The Power of Zlatan: How Ibrahimovic Became the Real King of Sweden

Lars Sivertsen@@larssivertsenSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 12, 2015


Downtown Malmo is dotted with little hints that this has been a thriving city for several centuries now. There's a hotel with an arched cellar dating back to 1307 and a church on which construction began in 1319. City Hall dates back to the mid-1500s, but it was updated in the 19th century, and there are buildings all around the city centre representing a range of architectural schools between now and then.

But if you take a stroll up Amiralsgatan, you will gradually see the urban landscape shift. The architectural nods to grandeurs past give way to increasingly drab blocks of flats, interspersed with courtyards and shawarma joints—traditional Arabic eateries where meats are roasted on a revolving spit. After walking roughly 45 minutes, you will find yourself in the most notorious suburb in Scandinavia.

The Swedish press has at times painted an image of Rosengard as a Scandinavian ghetto. Dangerous, full of foreigners, unemployment and crime. Yet walking through the area on a balmy weeknight in April, there is no sense of impending danger. There are no gangs of malignant hoodlums roaming the streets. There are no sirens. There's just a collection of particularly charmless apartment buildings.

By the entrance to one underpass, a quote has been engraved into the cement: "You can take a guy out of Rosengard, but you can never take Rosengard out of the guy." It's attributed to Rosengard's most famous and favourite son—a man who in Sweden at this point not only transcends sport, he transcends popular culture. He is Zlatan.

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It's hard to think of an athlete in any sport in the world who divides opinion as sharply as Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill once called him the most overrated football player in the world, while Jose Mourinho, in 2014, described him as one of the world's top three. Laurent Blanc, his current coach at Paris Saint-Germain, has hailed him as one of the team's leaders, yet his career has been littered with spats and fights with team-mates and managers.

Zlatan has won 12 league titles with six different clubs, yet some maintain he merely dominates weaker opponents and falls short at the very highest level. He is Sweden's captain and one of his nation's instantly recognisable national icons, yet there are still people in Sweden who would argue he isn't really Swedish.

It seems that even after 15 years in the spotlight, the world still doesn't quite know what to make of Zlatan. To understand this most complex and contradictory of characters, you have to start at the beginning.

Blanc (left) with Zlatan
Blanc (left) with ZlatanKin Cheung/Associated Press

Rune Smith cuts a dapper figure in the lobby of a hotel in central Malmo. Now retired, Smith was the first journalist who saw Ibrahimovic causing havoc on the training ground of Malmo FF, the city's hugely popular local team.

"Hasse Borg called me and said I had to come down to training because he had never seen anything like it. It was magical," he told Bleacher Report.

Borg was the club's sporting director at the time, and he was dumbstruck by what the lanky teenager was doing against seasoned professionals in training. For Smith, it was a special moment. Most local journalists will cover their patch for a lifetime without ever seeing the kind of raw talent that the teenaged Ibrahimovic was displaying.

"He was fantastic," Smith remembers. "He dominated training sessions. All the older players were furious because they couldn't get the ball off him. I used to call him The Hulk. But even though he was 1.92 (metres tall, being 6'3"), he also had technique. Such quick feet and such technique, and with that size...It shouldn't be possible."

Smith arranged an interview with the hulking teenager. The interview, published in Kvallsposten on February 28, 2000, would prove oddly prophetic. The previous season, Malmo FF had been relegated from the top tier of Swedish football for the first time in 64 years. It was a traumatic turn of events. Someone needed to galvanise the team. The city needed a hero. It was perfect timing for Ibrahimovic, who at the age of 19 was ready for first-team football. The demotion also gave him a year of playing against lesser opposition—a year to settle in.

That February, before the season started, young Ibrahimovic told Smith in his first-ever interview that Malmo were going to win the division and he was going to play for Inter Milan in Italy within three years. He was only a little off the mark: Malmo did get promoted, though only after finishing second in the league. And it took him four years to earn a move to Italy, then two more before he ended up at Inter.

