LIAM MACKEY: Get to know the other Ibra

I see our old friend Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been ruffling feathers again, this time with comments which Pia Sundhage, coach of the Sweden women’s team, branded “boring” and “sad”.

The background to the controversy was that while Anders Svensson was presented with a new Volvo for breaking Thomas Ravelli’s record of 143 international caps, the achievement by Therese Sjogran in earning a record 187 caps for the women’s team failed to get similar recognition at the same Swedish FA gala.

The simple and correct response to this anomaly, of course, is to say that neither record or both should have been acknowledged but, as is his wont, Ibra instead went off on one, whipping up a storm by suggesting that men’s and women’s football aren’t remotely comparable.

“When I’ve broken all these records,” he mused, “this goal record, the goals in the national team who shall I compare it too? Shall I compare it to whoever has the record for the ladies?”

I think maybe Katie Taylor should have a word with him.

Yet, there’s far more to Ibra than meets the eye, as fans of his acclaimed autobiography, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, will know, especially when one discovers how heavily the odds were stacked against him in childhood.

With a conspicuous absence of self-pity, Ibrahimovic relates the story of an immigrant’s upbringing on the wrong side of the tracks, an experience shaped and disfigured by the background of a broken home, poverty, violence and alcohol and drug abuse — though not on his part — and the constant grinding daily battle involved in knowing you’re an outsider who was never supposed to fit in.

There’s no little wit in the telling either as, for example, when Ibrahimovic seeks to explain the essential difference between the posh kids’ football club and the immigrant kids’ football club in his hometown of Malmo.

“At MBI, the Swedish dads would stand around and call out, ‘Come on, lads, good work’,” he says. “At Balkan, it was more like, ‘I’ll do your mum up the arse’.”

In a sense, this ought to be a familiar enough tale: the snotty kid who escapes the ghetto thanks to an ability to dazzle with his fists or, in this case, his feet. But the cool, gritty, unsentimental yet frequently moving narration of Ibrahimovic — his voice uncannily well captured by his ghost-writer, according to those who know the player well — elevates this story way beyond either misery-lit or standard sports fable.

Of course, it also contains plenty of juicy yarns about his dealings with the great and the not so good of the football world, as well as plenty of off-field madness and on-field genius.

But it’s his piercing account of the hard time preceding the show time, which ultimately makes this such a haunting read. When you’re finished, it’ll still be your choice whether you love or loathe Zlatan Ibrahimovic but, one thing’s for sure: you’ll see complexity where previously there was just caricature, and truly understand the depth of feeling behind his youthful desire to “stand up to the whole world and show everybody who’d ever doubted me who I really was”.

While I’m on the subject of football reads I’ve enjoyed this year, two other titles proved especially rewarding in 2013.

The first is Keith Gillespie’s How Not To Be A Football Millionaire. With its roots traditionally to be found in working class culture, football is no stranger to the rags to riches narrative arc, which partly explains why it’s the riches to rags rebound which tends to capture the public imagination.

“Where did it all go wrong?” was the question famously posed of George Best, albeit — as would in due course become all too tragically clear — a tad prematurely.

Gillespie was once touted as the new Best, an almost inevitable burden of expectation given he was another dark-haired winger with twinkling feet to hail from the North and come to prominence at Manchester United, before enjoying further top level success at Newcastle and Blackburn.

How Not To Be A Football Millionaire is the entertaining, insightful but ultimately cautionary tale of how a bright kid with the world at his feet had his own world turned upside down, first by a crippling gambling addiction — some of the sums detailed here are simply jaw-dropping — and then by depression.

Dan McDonnell has done a thorough and sensitive job in helping Gillespie get his compelling and, one hopes for his sake, cathartic story of high life and heartache down on the page.

Even closer to home, there’s Tallaght Time by Macdara Ferris and Karl Reilly.

You don’t need to be a Hoops fan to enjoy this one (although it helps) but even if Bohs supporters will hardly be queuing up to buy the book, all League of Ireland folk and, indeed, anyone who has ever held a torch for a football club, will identify with this uplifting tale of how Shamrock Rovers were reborn in south county Dublin after years of homelessness following the loss of Milltown.

Real Madrid and Ronaldo, the famous win away to Partizan Belgrade, and the dramatic end to Rovers’ long title drought are all present and correct, but it’s the ever-present passion and humour in the testimony of supporters, players and officials which, combined with stylish presentation, makes this a superior oral history. And, after a fashion, a happy-ever-after story too.

The shock and awe of sport, of course, is that there are always new chapters to be written and new twists in every tale.


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