The Enigmatic Puzzle that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Few players carry themselves like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He’s all things. A once-in-a-generation athlete, a supernova ego, and a seemingly immortal player. But, he’s also the game’s pre-eminent hero character. He’s brash, clever, brilliant, playful, dark, and sincere. And he is almost certainly the last of his kind.
Zlatan inhabits a territory all of his own. But how?
An interesting piece of trivia is that Ibrahimovic has never actually finished in the top-three of the Ballon d’Or voting.
Long before the Messi and Ronaldo duopoly, there was always Kaka, Ronaldo de Lima, or Andriy Shevchenko ahead of him. While he may have won league titles in Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands, he has never won the UEFA Champions League. Neither did he and the Swedish national team ever leave much of a mark in international football.
Somehow, that seems beside the point.
When he arrived at the LA Galaxy in the spring of 2018, a full-page advert ran in the LA Times to announce his signing.
“Dear Los Angeles,” it read, “you’re welcome.”
Later in the year, the credit card company, Visa ran an advertising campaign targeted around the World Cup. In it, Ibrahimovic – who had retired from international football and was no longer part of the Swedish squad – mockingly promised to enter the tournament by himself, in an attempt to save the fans from a World Cup without him. Both incidents were typical of Zlatan.
At around the same period, his image became entwined with the lion iconography, which was becoming his trademark, and – again – it’s the kind of behavior that almost any other athlete would be ridiculed for.
Ibrahiomvic the success-magnet
“Zlatan” is a role Ibrahimovic plays with a wink and a smile, but modern footballers are generally taught to treat ego as kryptonite. It doesn’t make their public attempts at humility any less hilarious, but that is still the rule. He, though, wears his self-regard like a crown – and the public love him for it. And it’s interesting to consider why – or how it is that he’s able to court that affection.
Having emerged at Malmo and cost Ajax a then-record fee of €8.7m, Ibrahimovic’s ascent into the game’s stratosphere began to accelerate. For eight straight seasons, beginning in 2003 and ending in 2011, a team with Ibrahimovic won a domestic league title. In chronological order: one with Ajax, two at Juventus, three at Inter Milan, one at Barcelona, and then, finally, one while on-loan at AC Milan.
The impression created – and which grew over time – was two-fold. First, Ibrahimovic is a deliverer of guaranteed success. Secondly, of a transient player, who was nobody’s possession.
The Zlatan Style
At the time, mobility between top, sometimes rival clubs wasn’t common – particularly in Italy. Ibrahimovic, however, was not only one of the last players to tread that path, but he was also unusually consistent – everywhere he went. Whichever color he wore, he would score the same goals, endow the same success, and garnish his teams with the same blend of force and technical flair.
That style is important too. Culturally, Zlatan is a player without lineage. Leo Messi’s profile is obviously of a South American raised in Spain. Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Iberian trickery is enabled by the physicality common in English football.
Ibra’s range of abilities isn’t typical of any particular region or area, nor of any philosophy.
He grew up playing street and neighborhood football, where the premiums were expression versus strength and imagination, and that never changed. He never acquired any of the identifying big club gloss, and that makes him more of a global commodity. It allows him to belong to football as a whole.
And his off-the-pitch personality, however much of an embellishment it may or may not reflects that. His range is extraordinary. Not just the number of products he endorses, but the different personalities he employs to be engaging and which are accepted as authentic.
Ibrahimovic as an advertiser’s wet dream
For Volvo, he hunted in the wilderness. As epithets played over a moody soundtrack, he stalked his prey with a cocked rifle. He dove into icy lakes, held his children in his mighty arms, and, of course, drove fearlessly through the rocky terrain in impenetrable fog.
For Xbox, he sat on a white throne in a cavernous mansion, challenging opponents to a game of FIFA which he would play with one hand on the controller. It was self-deprecating and fun.
For Nike, he was deadly serious as the star of their Dare to Zlatan series. He juggled footballs in a fiery hell. He defeated a blue-eyed tiger in the Arctic and dribbled a cannonball between lightning strikes in the desert band many, many others.
His autobiography is much-maligned – it’s often depicted as a work of fiction. In reality, it’s a subtle portrait that describes the difficulties of life as a second-generation immigrant, the gift of unbelievable talent, and also the realities of unimaginable fame.
Like much of his career, it shows Ibrahimovic as a fascinating contradiction. He is both a fantasy character from a bedroom wall and also the child of refugees forced to flee the war in the former Yugoslavia. And perhaps that great distance explains why he was able to be all things to the game, all at the same time.
Ibrahimovic is a generational talent. An icon. An unstable element. A provocateur. An egomaniac possessing a fiery enigma. Not only has he grown into a self-contained man, he constantly reminds the world that despite being a man of and from football, he lives way above the sport.