When the season started, it didn't take long for Zlatan-mania to take hold in Malmo. He didn't score goals at a prolific rate, but he would do incredible things with the ball. The word spread quickly to other parts of the country, but the talk of this tall, skillful wonderkid was met with a degree of skepticism.

Daniel Kristoffersson is a journalist and columnist with Expressen, one of Sweden's leading national newspapers. He remembers hearing about Ibrahimovic for the first time.

"It was when he was coming through at Malmo," Kristoffersson says. "And you heard about this Zlatan, who was said to be a technical player, a player it was worth keeping an eye on—and that he was cocky and a bit arrogant."

Zlatan's popularity in Malmo continued to grow as the season went on, but for the rest of Sweden, it was a different story. Because in the often-told story of Ibrahimovic's rise from Rosengard to riches, there is a part that is usually skipped: The part where an awful lot of his countrymen thought he was a bit of a knob.

"In Malmo and the surrounding areas, he was super popular. People loved him and said he was the next big thing. But in the rest of Sweden, a lot of people really, really hated him," Kristoffersson remembers. "He was routinely booed by opposition fans. They didn't believe he would ever amount to anything. They loved him in Malmo, but in Gothenburg and Stockholm, people were saying that Zlatan was just this cocky young kid who would never actually amount to anything."

This is not an unusual reaction in football to a young, unusually confident player who is vocal about his ambitions. But in Scandinavia, the reaction is inevitably that much stronger and that much more vitriolic because of a sociological phenomenon known as the Law of Jante.

The Law of Jante is a set of behavioural rules defined by Dano-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. There are 10 rules, the first of which reads, "You're not to think you are anything special," the second, "You're not to think you are as good as we are," the third, "You're not to think you are smarter than we are," and they continue on in that vein.


Sandemose felt his novel gave a good image of "human beings' inherent evil and ability to push each other down." That may be so, but over time, the Law of Jante became a general term for Scandinavian society's obsession with humility—its suspicion of individuality and instinctive resentment of success. As the sixth Law of Jante says, "You're not to think you are good at anything."

It's fair to say that the young Ibrahimovic did not adhere to these laws.

"People felt that he shouldn't come here and say that he was any good," Kristoffersson says. "That he was just a young talent who would look promising for a few years and then never amount to anything."

Ibrahimovic was contacted for this piece, via his agent, but we have received no response.

Not only did Ibrahimovic fail to adhere to the Law of Jante, he appears to have made a conscious decision to go against it. In his endlessly enjoyable autobiography, I Am Zlatan, he outlined an alternative vision, the Law of Zlatan, if you will. He writes, "My thing was I would both talk and perform. So, not just talking: I'm the best, who the f--k are you? Of course not, there is nothing more childish, but neither would I perform and say chicken s--t, like Swedish stars. I wanted to be the best while being cocky. Not that I thought I'd become a superstar or anything like that. Jesus, I came from Rosengard."

During this early stage of Zlatan’s career, the Swedish national press slapped the Rosengard label on him at every opportunity. Academics later found that between 2001 and 2003, the national newspapers referenced Rosengard in 17 per cent of all the articles they published about Ibrahimovic.


Former Lyon midfielder Kim Kallstrom made his breakthrough during the same period, but he grew up in Partille, an unremarkable town outside of Gothenburg. His hometown was only referenced in 8 per cent of articles, according to that study. And it might be difficult for someone from outside of Scandinavia to fully appreciate the stigma that comes with having "Rosengard" stamped on your forehead.

Built between 1967 and 1972, the big drab apartment blocks that make up today's Rosengard were part of the so-called "Million Programme"—a public housing programme that aimed to provide the nation with a million new homes over a 10-year period. Given that Sweden's population at the time was around eight million, the relative scale of the program was extraordinary.

The city of Malmo had traditionally been built on heavy industry and shipyards, but during the 1970s, Sweden hit a recession, which was particularly hard on the industrial sector. There was a dip in Malmo's population. The apartment blocks of Rosengard were intended for working class Swedes, but as they moved away, immigrants and asylum seekers gradually moved in.

