The Bicycle Thief
Zlatan Ibrahimović has always been an individual — it's how he fits in
Sometimes a single passage of play can demonstrate the essence of a player. When Maradona, in the immortal words of Bryon Butler, turned "like a little eel" and dodged a string of challenges to put Argentina 2-0 up against England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup, everything that made him perhaps the greatest ever was put on display for a few, devastating seconds. When Johan Cruyff in the 1974 World Cup produced the Cruyff turn, his unique blend of balance, skill, creativity and spatial awareness combined in a single movement that was irrevocably etched into the sport's collective memory.
Zlatan Ibrahimović's moment came one late August afternoon in 2004 at the Amsterdam Arena. About 30 yards out, with his back to goal, he received a pass from an advancing full-back. After recovering from a poor first touch by muscling an opponent off the ball, he turned. A feigned shot with his right foot gave him some space on the edge of the box, but defenders kept coming in. Another feigned shot was followed by a series of dribbles which saw Zlatan move into space where there didn't appear to be any. Yet another turn took out both the goalkeeper and a defender, before the ball was calmly slotted home. As Zlatan himself would put it, many years later, it was an instant classic. The physical strength to see off the first challenge, the balance and technique to slalom through a packed defence with no space to work with, not to mention the sheer audacity — if not stupidity — even to try it: it was a goal that could not have been scored by any other player. But that's not why Ajax's fifth goal in their 5-1 win over NAC Breda was so quintessentially Zlatan – the situation had a significant, now often forgotten subtext. But to understand that subtext it is necessary to go back a further decade, to a particularly rough part of an otherwise harmonious city in Sweden. You have to know the past to understand the present, and any attempt to decipher this most enigmatic of footballers must start in the troubled Malmö district of Rosengård.
Cultural and material exports have led the world to believe that all Swedish people are blonde, middle-class, live in IKEA-furnished houses, can produce catchy pop-songs given half a keyboard and are mostly named Ulf. This is largely the case, but that isn't the Sweden Zlatan Ibrahimović grew up in. Rosengård was built between 1967 and 1972 as part of a massive government housing program and it quickly attracted immigrant residents. Over the years that number increased. In 1972, 20% of the residents in Rosengård were immigrants; in 1998 it was 80%. By 2007, official statistics say "at least" 86% of Rosengård-residents are "of foreign origin", defined as "having two parents born outside of Sweden". The three most heavily represented countries were Iraq, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia.
To put those figures into context, around 85% of the total Swedish population are ethnic Swedes — and 5% are Finns. The reported unemployment rate in Sweden as of August 2012 was 7.2%; in Rosengård it is thought to be around 60%. Recent figures from Statistics Sweden revealed that 71% of children in Rosengård live in relative poverty, school results are among the worst in the country and crime stats are high. Following a particularly troubling period in 2008, the Malmö fire department for a brief time demanded a police escort when responding to calls from Rosengård. It is, simply put, the closest thing to a fully fledged ghetto you'll ever find in Scandinavia. This is where Zlatan Ibrahimović grew up.
Ibrahimović's frank and wonderfully titled autobiography — I am Zlatan — was always going to make headlines. Tales of Zlatan screaming, "You have no balls!" to Pep Guardiola in the Barcelona dressing-room rightly got the international sporting press very excited indeed but the altogether more intriguing part of Zlatan's life story is his childhood and adolescence. Born to a Bosnian father and a Croatian mother, Zlatan's childhood had as much in common with the usual Swedish middle-class upbringing as Zlatan the footballer has with Erik Edman. "One day I fell off the roof at the kindergarten," he wrote. "I got a black eye and ran home crying, expecting a pat on the head or at least some kind words. I got a slap in the face. 'What were you doing on the roof?' It wasn't like, 'Poor Zlatan.' It was, 'You fucking idiot, climbing up a roof. Here's a slap for you,' and I was shocked and ran away."
