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“I went left, he went left. I went right, he went right. I went left again, he went to buy a hotdog.” When the footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic describes his moves in American street-English, he sounds just like the basketball players on American inner-city playgrounds who are his soulmates. But whereas they usually remain mere neighbourhood legends, the Swedish giant has become arguably the “winningest” footballer on earth.
Ibrahimovic, 25, leads the playground legends who have conquered soccer as they once did basketball. His club, Inter Milan, are unbeaten this league season. Next Wednesday, against Roma, they can seal the Italian championship. It would be Ibrahimovic’s fourth league title in four years with three clubs – Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus and Inter – if you overlook the irksome fact that Juventus were stripped of their prizes for having fixed matches.
Ibrahimovic grew up in the Swedish harbour town of Malmö, among the ghetto flats of Rosengård, a neighbourhood of immigrants. Son of a Croat mother and Bosnian father, he speaks Swedish and what he thinks he should call “Yugoslavian”, though he is not sure. School was not his thing. “I’ve been at this school 33 years,” his former headmistress recalled, “and Zlatan is easily in the top five of the most unruly pupils we have ever had. He was the number one bad boy, a one-man show, a prototype of the kind of child that ends up in serious trouble.”
While blond Swedes did homework, Ibrahimovic played football – sometimes for a neighbourhood club, Balkan, more often on the playground. In ghettoes, whether the game is basketball or soccer, what counts is not the score but your moves. In basketball, “streetball” players invent feints, and give them names like “the chicken fajita wrap”, recounts Alexander Wolff in his book Big Game, Small World. The Harlem Globetrotters emerged from streetball. Zinedine Zidane’s famous “roulette” originated on a Marseilles playground.
While other talented teenagers were being schooled at big clubs, Ibrahimovic was on the playground giving “no-look passes”, a staple of both street football and street basketball. Eventually he turned pro with Malmö. Niclas Kindvall, a teammate there, told me: “He gave passes at the wrong moment, took shots at the wrong moment. But he had it all.” Ibrahimovic was never going to stay long at Malmö after foreign scouts saw him lob the ball over one defender and backheel it over another before scoring.
Aged 19, wearing the ghetto uniform of hooded top, beanie and giant watch, he joined Ajax. There, however, he revealed his ignorance of what “streetballers” disparagingly call “field football”. The sport rarely suits them. The Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids once brought along to his club Juventus a Dutch-Arab kid who had humiliated him on an Amsterdam playground, but the kid took against field football and left almost immediately.
Ajax discovered that Ibrahimovic was slow, didn’t know where to run, seldom bothered scoring and, despite being 1.92m tall, couldn’t head. Fans persecuted him. He would loaf about, metres offside, and a spectator would scream: “Come and sit up here, boy, and you’ll see it!”
Ibrahimovic admitted: “I’d never thought about football before. You want to sink through the ground when 50,000 people whistle at you.” Sometimes after matches he locked himself in his apartment.
Ajax also struggled to take the ghetto out of the boy. Defenders who marked him had a nasty habit of breaking their noses. Teammates suffered too. “He was sometimes unmanageable,” says the Ajax official David Endt. “Suspicion plays a big role with him. You see it in his game: that you won’t be screwed by someone else, but you’ll screw him.” As the cliché went, Ibrahimovic was a Balkan not a Swede. He became a vehicle for Swedes to debate immigration.
Yet his ghetto qualities also made him special. Most Swedish footballers are anonymous worker bees. They follow “the law of Jante”, a sort of Swedish code for living that ordains: “Don’t think you’re better than us.” But Ibrahimovic had never learned Swedish codes. His style of football – the very fact that he had a style – existed to show up the fools facing him. “It’s hard to compare him to another Swedish player in history,” muses the Malmö novelist Fredrik Ekelund. Leif Pagrotsky, Sweden’s former culture minister, says: “The reason he is so good is that he does things as a footballer that make him a bad boy: he expresses himself, doesn’t obey the rules, doesn’t listen.” In Swedish terms, Ibrahimovic was kaxig (stubborn, proud) like his hero Muhammad Ali. “I take the street to the field,” he says.
Ibrahimovic baffled Swedes. When he took a penalty against San Marino even though the task had been assigned to someone else, it became a legendary moment of Swedish football. Later he briefly boycotted the national team. Yet Swedes, who love football but produced such an unlovely version of it, had been yearning for decades for a footballer like Ibrahimovic. “During the World Cup in 2002 I was voted man of the match three times in Sweden, even though I hadn’t played,” he says. “The people love me.”
Only in 2004 did the genius become a useful footballer. He began valuing goals above feints. He finally chose the right moments. In his words: “First the talent controlled me. Now I control the talent.” Juventus, the sport’s most disciplined team, bought him and sent him to the gym. He gained 10kg. “Ibra” still caresses the ball under his soles, guiding it with every part of the foot, before deigning to score. However, notes Kindvall: “He has lost some of the abilities that made him a crowd-pleaser. He used to do some incredible trick almost every game. I miss those things. But he has gained so much.”