When Ibrahimovic was growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, Rosengard was, as he put it in his autobiography, "full of Somalis, Turks, Yugoslavs, Poles, all kinds of immigrants." By 2007, a full 86 per cent of people living in Rosengard were either born abroad or had two parents who were both born abroad. 

Zlatan himself was the son of a Croatian mother and Bosnian father. Beyond immigration, Rosengard was—and still is—known for being plagued by crime and unemployment. In Rosengard, many Scandinavians see a horror story, a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of Sweden's liberal attitude toward immigration. Whenever immigration comes up in the public debate in Sweden, or even in Norway and Denmark, Rosengard is consistently pointed to as an example of what must be avoided at all costs.

Torbjorn Andersson is a senior lecturer at Malmo University and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the cultural history of Swedish football. He has lived in the Malmo area since 1989.

"There's always been stuff going on in Malmo, shootings and stuff like that, but people who live here really like the city," Andersson explains. "Maybe people here are used to the fact that a lot of stuff happens. People from outside the city, however, they're very scared of Malmo. The image outwards is that Malmo is a bit of a wild west."

If Malmo is perceived as a bit of a "wild west," then Rosengard is somewhere between a ghetto and a war zone. Famously, there have been periods when the emergency services have refused to respond to calls in Rosengard without a police escort.

So when the media slap the Rosengard tag on Zlatan's considerable forehead, that tag comes with an extraordinary amount of baggage. He wasn't just a cocky kid from a bad neighborhood, he was a cocky kid with a foreign background and a foreign-sounding name, and he came from a place that to many Swedes exemplified everything wrong with letting too many foreigners in.

"A lot of people with an immigrant background loved him. A lot of young Swedes loved him. But the older generation of Swedes struggled to warm to him," Andersson remembers. "They felt he didn't reflect the traditional Swedish sporting ideals, which you have in the rest of Scandinavia as well, that you're meant to be humble, The Law of Jante, all of that stuff."

Some went even further and argued that Zlatan wasn't really Swedish at all. The Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration, right-wing populist political party, have a long history of casting aspersions on Zlatan's "Swedishness." In 2007, one of their leaders, Mattias Karlsson, told Sveriges Radio that "he has an attitude that in many ways does not feel Swedish. He has a body language and a language in general that I don't immediately perceive as Swedish.''

TURIN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 23:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Juventus in action during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Juventus and Ajax at the Stadio Delle Alpi on November 23, 2004 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Andersson argues that Karlsson and others are missing the point when it comes to Zlatan's behavior.

"At first, he was heavily criticised for being un-Swedish," he explains. "But I think a lot of people misunderstand him, because he is very clearly a Malmo-ite. Many people just see ethnicity, but he clearly has the Malmo traits of never being impressed, and of being a bit standoffish.

"People from Gothenburg are known for being sociable and nice. People from Stockholm are known for being a bit arrogant. People from Malmo are perhaps a bit more harsh, more working class, more tough—and Zlatan definitely fits into this. Not without charm, but it's perhaps a more harsh form of charm, more direct, tougher. And he's a fierce Malmo patriot. He's always spoken well of Malmo."

Andersson points out there are links between Zlatan and Swedish sporting traditions that people simply don't notice.

"Paradoxically, he has, for instance, never been a drinker. In that way, he was much more conscientious than the rest of the Swedish national team, who were party boys. He is clearly the one who takes his football most seriously. So in that way, you can connect him to the old Swedish skiing heroes, who were very serious men. But many people are just unable to see that side of him. They only see him as an immigrant, as a potential car thief."

Either way, both as a footballer and as a public figure, Zlatan has been a source of endless debate and discussion ever since he made his breakthrough with Malmo FF. Niclas Kindvall, who played up front with him during that first season in the Swedish second division, remembers clearly the intense media scrutiny Zlatan had to endure.

"Even then, the papers were writing a lot about him," Kindvall says. "Everyone knew who he was, that he was this big talent, and opponents would go in harder on him. It wasn't such an easy situation for him, that he was described as being the biggest talent we'd seen in Sweden in a long time before he'd really done anything to prove it.

