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Zlatan Ibrahimovic rejects 'bad boy' tag

By Piers Edwards, CNN
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Tue April 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • PSG striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic says he does not deserve his "bad boy" reputation
  • Swede insists he is not difficult to work with, despite his well publicized differences with Guardiola at Barcelona
  • On eve of Camp Nou return, 'Ibra' says his problems with then Barca coach were personal not professional

(CNN) -- Paris Saint-Germain's Zlatan Ibrahimovic has insisted he is not a "bad boy" on the eve of his latest return to Barcelona, where he lasted just a season after falling out with then coach Pep Guardiola.

The Swedish striker, whose goal and assist in the first leg mean that PSG head into Wednesday's Champions League quarterfinal level on aggregate (2-2), suffered a disappointing spell with the four-time European champions between 2009-2010.

Following a couple of years in Italy with AC Milan, the 31-year-old has now settled in France, where he tops the Ligue 1 scoring charts -- his 26 goals from 28 games nine better than his nearest rival.

"I think people have this image of me," Ibrahimovic told CNN in an exclusive interview.

"It's enough that someone in a newspaper says I have a bad character and then everybody jumps on this train. If people judge me like that, it's fine by me, because this is part of the game.

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"But when you get to know me, you will have a different opinion. Like when I came here, everybody said 'bad boy' because everybody thinks I am that -- I am not."

The former Ajax, Juventus and Inter Milan player's career has been dogged by controversy and outspoken comments, even if his time at PSG has been largely devoid of incident so far.

However a quick look at some of the flashpoints that have peppered Ibrahimovic's career -- breaking a rib during a fight with Milan teammate Oguchi Onyewu, threatening to break the legs of Rafael van der Vaart, another so-called colleague, and being sent home from a crunch Sweden qualifier for ignoring a curfew -- suggests that with the talent, comes some baggage.

"Never judge a person if you don't know him," said Ibrahimovic, who was raised in Malmo after his father (Bosnian) and mother (Croat) emigrated to Sweden in the 1970s.

"I'm not difficult to work with, trust me. When you have my confidence, I will do 200% for you. When you don't have my confidence..."

The trailing off tells its own story and it's easy to fill in the blanks, especially given the way Ibrahimovic's time at Barcelona -- which cost the Spanish giants $60 million in addition to the exchange of Samuel Eto'o, who Barca valued at $26 million -- ended following his disagreements with Guardiola.

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The Catalan coach may have won 14 trophies during his 2008-2012 tenure, including two Champions League crowns, but he earned the wrath of the strong-minded Ibrahimovic when changing his tactics to accommodate the desires of a certain Lionel Messi.

This all came after 'Ibra' had set a Barca record in becoming the first player to score in all of his first five league games for the club, a feat that had proved beyond previous club legends such as Romario, Hristo Stoichkov and Eto'o himself.

"It was a childhood dream [to join Barcelona] and I was walking on air," the Swede wrote in his 2011 biography 'I am Zlatan'.

"It started well but then Messi started to talk. He wanted to play in the middle, not on the wing, so the system changed from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1. I was sacrificed and no longer had the freedom on the pitch I need to succeed."

Over the course of the season, the relationship between the most expensive signing in Barca's history and the club coach disintegrated, with Ibrahimovic feeling underused and an 'annoying distraction [and] outsider' for Guardiola.

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Matters came to a head on 1 May 2010, three days after Barcelona's Champions League semifinal exit against Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan, with Ibrahimovic letting his frustrations spill out after being consigned to a five-minute substitute role during a 4-1 win at Villareal,

"Guardiola was staring at me and I lost it," continues the Swede in 'I am Zlatan'. "I thought 'there is my enemy, scratching his bald head!'. I yelled to him: 'You have no balls!' and probably worse things than that. I added: 'You are s****ing yourself because of [Mourinho]. You can go to hell!'

Having once told Guardiola that he had 'bought a Ferrari but [drove] it like a Fiat', Ibrahimovic now claims that his problems with the Spaniard, who will lead Bayern Munich next season, had more to do with his persona than his coaching abilities.

"We have to be clear -- I spoke about Pep as a human not as a coach," the PSG star told CNN.

"For me, as a coach he is fantastic, as a human, we can discuss."

Despite his desperation to leave Barcelona, with Ibrahimovic playing his last game for a club (where he netted 21 goals in 41 games) one year into a five-year deal, the Swede says he looks back on his time with the club favorably.

"About Camp Nou, it's fantastic. I had one year there, a great experience, a fantastic year," he added.

"I learned a lot -- outside the pitch, inside the pitch -- and for me it is an amazing club and I have only positive things to say. When I come back, hopefully it will be a good game and hopefully I will enjoy it."

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He has returned to the club once before, losing 3-1 last April as AC Milan were dumped out of the Champions League quarterfinals -- albeit with the former Barca man creating the Italians' solitary goal.

Despite winning a remarkable eight league titles in a row with five different clubs between 2004 and 2011 (the two with Juventus were later taken away because of the Calciopoli corruption scandal), Ibrahimovic has famously never won the Champions League.

And ahead of his date with destiny with Messi, Xavi and Iniesta -- all of whom he described as obedient 'schoolboys' in the Barca dressing room -- the outspoken Swede insists it will not be a lasting regret should he never lift the famous trophy.

"[I want to the Champions League] a lot but that doesn't mean anything -- because my career has been fantastic anyway."

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