“Why is he so arrogant?”, “Who does he think he is?”, “He’s nothing but a flat-track bully”, “He flops when it comes to big games”.
Statements and questions like this have been hurled at ‘him’ throughout his career. But ‘he’ never cared. ‘He’ kept living his life on his own terms. To all these questions, all these statements, he has one answer.
‘I am Zlatan’.
‘So what,’ you might ask. So what if he is Zlatan Ibrahimovic? What gives him the right to shoot his mouth off and act like a prima donna?
You know he’s a Sweden international, you know he’s 6 feet 5 inches tall, you know he is a prolific goalscorer who has featured for the likes of Ajax Amsterdam, both Inter and AC Milan, Barcelona and now PSG.
But what do you know of him before he became famous?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had to work twice as hard as anyone else he’s played with to get to where he is today. This, coupled with a broken childhood, has made him the man he is today.
Zlatan’s parents divorced when he was two years old, and he lived at his mother’s house with his sister Sanela and his half-siblings. His mother Jurka worked as a cleaner, sometimes working for as much as fourteen hours a day. A lot of the food he ate was instant macaroni and spaghetti. If he was lucky, he got to eat at a friend’s or a relative’s.
His dad worked the night shift as a watchman. The only thing that was a constant in his fridge was alcohol. There was rarely any food for Zlatan to subsist on, with the exception of the basic bread-butter-milk combo. As he says in his autobiography:
“I would often come home hungry as a wolf and open the fridge thinking: Please, please, let there be something! But no, nothing, just the usual stuff: milk, butter, some bread, and if I was lucky some juice, Multivitamin, the 4 liter pack, bought at the Arabian store because they were the cheapest, and beer of course, Pripps Blå and Carlsberg, six-packs with that plastic wrap around them. Sometimes there was only beer, and my stomach was screaming for food. There was a pain in that which I’ll never forget.”
I could search every drawer, every corner, for one single macaroni or a meatball. I could fill my stomach with toast. I could eat a whole loaf of bread, or I’d run over to mom’s place. I wasn’t always welcomed with open arms. It was more like “F***, is Zlatan coming too? Doesn’t Sefik feed him? And sometimes she’d yell at me: Are we made of money? Are you gonna eat us out on the street?
When he enrolled at a local youth football Club, he was one of the most talented players on the pitch. His generation had been inspired by the Brazilian Samba style of football, exhibited by the likes of Bebeto, Socrates and Co.
Zlatan, as a result, spent a lot his time practising the tricks and flicks that the South American nation was famous for. But this wasn’t appreciated by the parents of his teammates. ‘Who let the immigrant in?’ was the standard question Zlatan’s coaches were asked whenever he featured.
This attitude stayed with him even when he went to Ajax. His logic was, ‘who are they to judge me?’ And to some extent, he was right. Marco van Basten told him not to regard the tactical deployment routines that were regularly taught in the Netherlands. Louis van Gaal was a great proponent of the system.
But Zlatan respected Van Basten because of the laurels he had earned for both club and country. It was the same with Ronald Koeman, who was coach at Ajax. Both Dutch legends were annoyed with Van Gaal’s system, and so Zlatan told him exactly what he thought of it.
This attitude followed him to Juventus, where Fabio Capello saw Zlatan’s behaviour as good for the team. That sort of aggression was what kept the team charged, raring to go. It was the same at Inter Milan, when he jumped ship after Juventus had been relegated.
Zlatan, while at Juve, had a tattoo inscribed on his body, with the words ‘only God can judge me.’ And that was the motto by which he lived life.
The biggest problems he encountered were at Barcelona. Barcelona exuded that feeling of collectivism that Zlatan just couldn’t buy into. When he went to Barcelona’s training ground, Pep Guardiola had a few choice words for him.
‘”Hey you”, Guardiola said. “Here in Barca we keep our feet down on the ground.”
‘”Here we don’t drive any Ferraris or Porsches to training.”
‘I nodded, didn’t go cocky on him, like how the f*** is what car I’m driving your concern? But I thought “What does he want? What message is he giving me? Believe me, I don’t need any fancy cars or parking on the sidewalk to show off anymore. That wasn’t it. I love my cars. They’re a passion of mine, but I sensed something else behind his words. Kind of: don’t think you’re so special.
‘I didn’t fit in, not at all. But I was thinking: Accept the situation. Don’t confirm their thoughts about you. So I started adapting. I became too kind. It was insane.’
Zlatan has never been comfortable with authority, and it was the same even at Barcelona. A war of words ensued between player and manager, and the following season, one of the most expensive strikers in the world was sent on loan to AC Milan, making his deal permanent once the Italian season had ended.
“You have no balls. You sh*t yourself in front of Mourinho. You can go f*** yourself!” said Zlatan to Guardiola.
Once Zlatan had been ousted from Barcelona’s first team, he was never handed another opportunity to prove himself. But he didn’t need to. At AC Milan, he won another Scudetto while still on loan with the Club, providing him with a streak of eight straight league wins in three different nations with six different clubs.
The only trophy that has eluded him is the Champions League. But his goalscoring exploits have left no one unanswered.
And now you know why Zlatan is Zlatan, and will continue to behave the way he does. As he puts it: ‘Those who are seen for the wrong reasons, it’s okay to be different. Continue being yourself. It worked out for me.’