Blog by: Karthikeya
Few footballers write nowadays, and still fewer write in depth. In the Twitter age, footballers prefer to post their opinions in two-line bulletins rather than making the effort of articulating in print (an exception to the rule is Jamie Carragher’s Carra, far and away the best Premier League autobiography out there).
In that context, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography is a welcome shower of manna in the wilderness: he avoids diplomacy and critiques everyone, not least himself.
Uptil now, far too little has been known of the man himself, barring the occasional, stereotypical sound-bytes that are routinely quoted in the media. Filling in the vacuum, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic provides a fascinating window into the mental makeup of a mercurial footballer, who is privately respected but fashionably vilified as disloyal.
To be fair to Ibrahimovic, he isn’t a hypocrite; his ghost-written autobiography is forthright and blunt. At the outset he postulates, “You can take the kid away from the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto away from the kid.”
That street fighter mentality is evident throughout the book, starting with his childhood in a tough immigrant neighbourhood. They never learnt Swedish or watched Swedish television.
When his mother saw his face on TV after his first record transfer, she was worried, “Zlatan, have you done something? Have you been kidnapped? She didn’t know Swedish. Those were the only reasons anyone around there made the news.”
The young bicycle thief saw the parents of his young teammates cheering their kids on, and imagined households where people said, “Please pass the milk,” rather than “Give me that, you idiot,” at breakfast. An egotist even then, he once felt insulted and left when his date was late – for no fault of hers – by twenty minutes.
When he signed for Ajax, he was the most expensive Scandinavian player in history (8.5 million Euros). Unbeknown to him, Ajax balanced the books by making the teenager the worst-paid player at the club. When young Zlatan discovered this, he was shocked. He experienced a sense of betrayal and the lowering of his self-esteem. The psychological roots for his remorseless treatment of future paymasters were planted at Ajax.
And while he continually dismisses the money as insignificant, it’s always there in the background; a factor that has come to define the man and his ilk in modern football. “Quality is not for free,” he riposted in an interview recently.
His salary at AC Milan, a cool quarter of a million pounds per week, was higher than the revenue of several Serie A clubs.
Ibra savages Pep Guardiola, his former manager at Barcelona, for being unable to deal with different personalities. “He wanted obedient schoolboys, not strong personalities,” claims Ibra. At 69 million Euros, Ibrahimovic was Barca’s record signing and expected to be deployed in his favoured centre-forward position.
But after half a season, right-winger Lionel Messi – who is otherwise lauded by Ibra – went to Guardiola and asked to be played at the centre instead. Guardiola promptly agreed. The result – Ibrahimovic and Messi got in each other’s way, so Guardiola benched the record signing.
“No one pays that kind of money just to strangle me as a player,” argues the Swede. After a massive dressing-room bust-up where he called Guardiola an ‘idiot’, Ibrahimovic left Barcelona. AC Milan could not afford his massive price, so Barcelona sold him for a huge loss.
“I had scored 22 goals and 15 assists, and yet my value had dropped by 70 percent in one year. It was crazy! I said to [Barcelona president Sandro] Rosell, ‘All this is because of one man.’ He didn’t say anything. He knew,” he wrote in his book.
Fabio Capello, the disciplinarian who ran Juventus from 2004-06, holds Ibra’s awe. “In an interview he was asked, how do you get this respect? He replied, ‘You don’t get respect. You have to take it.’ That has stayed with me.”
And of course, Jose Mourinho, who in a single year together at Inter became “someone I was basically willing to die for”.
“He is the leader of his army,” opines Ibra. The contrast between Guardiola and Mourinho comes out all too painful here. During the dressing-room bust-up with Guardiola, Ibra yelled, “You are shitting yourself because of Mourinho. I thought he would say something back, get angry. But he quietly picked up the box, like a small trainer, and left. What a coward.”
Although he has major ambitions (not least winning the Champions League, the one trophy that has eluded him thus far), he revels in being the big fish in a small pond. His obsessive need to stand out, to be the main driving force is part of the reason he spent his best years playing in Inter Milan. This coincided with Serie A’s all-time low, and few other foreign stars went to play in Italy at the time – but Inter Milan possessed Europe’s highest-paid player. Not that he didn’t deserve it: Ibrahimovic carried his team through three Scudetti-winning seasons as their principal attacker.
At Ajax, after a unfruitful and frustrating first season, he decided on a new approach: “I wouldn’t care about what others said and only do my thing.” That has been the guide rail of Ibrahimovic’s career, and no one can deny that the self-starter mode works for him. To sum up a brutally honest and highly readable book, perhaps it is really for the best that the ghetto never left the kid.