He insists that he loves his mother and that life was hard on her but also explains that, "She'd hit us with wooden spoons and sometimes they broke, so I had to go buy a new one like it was my fault she'd hit me that hard." "Us" being Zlatan, his sister Sanela and his brother Aleksandar. Once they all bought their mother a batch of wooden spoons for Christmas but apparently the irony was lost on her. When social services decided that this wasn't a healthy environment for little Zlatan, he was sent to live with his father, a caretaker named Šefik, instead. According to Zlatan, his father "had a big heart", but "the war really affected him a lot." Because this was the early 90s and for a Bosnian living in Sweden there was a lot of bad news from home to digest. Šefik Ibrahimović was a Bosniak born in Bijeljina. On 1 April 1992, Arkan's Tigers invaded his hometown. The death toll from the ensuing massacres is thought to exceed 1000. "The war ate at him and he became obsessed with following the news," Zlatan recalls. "He sat alone, drinking and mourning, listening to his Yugo-music." There wasn't always food in Šefik Ibrahimović's refrigerator in Rosengård but there was usually a healthy supply of beer. Although he may not have been the ideal provider, Šefik could be a fiercely loving father when he needed to. One night Zlatan fell badly ill and his father immediately called a cab, carried his son into the street, and screamed at the cab driver that she was to break all conceivable traffic rules to get to the hospital as soon as possible. It turned out Zlatan had meningitis. "His fridge was empty and he drank too much," Zlatan said. "But when the shit hits the fan, there's no one like him." When roused Šefik was driven, had a fierce temperament and a macho swagger. He taught his son to stand up for himself, that life is tough and that the only way to get ahead is to be even tougher.
When Zlatan was a boy, he had a bike that meant the world to him. The bike got stolen, so Zlatan started stealing bikes himself. He enjoyed the rush and after mastering the dark arts of bicycle-theft he graduated to other pilfering. A few years later, when his peers began to dabble in more serious crime, Zlatan had to opt out. By that point he had a burgeoning football career to safeguard. It's tempting to see Zlatan as yet another rebellious youngster from a bad neighbourhood who was saved by his ability to play football. But the idea of him as a loutish hoodie in want of an ASBO is only one side of the story. Zlatan was also an awkward, spindly kid with a big nose and a lisp. For a period, a speech coach would come to his school and teach him how to say the letter S. He thought it was degrading. Zlatan wasn't a terrible student but he wasn't overly keen on sitting still and paying attention in class. Because his parents moved he had to change schools a lot and at one of them an extra teacher was brought in and put on Zlatan-watch. The young boy was infuriated. Like most outsiders, the thing he wanted most of all was to not be an outsider. "There was talk of putting me in a special school," he said. "They wanted to brand me and I felt like a UFO. It started ticking like a bomb in my body."
One day, in gym class, the presence of the extra teacher enraged him to the point where he hit her in the head with a ball. The teachers were aghast. They called Zlatan's father and asked him to come to the school and discuss the possibility of getting psychiatric help for his son. Šefik Ibrahimović turned up in a rage, shouting at the teachers. "Who the fuck are you? To come here talking about psychiatric help? You should be sectioned, all of you. There is nothing wrong with my son; he's a good kid. You can all go fuck yourselves."
When he wasn't stealing bikes or causing trouble in school, Zlatan played football. On a small gravel pitch outside the apartment block where his mother lived, little Zlatan played incessantly. Still a thin and weak kid, he had to move his feet quickly and develop tricks to avoid getting clattered by the older boys. Gaining recognition for pulling off tricks became more important than winning. As he got older he grew, both in ability and stature, and he would challenge flocks of 10 to 15 younger kids to get the ball off him. If someone managed it, he'd buy them candy. Zlatan's temperament and love of tricks was fine for kickabouts on the gravel pitch, but more of an issue when he played organised football. He joined his first club, Malmö Boll och Idrottsförening, at the age of six. MBI had a mix of immigrants and ethnic Swedes playing for them, and "a lot of the parents whined about my tricks from the block. I told them to go to hell and changed club several times." He ended up at FBK Balkan, a club made up of players from the former Yugoslavia, where he had an altogether better time of it — apart from the time Zlatan tried his hand at goalkeeping and failed miserably: "One game I let in a lot of goals and I became furious. I screamed that everyone was shit, that football was shit, that the whole world was shit and that I would start playing ice-hockey instead. 'Hockey is a lot better, you fucking idiots! I will become a hockey pro! Go drown yourselves!'"
As it turned out, in order to play ice hockey you have to buy a lot of expensive equipment, so Zlatan stuck with football. His talent soon saw him move from FBK Balkan to the youth ranks of Malmö FF — Malmö's representatives in the Swedish top division. But Zlatan now vehemently denies the notion that he was seen as a big prospect: "It wasn't like, 'Oh, we have to be nice to that little talent.' It was more like, 'Who let the immigrant in?'"
