Football legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic announces sudden retirement at 41 after 22-year career

Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan speaks during a farewell ceremony at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan, Italy, June 4, 2023. (Photo:CFP)

"Even God is crying." This is Zlatan Ibrahimovic's apt explanation for why it happened to be raining in Milan on the day he announced his retirement.

It's quite difficult to find another top footballer who is as eloquent and charismatic as Ibrahimovic is. Little wonder that when the Swedish superstar confirmed he is hanging up his boots at the age of 41, bringing to an end a trophy-laden career that spanned 24 years, the world took notice.

"I say goodbye to football but not to you," an emotional Ibrahimovic told the San Siro crowd on Sunday night after AC Milan's 3-1 home win over Verona in the last game of the season.

The prolific striker, who netted 93 goals in 163 appearances over two spells at Milan, has made just four appearances this season due to a series of injuries, prompting him to make decision to say goodbye.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan acknowledges the fans during a farewell ceremony at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan, Italy, June 4, 2023. (Photo:CFP)

At his peak, Ibrahimovic was one of the greatest goal machines of all time. He helped Milan win the Italian Serie A in his first spell, and returned in 2020, again winning the league title.

"The first time I arrived you gave me happiness, the second time, you gave me love," added Ibrahimovic as he fought back tears.

"I want to thank my family and those close to me for their patience. I want to thank my second family. The players, the coach and his staff for the responsibility they gave me. I want to thank the directors for the opportunity they gave me.

"You welcomed me with open arms, you made me feel at home, I will be a Milanista for the rest of my life."

Ibrahimovic began his football career at Malmo in 1999 and left for Ajax in 2001 before launching a career which featured stints with powerhouses such as Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan. He has scored 511 goals and won league titles in four countries.

Last week, Ibrahimovic just told Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport during an exclusive interview that he feels like "Superman" and wants to continue playing next year despite missing the majority of the current campaign.

However, it turned out he was laying down a smokescreen. Such was the secrecy of his decision that even his family were left in the dark.

"I had already decided when I made that interview, the thing is that no one knew about this decision so I couldn't say anything. I wanted everyone to hear it at the same time," Ibrahimovic told a press briefing afterwards.

"I didn't tell anyone that I was leaving football. I told the club that we had to do something for the last match, but they didn't know about my retirement. I thank the journalists for their patience, now you will have less work…

"From tomorrow I'm a man free from this world. It's been a long, long career. I'm proud and happy. The career lasted a long time. Thanks to those who gave me strength, adrenaline, emotion to continue…

"In the last 10 days. I've accepted it, even not being able to finish on the pitch. However, what I went through today was too beautiful, a memory for a lifetime."

When asked about his future plans, Ibrahimovic said, "For the moment I just want to take time and enjoy what I've done. I think it's not right to make a decision in a hurry, there's too much emotion. I want to take the summer, enjoy it, reflect on what I've done.

"Then, when I calm down, let's see. Being a coach or director is a great responsibility. When you're a footballer you have more chances to be yourself, as a coach you are more limited. I can't come in a Ferrari as a coach, or maybe Ibra can…

"Let's change the rules a little. I don't think I’m leaving football in general, but if I enter it I have to make the ladder from scratch and grow. It doesn't mean I'll be a top coach..."

At international level, Ibrahimovic also retires as Sweden's all-time top scorer with 62 goals in 122 appearances. Due to the limitations of the national team's overall strengths, he didn't have too many opportunities to showcase his talents at major tournaments.

But Ibrahimovic still managed to register plenty of spectacular strikes, including an extraordinary bicycle kick from around 30 meters out against England.

"I don't know if you will see another like it in your life," said then Sweden coach Erik Hamren, referring to the sensational goal. "Sometimes, when he's doing these things, in training or in matches, you don't think it's possible. Because it's not possible to do that. It can feel like you are watching a video game."

Ibrahimovic has continued to remind each and every football fan of his exceptional ability ever since. When he was asked if there would be players like him in the future, his response remained as assertive and confident as ever.

"Impossible. There is one of Zlatan," he said. "Not because of my ego, but because we are all different. As a child they compared me to Van Basten, but he is him and I am me. There may be similar things, but it is not right compare like that. Another Zlatan with my ego? I don't think so."

He will be sorely missed.