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

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era