March 7, 2017

We Have To Talk About Zlatan

I have written a couple of dozen blog posts about Zlatan Ibrahimovic in my mind, but nothing on paper or on this blog. So I have decided to just start somewhere, and rather get back to him again now that I'm coming out of the closet. It used to be that my friends teased me for having a soft spot for Ricky Martin and his type of music. Now they tease me because of Zlatan. I just reply, fine, tease away, I don't care.

No, it is not a crush. He is my spirit animal, my totem. And I feel sorry for you who don't have one as magnificent as mine.

You talkin' bout me?

The irony, of course, is that I have found a gladiator as my spirit animal, and not a philosopher. Some of you may quickly point out, as admitted in my most popular blog post, The Philosopher and the Gladiator of football - Messi and Ronaldo, that I have previously confessed my love for the philosopher over the gladiator. That is, I prefer Messi over Ronaldo, even if Messi's underwear ads are rather awkward (as can be seen in said post).

The young Zlatan could hardly be called anything but a gladiator.

If you touch me like that again, I will flatten your bald head.

But his gladiator-ness is of a different hue than Ronaldo's. It is less contrived. All gladiators are born from carrying chips on their shoulders. I don't know enough about Ronaldo's chips, but I learned plenty about Zlatan's when I read his most excellent biography I Am Zlatan (which I read in Swedish, just because I can, can, can). I think there is some truth to this line I picked up from a movie. A husband was listening to his wife's insecurities well up, where she traced a specific feeling back to high school. He said: "Honey, high school is over." She looked at him, incredulously and yelled: "High school is never over!" Ain't that the truth. Zlatan's childhood was never over. And isn't that the truth for us all?

Zlatan had a rather rough childhood and youth. His Croatian mother and Bosnian father met in Sweden, both war refugees. They divorced when Zlatan was an infant and each of them presented challenges in their own way. Although he makes it clear in his book that he loves his parents, he also writes that his father was more into drinking and listening to nostalgic Bosnian music than providing food for a growing boy; his mom had a habit of beating Zlatan and his sister with wooden spoons.

However, the greatest challenge was presented by the Swedish society itself. He felt comfortable in Rosengård, the ghetto area of Malmø where he lived, but never quite in the larger society. He was on a path to nowhere; stealing bikes, dropping out of school and causing trouble with his temper tantrums. The high school headmistress said Zlatan was easily one one of the most disruptive kids who had ever attended the school - "a prototype of the kind of child that ends up in serious trouble." Zlatan agrees. In a BBC interview, he admits: "I was rowdy, I was wild. But I had character as well."

Zlatan as a youth player

Luckily, he could put his character into football. In the same BBC interview, Zlatan talks about how his hot temper almost stopped that path, as well:
For me to succeed as a footballer was difficult because of my background," he explains. "But I was difficult too. At one training session I head-butted my team-mate. If I could put myself in that moment today I would say to myself 'don't ever do that', but I was an angry young man.
"The player got a letter from his parents and asked people to sign it to kick me out of the club. I did many stupid things, I made many mistakes, but I learnt from everything. I still make mistakes, I still learn from them. Nobody is perfect. I had a lot of walls to break through to get here.
Zlatan turned 35 a few months back, and his philosopher shades are shining ever brighter. Although recently given a three-match ban for an elbow in the last match against Bournemouth (where he claimed the defender "jumped into his elbow"; I must admit I think it was a revenge for said defender just a minute before stamping on Zlatan's head as Z was on the ground - and well deserved reply, I felt), Zlatan is definitely mellowing. It is not usual to see him flare up as he did in younger days. He is a calmer man. His rock solid family life seems to be a big reason for this. His partner Helena, 11 years his senior, seems to be the person who knows how to calm him as well as keep his arrogance in check.
She wasn't at all like the younger girls I'd met. There was none of the hysteria, not at all - she was cool. She liked cars. She'd left home when she was seventeen and worked her way up, and I wasn't exactly a superstar to her. Or as she put it, "Come on, Zlatan, you weren't exactly Elvis who'd beamed in." I was just a crazy guy to her who wore hideous clothes and was totally immature (...) the whole thing between us was so wrong it somehow felt right, and we had a good time together. "Zlatan, you're an absolute idiot. You're so much fun," she'd say. And I really hoped she meant it. I enjoyed being with her.
 When Kevin Boateng was interviewed about his football career and the players he had met, he said:

Zlatan was the most imposing. "You think he's this arrogant, big fucker and competely not a nice guy but he's quite the opposite: laughing all the time, cracking jokes. On the pitch, he's very serious, very professional. But off it, the funniest guy ever." So his persona is a facade? "Yeah of course because he doesn't want to talk to you," Boateng laughs. "So he puts that face on so you don't even ask him a question."

 When Zlatan played for PSG (2012-2016), Volvo cars enlisted him as their commercial face. The commercial became a huge hit as it also featured Zlatan's version of Sweden's national anthem (Du gamla du fria). As the captain for Sweden's football team, he never sung the national anthem prior to kick-off. Swedes, especially of the older generation, questioned his Swedishness. The Volvo commercial put those questions of nationalistic sentiments to rest - with Zlatan not only making his own, spoken version of the song, but in addition changing the lyrics from "I want to live, I want to die in the North" to "I want to live, I want to die in Sweden".

Is Zlatan a picture of hypermasculinity? If he were, he would never be my spirit animal. In fact, there are few hyper-masculine men who choose to sport long hair (Zlatan claims it is his secret weapon - like Samson's; it is where his power resides), and even fewer whose favorite type of music is raggae and favorite song Bob Marley's One Love. And my guess is that none of the hypermasculines would change their children's diapers:
"I changed diapers when they were babies," he said, adding, "I know other footballers may not, but I do." Then he shrugged, as if slipping back into character. "Of course, I am very good at it," he said with a grin.

Like Samson, Zlatan's power resides in his hair - or so he thinks.

I also applaud his wisdom in not becoming an underwear model (Messi clearly should have thought twice about it!). Although he has appeared in his underwear, plenty of times - but mostly for the amusement of spectators:

Why be an underwear model, when you can wear your underwear in public?

Zlatan is a complex person. People seem to disagree whether he is an introvert or an extrovert; a bully or an angel. But there is no doubt that it is impossible to be indefferent about Zlatan. In Sweden he has gotten his own stamp (or "Zlamp") and a verb "zlatanera", meaning "to dominate" has been an official Swedish word since 2012.

I could spend another ten paragraphs writing about Zlatan's football statistics. The number of teams, cup and league trophies, player of the year awards, or magnificent moments like this Puskas award winning goal in 2013:

But, you can find all the numbers yourself. To me, what cemented his status as my spirit animal was his choice to move to Premier League and Manchester United at age 35. He could have retired to an easy life in the Chinese or American football leagues and with much higher salaries, but he chose the challenge. His self-confidence is almost tactile.

The Red Devil Supreme

Yet, I also enjoy the fact that Zlatan still takes a deep breath in the middle of interviews, like a nervous boy, still insecure about his place in the world. There is a crack in his beautiful, hard shell.

Foreigners ask Norwegians, and we also ask ourselves: What will Norway do after the oil? Well, I am more concerned about this: What will Sweden/football/I do after Zlatan? I dare not think about it. Although there are people suggesting he may become a manager. Somebody even imagined him in the role, pictorially:

Manager Ibrahimovic - 2035?

I hope there is still years left in him - on the field. I am not ready for him to leave the stage.

My spirit animal with his spirit animals