I consider myself an early convert to the religion of Anti-Zlatan, where followers muse on ‘What Would Zlatan Do?’, tut for a minute or two as if they are holier than thou and then invariably plump for the opposite.
‘Whenever life’s at a standstill I need some action,’ begins a story in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, released in 2011. ‘I always drive like a maniac. I’ve done 325 kilometres an hour in my Porsche Turbo and left the cops eating my dust. I’ve done so much mental stuff I don’t even want to think about it.’
Doesn’t want to think about it, but he really does want to tell you about it. The story involves Ibrahimovic driving at 160 miles per hour before the police spotted him and began the chase. Rather than pulling over, Ibrahimovic instead went much faster and lost the tail, hiding in a tunnel to escape detection. The story is repeated in the book, and a quick search indicates it being told in three separate interviews since.
That seems like the behaviour of a moron, or perhaps someone who believes their hype so much that it grants them special dispensation to behave exactly as they please, whatever the consequences. But that’s wrong, of course. Because Zlatan is such a card. And he’s famous, so he gets to break the law and put other people’s lives in danger and brag about it in interviews and in his book because He Is Zlatan. As if you could ever bloody forget.
There’s something accidentally telling about someone who says ‘I’ve done so much mental stuff I don’t even want to think about it’. It’s like the person who tells you the night out you missed was “absolutely mental” or that the person they are dating is unfathomably beautiful but you wouldn’t know them because they live in a different city. It is a quote that succinctly describes Facebook, a platform on which people in more or less the same situation tell you that the life they are leading has been dipped in gold. To some, it matters more what other people think about them than what they experience themselves.
Ibrahimovic’s autobiography became a controversial subject when ghostwriter David Lagercrantz admitted that he had altered quotes to create a “a literary illusion of Zlatan” with the striker’s blessing. Ghostwriting is nothing new or unusual, but there’s something pretty spectacular about an autobiography being sold by its author as a work of fiction.
Spectacular, and yet simultaneously perfect. Because like everything else surrounding Ibrahimovic, the book is a construct. It offers a glimpse of the truth, but a manufactured, manicured projection of the truth and its subject. ‘I Am Zlatan’, the title repeated ad nauseum ever since, is not a friendly introduction; the capital ‘A’ sees to that. It is a corporate slogan.
Ibrahimovic was – and perhaps even still is – a magnificent footballer, arguably the greatest striker of his mini-generation following the retirement of Ronaldo. What’s undoubtedly true is that no other centre forward in the last 20 years has combined athleticism, aerial ability, finishing, speed and physicality quite like him, and only Cristiano Ronaldo matches him for prolonged achievement after passing the age of 30. Ibrahimovic has scored more club goals after turning 30 (229) than Michael Owen scored in his entire career.
That should be Ibrahimovic’s only legacy. The goalscorer extraordinaire. The winner, who collected league titles in nine out of 10 seasons between 2006 and 2016. The giant with the poise of a ballet dancer, whose acrobatic goals were the perfect foil for his immense strength. To some, it still will be.
And yet to many, that legacy has been diluted by the media schmultz that Ibrahimovic has deliberately courted. There’s only so many times you can hear a first name used as a verb before feeling bilious. There’s only so many times you can read the headline ‘Zlatan Ibrahimovic once again compares himself to a lion’ before concluding that the person is living in surreality. As ever, the rule on people referring to themselves in the third person applies.
Ibrahimovic’s latest act of verbal onanism came in a post-match interview following LA Galaxy’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia Union on Sunday, during which the striker scored. “They’re lucky I didn’t come 10 years ago,” Ibrahimovic said. “I would be the president today.”
Arrogance is a crucial trait for certain elite sportspeople, a deliberate parodic persona created to forge a mental barrier against failure. Success becomes not just earned through hard work, but through inevitability. It is as if sport itself has paid homage to individual brilliance. We can roughly refer to this as the Muhammad Ali principle.
But there is a difference between Ali and Ibrahimovic. The greatest boxer to have ever lived did not cash in on his personality, instead using his fame to pursue political and social causes. Ali was the king of self-promotion, but that self-promotion never became plastic. Conversely, Ibrahimovic’s arrogance is used not just to fuel performance, but revenue. That leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many. Worse still, as the powers wane, the soundbites get more frequent, as if one is accounting for the other.
There’s also a relevant question about the impact of such wanton egotism on a team. It might be coincidental that Sweden recorded their best major tournament record for 24 years in the first tournament since Ibrahimovic announced his retirement from the national team, but the togetherness within the squad and on-pitch selflessness were key factors in their success. Ibrahimovic’s pre-tournament prediction that the World Cup would not be worth watching without him proved surprisingly inaccurate. There are other players in the world after all.
Like ‘Paul Gascoigne’ and ‘Gazza’ 25 years before, there is a difference between ‘Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ and ‘Zlatan’. The former is pure, the latter a construct designed for marketing purposes. This is no slight on Ibrahimovic’s personality, more the corporate pool into which he has dived headfirst. The dive will have been choreographed and recorded for social media.
The wonderful memories of Ibrahimovic as footballing great will never evaporate, but they are becoming diluted by the manufactured marketing spiel. He is in danger of becoming a goalscoring hashtag, a SportBible story of ‘Zlatan has said something else about himself and it is EPIC’. The key to successful self-promotion is knowing where the line of ‘too much’ lies. The ‘cult of Zlatan’ is in danger of being altered by a single, crucial letter.