PALO ALTO, CA - JULY 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic #10 of Inter Milan looks on against Club America during the World Football Challenge at Stanford Stadium on July 19, 2009 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

"That brings the pressure of having to live up to the reputation the media has created. And I think that's a great example of how strong he was mentally. I don't think everyone would have been able to cope with that pressure when they're far from the finished article as a player."

And while Zlatan dazzled a lot of observers, Kindvall is keen to point out that at 19 years of age, Zlatan was still very much an uncut diamond.

"I remember him doing things now and again that made me pause and think, 'Jesus, that could really be quite special,'" Kindvall says. "But I was 32 or something at the time, and I'd been playing professional football for a long time, and so I knew that talent doesn't necessarily mean that much.

"A lot of young players have talent—but that's when the real work starts. And he's one of a very few players who have really managed to progress and go all the way. And I think that's all to his credit, because he's always believed in himself and never stopped trying to get better. What is perceived now and what was perceived then as a slightly arrogant attitude is also the reason why he has become one of the best in the world. He wants to be the best all the time, and he has the confidence to believe that he can become the best."

The words Kindvall uses when asked to describe how he remembers the young Zlatan are, perhaps surprisingly, kind: "I had no problem with him whatsoever. I thought he fit nicely into our team. His style was slightly different, and perhaps sometimes he was a bit difficult to relate to on the pitch. But I never felt we had any kind of a problem with him. He was a nice guy."

The challenge on the pitch was that Zlatan's flair and tendency to do the unexpected would bamboozle his team-mates almost as often as it would his opponents.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 24:  Lionel Messi (L), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (C) and Thierry Henry of Barcelona celebrate after Ibrahimovic scored his team's third goal during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Xerez CD at Camp Nou stadium on April 24, 2010 in
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

"It was difficult, because you never really knew when he was going to pass the ball and when he was going to dribble," Kindvall said.

"The biggest criticism of him really was that we struggled to make him understand that if he passed the ball, then he would at some point get it back. It was almost as if he was afraid to pass the ball because he didn't really believe anyone would pass it back to him."

Zlatan developed his talent playing with other kids in the courtyards between the apartment blocks of Rosengard. When he was very young, he would try to do spectacular tricks to win acceptance and respect from the older kids. As he grew older, he would challenge packs of younger boys to play games of "Everyone versus Zlatan," where he would buy candy for the first kid who could get the ball off him.

Even to this day, you can still spot the legacy of these casual games in the way Zlatan plays: his talent for maintaining control of the ball under pressure in tight spaces, his intuitive ability to use his massive frame to protect the ball and his consistent tendency to try the outrageous.

But his individualism was not a big advantage at his first club abroad. It seems like one of fate's little practical jokes that Zlatan, the supreme individualist who was so unpredictable he confused his own team-mates, ended up going to Ajax—one of the world's most collective-minded clubs.

Norwegian defender Andre Bergdolmo, who played for Rosenborg, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund, spent two seasons in Holland playing with Zlatan.

"He was kind," Bergdolmo now recalls. "One on one, he was always a good guy. He was thoughtful. He'd listen to you."

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 02:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Atalanta BC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 2, 2012 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

When other players joined in, however, such as Mido or Rafael van der Vaart, Zlatan's demeanour would change. He'd become louder and more demonstrative.

"It was almost as if he felt he needed to reassert himself," says Bergdolmo.

According to Bergdolmo, Zlatan struggled to break into the team at Ajax initially because he was too much of an individualist.

"At first, it was all about him," the Norwegian says. "He wanted to do this and he wanted to do that so that he'd succeed. It was me, me, me all the time. As a result of that, he didn't play. I think it helped a lot that he spoke with [Jong Ajax manager Marco] van Basten. He was a down-to-earth kind of guy who Zlatan had a lot of respect for, and he managed to explain some things to him—in terms of what he had to do to get even better.

"As time went by, he became more appreciative of the fact that football is a team sport, and if the team doesn't succeed, then he wouldn't succeed either. If you look at his career after Ajax as well, you can see that he did in a way turn into a fantastic team player—in the sense that he demands a lot both from his team-mates and from himself."