Aside from a few other foreigners Malmö FF's youth side were mostly made up of middle- and upper-class Swedish kids — though of course for a kid from Rosengård the difference between the two was negligible: "I felt like I was from Mars." Where his teammates lived in villas and were driven to training in Volvos, Zlatan lived in a block in Rosengård and cycled in on stolen bikes. They passed, he dribbled. They played, he fought. Once, in a match, Zlatan was booked for arguing with one of his teammates. He told the referee that, "You can go fuck yourself as well," and was sent off. On another occasion, in training, one of his teammates put in a number of rough challenges, so Zlatan headbutted him. The player's father started a petition to get Zlatan removed from the team. "They talked about it all the time: Zlatan doesn't belong here. We have to throw him out." When presented with the petition, the team's coach, Åke Kallenberg, tore it up. But Zlatan didn't necessarily have a friend in Åke. Later, when Zlatan was moved to Malmö's Under 18-squad a year ahead of schedule, Kallenberg benched him for almost a year. "I could feel the vibrations," Zlatan wrote. "'That Zlatan, isn't he too unbalanced?" It wasn't petitions anymore, but not far off it. And yes, I yelled at my teammates, I screamed and talked too much on the pitch. I could get into arguments with spectators. But it wasn't a big deal, I had my temperament and my style of playing. I was a different kind of player, I got angry. I didn't really belong in Malmö FF."
He still didn't really belong in school either. By that point Zlatan had started upper secondary school on a sports program, at the prestigious Malmö Borgarskola. There were posh kids everywhere, posh kids and a bicycle-thief from Rosengård. "At Borgarskolan they had Ralph Lauren shirts, Timberland shoes and shirts! I had barely seen a guy in a shirt before and I realised that I had to do something about the situation." Zlatan tried buying shirts and jeans but to no avail. "Nothing worked. I still had Rosengård branded on my forehead. I didn't fit in." In addition to the class divide Zlatan was physically awkward, having grown a full 13 cm over the summer (according to himself). He had been a small, skinny kid with a big nose, now he was a lanky, awkward kid with an even bigger nose and shirts that didn't look right. But in spite of being stranded on the bench with the Under-18's and struggling to fit in at school, Zlatan's cocky demeanour never left him. At one point he was thrown out of class and shouted back at his Italian teacher that, "I don't give a fuck about you. I'll learn the language when I become a football pro in Italy." He was still stealing bicycles. One time after training his stolen bicycle had been stolen, so he picked up a particularly nice-looking bike he found outside the dressing-room. He liked it and he made sure to park it far away when he took it to training so its owner wouldn't recognise it. Three days later the players were called in for a meeting, and there was considerable commotion among the staff. Apparently the assistant manager's bicycle had been stolen.
As Mike Campbell dryly notes in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, bankruptcy sets in "gradually, then suddenly". The same tends to be true with fame. One day Zlatan Ibrahimović was told that Roland Andersson, the head coach of Malmö FF, wanted to see him. For Zlatan, being called in for a meeting meant bad news. Meetings with teachers, headmasters and coaches had all inevitably led to him being told off for some reason or other. In his autobiography he remembers expecting more of the same. "I panicked, and honestly I started thinking: Have I stolen a bike? Have I headbutted someone?" He hadn't. Or, he probably had, but that wasn't what the meeting was about. Roland Andersson had decided to promote Zlatan to the senior side. He made six substitute appearances and scored his first senior goal as Malmö FF were relegated for the first time in 64 years. Those six appearances were enough. As Malmö prepared for life in the Swedish second flight, Superettan, the hype around Zlatan grew and early stages of Zlatanmania started to sweep the nation. The following season, Malmö's journey back to the top tier was to be chronicled by a film crew and turned into a documentary. Like all things involving Zlatan, it ended up being mostly about Zlatan. In the finished film there is a particularly fascinating interview with Zlatan on a train either to or from an away fixture. All of 19 years old, he is wearing a light blue shirt and a dark leather jacket and he's reading an article about himself in a newspaper. The headline is "Superettans superdiva". He seems perfectly content with the tag. When speaking to the camera, the young Zlatan displays an unlikely mixture of big-headedness and self-reflection. "I feel some times that I can be a bit too cocky," he concedes. "Everyone has their cockiness but everyone also has their limits. Maybe I sometimes take it too far. But it's not like people think, that I'm just a cocky idiot who doesn't understand anything. I have my limits, I can be humble sometimes. But I often choose to be cocky because otherwise people can get at me."
