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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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