While the initial philosophical differences kept Zlatan out of the Ajax team, Bergdolmo remembers him being "extraordinary" in training. He recalls one time when Ajax were playing 11 versus 11, two-touch football. Ibrahimovic would go all the way back into defense to get the ball. He'd step on the ball and take a touch, and his team-mates would yell, "you f-----g idiot, you've had two touches, now you have to score!"

Zlatan would then proceed to dribble through the entire team, before stepping on the ball on the goal line and turning to his team and asking, "Is that good enough for you?"

HONG KONG - JULY 29:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Paris Saint-Germain looks on during the friendly match between Kitchee and Paris Saint-Germain at Hong Kong Stadium on July 29, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.  (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)
Victor Fraile/Getty Images

"He would do some sick things in training," Bergdolmo says. "The challenge was doing the same things during games."

Bergdolmo racked up 63 games for the Norwegian national team during his career, and thus he came up against all manner of superstar forwards. Few gave him more headaches than Zlatan did in training.

"As a training partner and a defender, there isn't really much you can do," he recalls. "To stop him, you really have to go in and be a bit nasty with him, which opposition players would do during games but which we couldn't really do in training. Which is part of the reason why he was more successful in training than he was in games.

"I remember we played four versus four, and the attacking team was Zlatan, Jari Litmanen, Van der Vaart and one other guy. And then, of course, I had to defend against Zlatan. I had no chance. Afterwards, Ronald Koeman, who was manager at the time, came over to me, shaking his head, asking, 'Andre, what's going on?'—and I'd say, 'I'm trying the best I can, but I can't really give him a kicking either, can I?'

"He was so good you really had to start breaking the rules if you wanted to stop him. He's so flexible, he can bring down the ball from almost any angle. And he's big and tough and strong, and instinctively you pull away slightly because he always comes flying in with high boots and high elbows."

When he eventually did break into the first team, Zlatan's performances at Ajax were a mixed bag. There were flashes of true genius, like the famous goal against NAC Breda when he dribbled through pretty much an entire team single-handedly, but in other games, he'd go missing entirely. His efforts were enough to earn him a big transfer to Juventus, where he would continue in a similar vein: He showed himself capable of doing the amazing but was frustratingly inconsistent.

It wasn't really until he moved to Inter that he became the rampaging one-man footballing army the world would later become familiar with. Inter was also the first team truly built around Zlatan.

"I have an Ibra theory, which is that any team with Ibra in it plays badly. No team has been able to play well with Ibra in it," Italian journalist Gabriele Marcotti told Bleacher Report. He has kept a close eye on Zlatan throughout his career. "The thing with Ibra is that when you have him in the team, it always makes sense to just hit a long ball to him. It would be stupid not to. Because even if Ibra is bad, it only takes a second for him to do something good and score. And football is a low-scoring game.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 21:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of PSG looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final second leg match between FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain at Camp Nou on April 21, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/G
David Ramos/Getty Images

"He's always showing for the ball, he always wants to get the ball, so people just go 'OK' and give it to him and see what happens. His skill set is so unique that it's difficult for a manager to work out how to use him while playing well in a rational way."

Could this be part of the reason why all of Zlatan's teams have so far failed to replicate their domestic success in the Champions League? Incredibly, over the last 14 seasons, Zlatan has won 12 national league titles with six different clubs in four different countries—yet he has never appeared in a Champions League final. He has scored a very respectable 44 goals in 113 games in the competition, but his teams have never gone all the way.

Could it be that in an era when teams are better organised and more tactically sophisticated than ever before, teams relying entirely on one player become vulnerable at the very highest level? Is it plausible to suggest that Plan Z is enough to dispatch enough foes domestically to win the league, but in the sharp end of the Champions League, a Zlatan team will inevitably be bested by a more balanced side from the European elite?

Circumstantial evidence would suggest so, though we may never have a final verdict. One thing is certain: At 33 years of age, Zlatan is rapidly running out of time if he wants to get the Champions League monkey off his back.

Lars Sivertsen is based in London and writes on football for the Guardian, the Blizzard and others. All quotes for this piece were gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated. 


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