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The Most Fearless Man In Soccer Is Facing The Biggest Decision Of His Career

Zlatan Ibrahimovic says what he feels all of the time, and a lot of the time that involves letting someone know that he is better than them. 

When asked who he thought was the best looking woman in the world, he responded, “I don’t know, but when I find her I will date her.”

He’s arrogant, there is no getting around that, but hearing his ignorance it is hard to not think of a famous Muhammad Ali quote: it’s not bragging if you can back it up. 

By that qualification, the miracle of our time might not be the internet; it’s that it is entirely possible that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has never bragged in his entire life. 

Zlatan turns possibilities into miracles all of the time. It is how he plays the game. 

The man never sees a challenge that he refuses to take on, and that is what makes his recent words about the possibility of transferring to Manchester United so interesting. 

In an interview with Sports Illustrated Zlatan was asked about the nature his relationship with current United manager Luis van Gaal, to which he responded “not good.”

“The way [he works] is not the way I work,” he added. 

Van Gaal was a director at Ajax when Zlatan was there, and during that time van Gaal treated Zlatan and the rest of the team like boys rather than men. That is not how you win the friendship of a player like Zlatan, who was making men look like boys even back then: 

Yet, in spite of that sentiment, Zlatan said this when asked about whether or not that bad blood would prevent him from transferring to United: 

“At the end, I think [van Gaal] is professional and I am professional. Whoever I work with, I never had this kind of problems, because at the end I need to do my job, he needs to do his job. And I think a lot of fights would happen, but that's something I like.”

And there he is: the man who never backs away from a challenge. 

It is impossible to hear such talk of playing for a manager with whom he doesn’t get along and not think of his time at Barcelona. There, he butted heads with the defining coach of this generation: Pep Guardiola. 

Zlatan was initially brought in by Guardiola to form the kind of attacking juggernaut that Barcelona currently employs with Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, but the plan went south. Zlatan had the misfortune of wanting to be the alpha dog of a team in which Guardiola wanted — rightfully so — to cater everything towards the rise of Lionel Messi. 

For Zlatan, his stay at Barca ended with, among other things, him thinking that Guardiola is a spineless coward, and a transfer to Milan. 

Zlatan didn’t like the way Guardiola worked. Guardiola won the treble immediately after he left. For a man who has never won the Champions League, that surely must have bothered Zlatan, as reluctant as he might be to admit it. It must surely influence the way he talks about being able to work with van Gaal today. 

With the kind of money Manchester United is throwing around it is clear that they want to return to the top as soon as possible, not just of the Premier League, but of all of Europe. 

Zlatan’s current club, Paris Saint-Germain, could also win the Champions League and has also shown the same world-beating ambition. It has tried to achieve it’s goal through similar, massive spending. In these ways, Manchester United is no different than Paris Saint-Germain; these ways, but no others. 

Manchester United is able to operate under much more financial freedom than Paris Saint-Germain because of Financial Fair Play and United’s ability to generate revenue. The biggest spending days of PSG are behind it, and the club cannot overhaul itself as quickly as Manchester United because of that. 

Manchester United's signings this summer. Clockwise from top left: Depay, Schweinstieger, Schneiderlin, Darmian. Photo: @futmais | Twitter

Today, both Manchester United and PSG have the same problem: they are not as good as Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich, who have won the Champions League 5 of the last 7 years. But, because Manchester United’s ability to buy players is at a level that PSG cannot match, its potential to reach those super clubs’ levels in the immediate future is greater. 

The immediate future is all that is left of Zlatan’s career; he will either win now, or never. There are few real challenges that remain for him at the club level. Of them, arguably the two biggest are winning the Premier League, a league in which he has never played, and winning the Champions League. He cannot win the former at PSG, and he has a better chance of winning the latter at United.  

This predicament demands action. Or rather, it demands a choice: does Zlatan stick it out with PSG, a team in which he is comfortable but that would require no small amount of fortune in order to win the Champions League, or, does he choose to go to Manchester United, a team of greater Champions League potential where he could also challenge for the Premier League.  

And make no mistake, if Manchester United can afford even a quarter of the €100 million it reportedly bid for Thomas Muller, it can afford Zlatan

Going to Manchester United would be the biggest challenge of Zlatan’s career. He would have to adapt to a league he has never played in at the age of 33, and do so under a manager does not like. It would be an uphill battle, but the trophy at the top is one worth the struggle.  

Follow me on Twitter: @yetly

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