It's not entirely certain which people he believes will get at him and how, but considering his parents, his upbringing, his time as the outsider in school, as the unwanted foreigner in football teams, it isn't very hard to see why Zlatan instinctively feels the need to hide behind an impenetrable wall of bravado. He also addresses this attitude in his book. "My thing was that I would both talk and deliver," he wrote. "Not just talk, like 'I'm the best, who are you?' — of course not, nothing's worse than that. But neither would I just perform and say weak things like the Swedish stars. I wanted both to be the best and to be cocky about it." Cristiano Ronaldo recently said that "Too much humility isn't good. Back home in Portugal we say too much modesty equals vanity." Zlatan no doubt approves. It almost seems as if to his mind humility is a form of cowardice, that by downplaying your abilities you also absolve yourself of responsibility and blame. When Zlatan enters a football pitch he believes, with a fair bit of justification, that he is more likely to make something happen than most of his teammates are. That being the case, why shouldn't he dribble? And in talking the talk Zlatan also put pressure on himself to walk the walk.
Sweden may be a social democracy where modesty and humility are important values, but Rosengård isn't really Sweden as such. Zlatan didn't grow up idolising mild-mannered blond men on skis, he grew up dreaming of Muhammad Ali. But of course, at this point Zlatan wasn't quite Ali, he was a 19-year-old striker playing in the Swedish second division. His teammates tell the film crew following Malmö FF that "he's not the star yet, even if he thinks he is" and that "he's fucking selfish." The young Zlatan is typically bullish in the face of such charges. "I like to dribble, all of Sweden knows that. So sometimes, instead of passing, I dribble. Of course my teammates can get angry but that's just how it goes. If you can't dribble then it's no fun, and football is supposed to be fun. If you're not enjoying yourself, then what's the point?" Relegation served Zlatan well, as it gave him playing time and more freedom to develop. With Malmö FF heading towards promotion there was leeway for Zlatan to do the tricks he'd practised and perfected on the gravel pitch in Rosengård, and the recognition he used to get from the other kids he now got from the stands. He may not have been the most popular player in the dressing-room but he did finish the season as top scorer as Malmö FF were promoted.
Having delivered, Zlatan did as he had set out to: he talked, telling journalists things like, "There is only one Zlatan" and "Zlatan is Zlatan." Statements like these would become a regular feature of Zlatan's career and led many to believe that the man is a raging egomaniac. This may be the case but there is a significant element of premeditated, knowing bravado involved. In the early years of his career, Zlatan the footballer would do things on the pitch that were fun rather than effective. He would dribble when he should have passed, he would flick the ball first time when he should have controlled it. Similarly, Zlatan the media celebrity would say things that sounded cool, rather than the things it would make sense for a footballer to say. One glaring example of this came in the spring of 2001 when he was briefly engaged to a girl called Mia Olhage. When asked by a journalist what he had given her as an engagement present, Zlatan famously quipped "Present? She got Zlatan." "It was one of those comments that just came, a quote bouncing out of me, and it sounded cocky, right in line with my media image," he now explains. Like José Mourinho, a man with whom he would later form a powerful bond, Zlatan was by and large speaking for effect. But as opposed to Mourinho's more Machiavellian brand of media mischief, Zlatan's statements are spontaneous and instinctive.
Those two adjectives can also be applied to his style of play. Ajax had kept a close eye on Zlatan for a while, but the moment the Dutch giants decided to sign him came in March 1999, in La Manga. Malmö were playing the Norwegian side Moss in a typically uninspiring pre-season friendly, with Ajax's head coach Co Adriaanse and their sporting director Leo Beenhakker1 in attendance. Fifteen minutes in, Zlatan lobbed the ball over two defenders, raced past them to run onto the ball, backheeled it over the last retreating defender and volleyed it in. Beenhakker was no longer wondering whether or not to sign the kid, he was worried about a possible bidding war. Looking back at the goal, Zlatan explains that, "It was one of those pictures that just appear in my head, a flash of lightning in my thoughts that I can never really explain. Football isn't something you plan. Football just happens." It's an explanation that could be applied to many of his most memorable goals. It often seems that Zlatan more than anything delights in doing the improbable, as if the instinct to impress the other boys on the gravel pitch in Rosengård has never really left him. On the other side of that coin, Zlatan seemed for a long time to be more adept at doing the outrageous than he was at doing the basics that are expected from a top-class striker.
