Over the past couple of weeks I have become a little obsessed with a certain character and as the media coverage around him seems to intensify I thought I would write something about this strange and unique footballer. That man is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. English fans will have just seen him at Wembley leading Sweden as captain, a role which just doesn’t suit him. Zlatan has always been a striker I have know since my early Championship Manager days, a talent that I tried to pick up many-a-time as I pulled 48 hour shifts to become the best manager in the world. There is one question about the striker I want to know: Who is Zlatan?
Zlatan has been getting more press coverage than usual lately, due to the release of his autobiography entitled ‘I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ which I am not ashamed to say made it on to my Christmas list. What you have probably heard lately is some choice quotes from his book, such as him slagging off Pep Guardiola, his manager at Barcelona whom he didn’t see eye-to-eye with. In the book he cites the aftermath of a Champions League match where he screamed at Guardiola ‘you have no balls!’ and ‘you can go to hell’, as he compared playing for Barcelona to ‘buying a Ferrari and driving it like a fiat’.
We nearly didn’t know about Zlatan as from an early age he was pretty head strong and considered quitting football at the age of 15 in favour of working in Malmo’s docks. Luckily he didn’t quit and has never looked back. He progressed through the youth ranks at Malmo FF to play in the first team where he started to attract interest from across Europe. After Arsene Wenger failed to sign him for Arsenal, Ajax snapped him up for around £7million, a high fee for a 20-year-old.
From Ajax his career took off leading him to play for Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona and AC Milan. Ibrahimovic has played for 5 of Europe’s biggest and most renowned clubs and has commanded transfer fee’s that total approximately €113m, making him one of the worlds most expensive players, even eclipsing serial transfer fee specialist Robbie Keane. So you would be excused for thinking he was something a bit special.
His large transfer fee total shows his quality as a player and how much he is rated by some of Europe’s best coaches. Fabio Capello said of him before England’s match with Sweden: “He is one of the best players I trained in my life, in my career, and he proved it a lot when at Juventus”. This is one of the few favourable manager comments about Zlatan. The fact he has had so many clubs shows that he is not a particually loyal player and also struggles to stay happy for a variety of reasons. He has a particularlly jaded history when it comes to dealing with other players and managers and is generally considered a difficult character.
His autobiography lifts the lid on spats with a variety of players and managers throughout his career; Guardiola, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Co Adriaanse, Mido, Mancini, Ljungberg, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Zebina, Rafael Van der Vaart and Giorgio Chiellini – quite an impressive list for any player. Some of these attacks were not just verbal but physical.
Ibrahimovic may be no stranger to conflict as he grew up in an immigrant neighbourhood of Malmo, having to deal with alcohol and drug abuse within in his family and getting involved in petty crime; he grew up a scrapper. He has had training ground punch up’s with Jonathan Zebina whilst at Juventus and more recently Oguchi Onyewu at AC Milan. The latter was described as a life or death brawl. Van der Vaart also accused him of purposely injuring him during a game due to their strained relationship whilst at Ajax. This is the ugly side of Ibrahimovic.
No doubt there will be other articles on him and most will say how he is a hero to the Swedish people and one of their biggest stars. On ground level in Sweden things are not as rosy as most articles will make you believe. It is very much a love or hate relationship between him and the Swedish public. He is a character that creates great debate between Swedish people on two separate topics.
If you speak to Swedes about Ibrahimovic as a player then a lot of people will say they think he is over-rated. A player that despite having natural talent and an illustrious career, isn’t actually that good. Ibrahimovic has a big problem, teams need to revolve largely around him, he can’t cope with varied situations, isn’t a big team player and is definately not a leader despite captaining the national team.
Some Sweds will swear by him because if conditions are right at a club, like they were at Juventus and Inter Milan and more recently AC Milan, he has the platform to perform. But amongst real world-class stars, like he was surrounded by at Barcelona – the world’s best, that have to conform to a culture that is engrained within them, he cannot function.
It isn’t just his exploites on the pitch and training ground that earn him a ‘difficult’ tag, he has a troubled relationship with the press and from an early age was difficult with them and always reacted angrily and awkwardly to any criticism aimed at him. If your relationship is bad with the press, then this filters through to the public and this is how it is in Sweden. In Italy, due to his success on the pitch and love from the press and public, his perception is different.
Zlatan isn’t necessarily a misunderstood person, he is just marmite; those that love him defend him to the hilt and are blind to his flaws. Others will cite the fact that he is very moody and quite pretentious despite his humble upbringing. The real Zlatan is not a very nice person, quick to get in to trouble and finish fights, he is actually a bit of bully, maybe partly due to his upbringing. Zlatan also thinks highly of himself, in both football terms and as a person, this doesn’t come across as confident, more arrogant which is unappealing to many.
Zlatan has a Bosnian father and Croatian mother and for Sweden’s immigrant population, Ibrahimovic is a man of the people. He has the classic rags to riches story that to a lot of Sweden’s immigrant population opened the door of opportunity to a generation. Many Swedes dispute Ibrahimovic’s status as the man who opened the door as there have been many successful immigrant sports persons to come out of Sweden before Ibrahimovic, but because of his talent and personality, he is highlighted. Endorsements contracts, most notably from Nike, have increased Zlatan’s profile and lead to ‘Zlatan’ becoming a trademark – no wonder he thinks a lot of himself.
The true personality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is something we can only speculate about, he keeps you guessing with a real ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ image. He has an interesting story, regardless of whether you love him or hate him. We should remember Footballers are not media personalities, it is merely a bi-product of his job, maybe his personality shouldn’t be in question…but when we switch back to reality, to the fans that pay to that players wages, personality does matter.
There is no doubt to me that Ibrahimovic is a clever man, he speaks 5 languages for starters, and he is a shrewd operator. From a PR perspective his actions, as well as his influential managers, have created the character that is ‘Zlatan’, but the truth is no one truly knows who the real Zlatan is. No wonder his book sold out in hours of its release.
Ibrahimovic’s football CV is hard to match, very few players have had the opportunities he has had. The unfortunate thing is that his personality seems to dictate how he plays his football. What ever you think of Zlatan, he is an interesting character and certainly a fascinating read and I for one are looking forward to learning more about one of European football’s biggest names.