I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic: A modern fairy tale

The boy from the ghetto has not merely become a great footballer - he has become a modern European fairytale.

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I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic
(With David Lagercrantz)
Penguin, 352pp, £8.99
 
“Is there a more debased literary currency than footballers’ autobiographies?” the sociologist of football David Goldblatt once asked. Fans long to know about players’ lives behind the headlines, and yet you close Ashley Cole’s My Defence feeling dirty and stupid for having read it. Wayne Rooney’s attempts so far (for which HarperCollins paid £5m) read as if written by an eight-year-old for nine-year-olds.
 
What’s more, to paraphrase Woody Allen, not only is the food terrible but the portions are so small: few players write autobiographies any longer. Their clubs discourage them from speaking and they no longer need the money from tell-all books.
 
However, the genre may now be entering a golden age. “The Secret Footballer”, writing anonymously in the Guardian, offers lucid sociological accounts of dressing-room life. Arsenal’s former forward Dennis Bergkamp is about to publish a memoir that promises to be intelligent. And I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, perhaps the best recent autobiography by a footballer, has at last appeared in English.
 
Zlatan, as he is usually known, is a giant Swede with a ballet dancer’s feet. He has won the league title in nine of his past ten seasons, with clubs in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. During his present stint at Paris Saint-Germain, the verb zlataner – which more or less means “to crush” – has entered the French language. Last year he scored four goals for Sweden in a game against England. But his book shows that he has an interesting mind, too.
 
Within two months of publication in 2011, Jag är Zlatan Ibrahimovic had sold 500,000 hardback copies in Swedish. By now millions of copies of the book have been sold in over 20 countries. What readers respond to is, first of all, the authentic voice (captured perfectly by the ghostwriter, David Lagercrantz). Like Diego Maradona in his compelling autobiography, Zlatan calls things as he sees them – often to his detriment.
 
To write the book, he reflects: “I had to go back in my memory, and shit, I realised I hadn’t always been a good person.” Yet the onetime bicycle thief and school bully isn’t presented in a vacuum. Zlatan tells an immigrant’s tale that resonates across Europe as he guides us through the milieu of toplevel football.
 
His parents, a violent Croatian charwoman and a drunken Bosnian janitor, separated when he was two. He was raised in Rosengård, a deprived area of Malmö. Almost everyone around him was an immigrant, so he grew up knowing almost nothing about Sweden. He never watched Swedish TV, didn’t visit the city centre until he was nearly 17, and lusted from afar after the blonde Swedish girls who lived in actual houses somewhere far from Rosengård. He imagined their parents saying, “Darling, could you please pass me the milk?”, or “Do you need any help with your Swedish history?”. His own relatives mostly exchanged death threats. In his words, “I felt inferior. I held tight to football.” This early section of the book offers a rare insight into European ghetto life.
 
When he joined Ajax Amsterdam at the age of 19 for a Swedish record transfer fee, his mother was distraught: “God oh God, Zlatan, what happened? Have you been kidnapped? Are you dead?” Seeing his face on TV, but not speaking much Swedish, she had assumed he was in trouble again.
 
He quickly discovered he had been cheated in negotiations – he was Ajax’s worst-paid player. Nor did the club help the teenager adapt to his new country. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a rented home, unable to cook for himself, he lost weight and underperformed. Like many young players, he soon realised that the only person in football who might look after you is your agent. He found a fat little Dutch-Italian ex-waiter named “Mino” Raiola, who became his soulmate. Here’s a specimen of their dialogue:
 
Zlatan: Fuck you.
Raiola: Go and fuck yourself.
Zlatan: I want to get out of here.
Raiola: Go to Turin then.
Zlatan: What you talking about?
Raiola: I might have something with Juventus.
 
Zlatan moved onwards and upwards. At Inter Milan he encountered his favourite manager, José Mourinho, a flirt who seduces his players with smiles, text messages and deep knowledge of their family lives. In 2009
 
Zlatan joined the best club in the world, Barcelona. Barça’s stars – Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta – turned out to be good boys who went around in tracksuits instead of Gucci and obeyed the manager. “It was just like a school,” he recounts with horror. The coach, Pep Guardiola, cold as a Swede, told him that Barça players didn’t drive flash cars. But Rosengård boys, Zlatan argued, absolutely do. Once again, just as in his immigrant childhood, he felt like an outsider.
 
Messi showed himself to be more egotistical than he is usually portrayed: annoyed that Zlatan was playing in his favourite central position, he arranged for the Swede to be moved to a more marginal role. Soon Zlatan clashed with Guardiola. Zlatan threatened violence. Guardiola stopped talking to him. Zlatan called him “an idiot” and, worse, “a philosopher”. After a year he left Barça.
 
The book has a happy end. Zlatan bought the posh pink house in Malmö that he had fantasised about as a teenager. On the wall he has hung a photograph of his dirty feet – the feet that paid for everything. But this is more than simply a financial triumph. The boy from the ghetto has not merely become a great footballer: he has become a Swede, captain of the national team, married to a beautiful posh blonde, accepted by the quiet, polite, blond people. I Am Zlatan is a modern European fairy tale.
 
Simon Kuper’s books include “Ajax, the Dutch, the War” (Avalon, £10.99)
Hold tight on to the ball: sports gave Zlatan a way out of a childhood in the ghetto. Photo: ©Stefano G Pavesi/Contrasto/Eyevine

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.