After signing him for Juventus in 2004, Fabio Capello despaired at Zlatan's inefficiency in front of goal. Every day after training, Capello's assistant Italo Galbiati would take Zlatan aside and practise finishing with him. Balls were fired at him in the box from every angle, without pause and Zlatan was to blast all of them past a goalkeeper from the youth team. "I'm going to beat the Ajax out of your body," Capello told him. "I don't need that Dutch style. Play one-twos, play nice and technical, dibble through the whole team. I can do without all that; I need goals. You understand? I need to get the Italian mindset into you. You need to get the killer instinct." Capello may or may not have been aware that Zlatan's love of tricks and flicks had little to do with his time at Ajax, that when he had started out playing the game he valued tricks higher than goals. In a further effort to turn Zlatan into a striker who actually scored goals, Capello once sat him down in an empty room in front of a television and showed him a VHS-compilation of Marco van Basten's goals. "Study his movements, suck them in, learn from them," Capello's ordered. After watching the tape for 30 minutes Zlatan got bored and left: "Honestly, I have no idea if I learnt anything or not, but I got the message." Zlatan's goal return for Juventus was a passable 23 goals in 70 appearances. "I changed under Capello," Zlatan says in his book. "The toughness in him was infectious and I became less of an artist and more of a slugger who wanted to win at any cost. It's not that I didn't want to win before, I was born with a winning mentality. But don't forget that football had been my way of making myself visible. The tricks had made me more than just another kid from Rosengård. It was all the "Oh!" and "Wow, look at that!" which had inspired me in the first place. For a long time I would have thought you were a moron if you told me that an ugly goal was worth as much as a beautiful one. But now I was starting to understand — no one will thank you for your tricks and backheels if your team loses."
In his last season with Inter before departing for Barcelona, Zlatan was top scorer in Serie A with 25 goals in 35 appearances. It would be a mistake, though, to say the Italian killer instinct had entirely replaced his flair for the improbable: the goal which saw him crowned capocannoniere was an instinctive backheel to clinch a 4-3 win over Atalanta.
When Leo Beenhakker flew to Malmö many years earlier to wrap up the Ibrahimović deal, he sat down in a hotel room with the lanky 19 year old. Looking him in the eye, Beenhakker leant forwards over the table. "If you fuck with me I'll fuck you two times back," he said. Zlatan was impressed; it was his kind of talk. He liked Beenhakker because he "radiated power and coldness" and "looked like a mafioso". Zlatan responds to strength. While many agents pamper and sweet-talk their clients, the following is a sample conversation between Zlatan and his faithful representative Mino Raiola:
— You like when people tell you that you're the best, right?
— Yeah, maybe.
— But it's not true. You're not the best. You're shit. You're nothing. You have to work harder.
— You're the shit. You just moan. You should work out yourself.
— Go fuck yourself.
— Fuck you.
Zlatan likes Fabio Capello, because, "You don't mess around with Capello, that guy could floor any star with just a stare." And naturally, for a man who believes in both walking the walk and talking the talk, Zlatan likes José Mourinho. However, Zlatan does not like Pep Guardiola.
A few years on, the thing that's truly inexplicable is that Barcelona thought signing Zlatan Ibrahimović was a good idea in the first place. Zlatan is the anti-Barça, both as a person and as a player. At Barcelona, Zlatan might as well have been back at Borgarskolan, with an invisible but impenetrable barrier between himself and the posh kids. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi et al were all polite, obedient students in Mr Guardiola's classroom and Zlatan was again the unruly yob from the wrong neighbourhood. In his book he maintains that he tried to fit in but that it came at a price. He left his Ferrari in the garage and drove the club's sponsored Audi to training, he behaved politely towards his teammates, he didn't shout at anyone. "I became boring," he said. "Zlatan wasn't Zlatan and that hadn't happen since back in school when I saw girls in Ralph Lauren shirts for the first time and almost shit my pants when I was asking them out." On the pitch things went reasonably well until Lionel Messi — according to Zlatan — went to Guardiola and said he wanted to play in the middle. To accommodate the request, Guardiola switched from Barcelona's usual 4-3-3-formation to something more resembling a 4-4-1-1, with Messi playing off the front man. It meant a more limited role for Zlatan, who was now supposed to act mostly as a foil for Messi. Zlatan decided to follow Messi's lead and have a chat with the boss: "You are not using my capacity. If it was a goalscorer you wanted, you should have bought Inzaghi or someone. I need space and to be free. I can't run up and down constantly. I weigh 98 kilos. I don't have the physique for it." Guardiola replied that he thought Zlatan could play like that but Zlatan insisted that they might as well put him on the bench. Guardiola took him at his word and gradually stopped playing him, then stopped talking to him altogether. Zlatan's account of his falling out with Guardiola is naturally one-sided and there are probably those who would question its veracity. What is beyond question, however, is that Zlatan Ibrahimović was always going to be a spectacularly poor fit for the Barcelona-model, both tactically and personally: "I play better when I'm angry. If you see me furious, don't worry. OK, I might do something stupid and get sent off. But mostly it's a good sign. All my career has been built on my desire for revenge." At what point did it seem like a good idea to try to integrate this man into Pep Guardiola's team of well-behaved boys?
