also 35 at the time, and who spoke eloquently of how "the optimism of recovery should defeat the pessimism of today" after he was carried off when his left knee buckled beneath him on an icy January evening in 2002. Then, it seemed his team, Brescia, were doomed to relegation from Serie A and Baggio was doomed to miss out on the World Cup that summer.

The Italian, though, endured painful rehabilitation sessions, up to 10 hours a day, was back running in a month and was playing again in just 77 days, when he came on as a second-half substitute with team-mate Pep Guardiola running over, taking off the captain's armband and tying it around Baggio's arm.

Within three minutes, Baggio had scored, the first of two goals, and Brescia won 3-0. They stayed up but, cruelly perhaps, Baggio was still not selected for the World Cup.


Even so, the iron will and determination he showed to play again, fuelled by having those targets, has been mirrored by Ibrahimovic. By any measure, whether a man or a lion, it is astonishing given the way he hyper-extended his right knee as he landed during Manchester United's Europa League tie against Anderlecht in March.

The damage was significant. Ibrahimovic alluded to it after he also came on a second-half substitute in United's victory over Newcastle United on Saturday when he spoke of how "if people knew the real injury, they would be in shock that I was even playing".

That was not an exaggeration. Ibrahimovic not only tore his ACL but suffered damage to his medial and posterior ligaments. His knee was a mess and, given his age and his size, there were concerns as to whether it was feasible he could carry on.

It was then that his stubborn character kicked in. One of the advantages of believing you are invincible is it can give you the kind of focus you need, the determination, to overcome such a devastating setback, and Ibrahimovic showed that immediately in his conversations with United's medical staff, and his agent Mino Raiola, who also shrewdly realised that the best course of action was to allow him to take control.

Ibrahimovic, therefore, self-managed the process, which included going to Pittsburgh to have the operation by Dr Freddie Fu, who, although regarded as the best knee surgeon in the United States, usually works with American football or hockey players.

Maybe, given Ibrahimovic's build, more akin to those US athletes than footballers, it was a factor. Jose Mourinho played his part. One of the United manager's strengths is how up to date and perceptive he is when it comes to sports medical science, the recovery of players, and the psychology involved.

Mourinho knew Ibrahimovic and what motivates him and knew also that with the player's 12-month contract expiring, it was not the right button to press to offer him a new deal but to give him the target of getting fit to earn it.

There was also a conversation over unfinished business, with Ibrahimovic determined not to leave until he had achieved more and his appearance at the Europa League final - it helped that it took place in his native Sweden - was carefully planned. Ibrahimovic's knee would recover over time, come what may. But he did not have time, so hugely ambitious goals in his rehab were set and, for him, there was no prolonged holiday in, say, Dubai, where many other Premier League players go before they start the hard yards. And Ibrahimovic has not skipped one session.

Not one. He was into it straight away with Mourinho setting goals, as he progressed, securing a new one-year deal for him and then naming Ibrahimovic in United's Champions League squad.

That brought forward the deadline for his recovery to before Christmas and it is no coincidence that Ibrahimovic has returned to action with United having two Champions League group game fixtures to fulfil, beginning with tomorrow's trip to Basel when they expect to seal their place in the last 16.


All the factors have been in place. Ibrahimovic has been operated on by a good surgeon, having done his homework on who to go to and also factoring in the mental boost of working in the US and having that change of environment, while generating excitement that he might be tempted by a move to the MLS should United not want him (in the full knowledge that they did).

Beyond the time away from the club, there has been a well-structured rehabilitation programme which has been adhered to and, yes, there has been Ibrahimovic's own body. He may not be a lion but he does have formidable healing capabilities. Raiola proclaimed that Ibrahimovic was "so strong that the doctor wants him back after his career to do research on him" and while everyone dismissed this as another boast, Dr Fu has confirmed it.

So, Ibrahimovic has exceptional things in his favour. But that is only part of it. The biggest part is a lesson to other footballers who have not shown the same dedication. Ibrahimovic has treated his recovery as a full-time occupation. It has been, since he painfully landed on the Old Trafford turf, his job. And it has shown, yet again, what an incredible footballer he is. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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