Another point his relative failure in Spain brings up is that Barcelona adhere to a strict tactical system, but Zlatan has never shown any willingness to subject himself to a system of any kind. Why should he limit himself to being a target man when he also has the skill and vision to drop deep and create? Why should he limit himself to playing between the lines when he also has the pace and power to spearhead an attack? Most players have their roles defined by their limitations. Zlatan is a striker who is quick, strong, skilful, good in the air, can hold up the ball, can finish with both feet, demonstrably has an eye for a pass (if not always the inclination to play it), has the intelligence to drop deep and the explosiveness to threaten the space behind the back four. Ability-wise he has few, if any, limitations. Because of this versatility and his imposing personality, Zlatan has made himself the main attacking outlet of every team he's ever played for — with the notable exception of Barcelona. The tendency inevitably becomes "pass it to Zlatan, and see what happens," both because he wants it that way and because more often than not the strategy will yield results: his run of eight consecutive league titles for five different clubs in three different countries is remarkable, and a feat not likely to be bettered any time soon.
His lack of success in the Champions League however remains a blot in an otherwise majestic copybook. It's a blot that's given rise to accusations that Zlatan lacks the mentality for big games. In his desire to do everything all at the same time, he has occasionally been prone to doing nothing much at all. Damningly in some people's eyes, the times he's gone missing have often been pivotal games in the Champions League. But the accusations of Zlatan lacking big game-temperament are deeply flawed. On the last day of the 2007-08 Serie A season Inter were on the verge of disaster. After being 11 points clear at the top of the table, Inter collapsed in the final weeks, allowing Roma to move within a point of them before the final game of the season. Inter were facing a Parma side desperately scrapping to avoid relegation and they were facing them away on a rain-soaked pitch at the Stadio Ennio Tardini. For many years Inter had an almost institutionalised propensity for self-destruction. A hugely embarrassing title concession looked a very real possibility. Zlatan, having been injured for months, was just about passed fit to play — but he was badly lacking match fitness. At half-time it was 0-0. The pitch was soggy, Parma were battling, nothing much was happening for Inter and Mirko Vučinić had given Roma a 1-0 lead over Catania. The title was on its way to the South. But cometh the hour, cometh the Zlatan. Battling the elements, rising panic and the weight of history and blunders past, a half-fit Zlatan scored twice and won Inter the scudetto. This simply isn't something you do if you're a man devoid of big game mentality.
A more plausible explantion for Zlatan's failure in the Champions League, the very highest level of club football, is his tactical indiscipline. Football's gradual shift in emphasis from the individual to the collective has been well documented. The last decade the sport's biggest trophies have almost invariably been won by teams who are exceptionally strong collective units rather than a collection of individuals. "Unleash the Zlatan" way well be a fruitful tactic over the course of a full league season as lesser teams find him impossible to deal with, but the very best sides are more capable of marginalising him, and Zlatan's teams have tended to lack a plan B. These high profile failures in the Champions League have led many to believe that Zlatan is overrated, that his talent doesn't match his reputation and ego. In fact there is a case to be made that his raw talent is underappreciated: in terms of physique, technique and natural talent there has hardly been a more complete striker in the modern game. But his refusal to reduce himself to being just one cog in a well-oiled machine has made him ineffective at the very highest level, and is arguably the biggest reason why he will never be considered one of the all-time greats of the game. The contrast between Zlatan the individualist and the modern game's emphasis on the collective could scarcely be more clearly illustrated than by his unhappy time at Barcelona.
A few months after his falling out with Guardiola, Zlatan was back in Italy with AC Milan, where the management accepted that the only thing you can really do with him is let Zlatan be Zlatan. Over the next two seasons he rewarded them with 42 Serie A goals in 61 matches, playing some of the best football of his career and merrily kicking teammates in the head at regular intervals. The subsequent move to PSG seems a logical next step, with him joining a club where he will likely get the freedom he needs and the iconic status he craves.
All of which brings us back to Amsterdam Arena, 22 August 2004. Zlatan had already scored once that afternoon as a corner from Wesley Sneijder landed at his feet and he duly thumped the ball in from close range. But celebrations were muted, with teammates offering only half-hearted cheers. A few days earlier Sweden had played a friendly against Holland, and Zlatan had visited his studs upon Rafael van der Vaart's ankle while forcing his way through the Dutch defence. Accidentally, deliberately or maliciously? TV replays were inconclusive. Van der Vaart, who at the age of 21 was already captain of Ajax, was carried off with minor ligament damage. He told the press afterwards that Zlatan, his teammate, had injured him deliberately. Zlatan called to apologise, "but Van der Vaart continued talking to the press and I just couldn't understand it. Why the fuck would he talk shit about his own teammate?"
Van der Vaart was young, handsome and Dutch; the press loved him. Zlatan was Zlatan, and the Ajax camp was split between the Dutch players and the foreigners. The head coach Ronald Koeman called a team meeting to clear the air, at which point Van der Vaart repeated his accusations. Zlatan, ever the diplomat, replied that, "I didn't hurt you on purpose, and you know that, and if you accuse me of that one more time I will break both your legs. And this time it will be on purpose." Somehow this did not calm things down. Team Van der Vaart said the outburst was final proof that Zlatan was aggressive and crazy, and the situation went from bad to unfixable. Zlatan told the sporting director Louis van Gaal that he refused to play with Van der Vaart again. The argument neatly encapsulates the central paradox of Zlatan: he claims that he has to be cocky so people can't "get" him, yet his cockiness is overwhelmingly the thing people attack him for. His abrasiveness is an obvious defence mechanism, yet it is also exactly the thing that keeps getting him into trouble. With Van der Vaart, Zlatan believed that everyone was against him and so he went on the offensive — and in so doing turned everyone against him.
While all of this was going on, Mino Raiola was attempting to engineer a move to Juventus before the transfer window shut. The match against NAC Breda took on unexpected significance. In the stands were people from Juventus whom Zlatan badly needed to impress. Also in the stands was an injured Rafael van der Vaart, as well as thousands of Dutch people who were deeply unimpressed with this lanky Swede from the ghetto who had mauled their media-darling. "It was insane. It felt like the Dutch were spitting on me. They were whistling and screaming, and high up in the stands sat Rafael van der Vaart and he was applauded. It was ridiculous. I was seen as crap, while he was the innocent victim." So when Zlatan scored a tap-in from a corner after 13 minutes, nobody got too excited. After 76 minutes it was a different story.
Zlatan claims that during his entire career he has been motivated by his desire for revenge and to prove people wrong. It also seems at times like he is battling his own sense of otherness. Either way, here he was fuelled by anger at having been cast as the bad guy yet again. The dismayed Dutch in the stands were like the parents petitioning for his expulsion, like all Swedes who sneer at the foreigners from Rosengård. As a footballer, Zlatan was formed by formless games against other kids from the block, and here the NAC defenders became the herd of children trying to take the ball off him for candy. Throughout his career he had been told he needed to pass the ball more often, but Zlatan insisted on following his flashes of inspiration instead. Here he moved with agility and balance no 6' 5" man should be capable of, turning players at will, and in the end scored a goal that was uniquely Zlatan. A player should know better than attempting that run, but Zlatan didn't and he scored. Nothing could more accurately sum up Zlatan the footballer. And having done the brilliantly unexpected, everything turned on its head. Teammates who seconds before had been against him cheered wildly and buried him under a massive pile-on. Fans who had been booing erupted in unhinged jubilation. In Zlatan's own words, "it was like all the hatred against me turned around, into love and triumph."
For an outsider constantly seeking acceptance through his particular way of playing football, the triumph and vindication could hardly have been more comprehensive. Zlatan Ibrahimović will continue to divide opinion but that goal deserves to be remembered. Either as a showcase of skill and lunacy or as a microcosm of a fascinating career.
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