When Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a kid in the mid-1980s, his mother sometimes hit him on the head with a wooden spoon.
If the impact caused the spoon to break, Jurka Gravic would send him out to buy a replacement. On other occasions she reached for a rolling pin.
Swedish social services intervened after Jurka was arrested for handling stolen goods. They noted that Zlatan’s half-sister had a drug habit and expressed concern about their divorced mother’s workload: she cleaned offices 14 hours a day to support five children in the multi-ethnic Rosengard district of Malmo.
Aged nine, the self-conscious boy who had speech therapy to correct a lisp was sent to live with his father. Sefik, a Bosnian Muslim who worked as a caretaker, had separated from Jurka, a Croatian Catholic, seven years earlier. Zlatan loved his dad dearly. But he hated to see him drink heavily, which happened increasingly as the trauma of the Yugoslav war hit home.
Zlatan often went hungry. His father’s fridge contained lots of beer. But food was scarce, so he sometimes ran to his mother’s high-rise apartment for dinner. He turned to shop-lifting and stealing bikes for kicks. In his autobiography he speculates that, but for football, he might have been a criminal.
“Complex is the best word to describe Zlatan,” says David Lagercrantz, the Swedish author who co-wrote the critically-acclaimed Jag Ar Zlatan [I am Zlatan]. “On the one hand he’s a strong, warrior type who knew he had to be very tough to survive. So he takes on fights all the time because he’s always had to.
“But another part of him is vulnerable. He’s a guy wounded by his upbringing, who uses all that to create strength for himself. In his position, 99 guys out of 100 would have gone under, but he used his anger to make himself better. He told me, ‘David, I need to be angry to play well’. When he played with middle-class kids he felt inferior because he wore the wrong clothes and had no money, so he said to himself ‘One day I’ll show them!’ That became his motivation.”
The 6’4” striker has channelled his rage and resentment with considerable success. When Ibrahimovic leads Sweden into action against Ireland in Stockholm on Friday night, he will do so as the footballer with the highest gross salary in the world (Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners are paying him €25.3m per annum before tax). His six transfer fees in the last 11 years amount to €160m, during which time he’s won nine league titles with five different clubs in Holland, Italy and Spain.
“Zlatan is the most famous person in Sweden,” explains Jennifer Wegerup, a Stockholm-based journalist who has been her newspaper’s designated Ibrahimovic correspondent since he joined Juve in 2004. “There’s even a fortnightly television programme about him called ZTV, sponsored by SAS and 3. He really is a phenomenon.”
Ibrahimovic has the lifestyle of a 21st century superstar, bodyguards included. He moved recently from a plush hotel in Paris’ Opéra district to a luxury apartment in the centre of the French capital, together with his partner Helena (a marketing professional who is 11 years his senior) and their two sons. When the family visited Parc Astérix to the north of the city last Autumn, no fewer than 12 security staff were assigned to look after them.
None of this seemed remotely possible when Zlatan the demon dribbler refused to pass the ball to team-mates as a schoolboy in Malmo. If you complained he was likely to head-butt you. He changed clubs regularly, often at the insistence of parents who didn’t want their sons sharing a pitch with the foul-mouthed ‘foreign’ kid.
He inherited his father’s volcanic temper, sometimes with hilarious results. Like the day he was booked during a junior match for yelling at members of his own team. “You can’t do that,” the referee admonished him. Zlatan’s reply – “You can also go to hell” — earned him a red card.
His sense of destiny and self-importance is profound. Before his full international debut in 2001 Swedish reporters asked if he reminded himself of any other big-name player. “No,” he answered. “There’s only one Zlatan.”
Likewise, Lagercrantz laughs when he recalls the first question Ibrahmovic posed when they sat down to plan the book in 2010. “’David, do you believe in God?,’ he asked me. I was panic-stricken. I thought to myself maybe he’s very devout and, for him, it’s important that I’m the same. But that’s not the case, so I began to say, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t know too much…’ His voice became thunderous and he said, ‘Well then you don’t believe in Zlatan either! Because God sent me to Rosengard to play football!’”
In the book Ibrahimovic says he “likes guys with power and attitude”, and the managers he admires tick both boxes. At Ajax Leo Beenhakker “radiated power and coolness. He looked a bit like a mafia guy, and I like that”. Fabio Capello (Juventus) was an iron disciplinarian who treated his players not as friends to be talked to, but as soldiers to whom he issued orders.
“Under Capello I changed,” he writes. “His toughness infected me and I became less of an artist and more of a slugger who wanted to win at all costs.”
His warmest words are reserved for José Mourinho, who replaced Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan when Ibra was contesting the finals of Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. He describes The Special One as “a guy I could more or less die for”. Unlike Capello, Mourinho never shouted at his players and he took time to create personal bonds by asking about their wives and children. He particularly impressed Ibra by texting him messages of encouragement for the Euro finals and phoning him to explain his ideas for the new season.
It’s one of the great ironies of Ibrahimovic’s career that his desire to win a UEFA Champions League medal persuaded him to leave Inter for European kings Barcelona in Summer 2009. Before the €68m deal was done, Mourinho predicted that Inter, not Barca, would lift the trophy in 2010. He was right: Barca lost their crown at the semi-final stage. Against Inter.
By then Ibra’s Barcelona dream had become a nightmare. He felt uncomfortable from the start. Sure, Messi, Xavi and Iniesta were great guys. But they agreed with Pep Guardiola about everything like obedient school-boys. Where was the creative tension he loved?
Three years earlier, in his first weeks at Inter, he had told club president Massimo Moratti to stop paying win bonuses for beating lowly teams. He also persuaded Moratti to break up cliques in the changing room.
In other words, Ibrahimovic considered himself a leader. But he sensed Barca didn’t want that kind of intervention. In the autumn Guardiola said two things to him that signalled trouble ahead. “Here in Barca we keep our feet on the ground. Here we don’t drive Ferraris or Porsches to training.”
He decided to conform but felt miserable. His five-year contract began to look like a prison sentence. He scored goals, including the winner against Real as a substitute at Camp Nou, but his relationship with Guardiola got worse, especially after Lionel Messi was granted his wish to play in a more central role. Eventually, he says, the coach stopped talking to him.
Ibrahimovic despises weakness. In the book he accuses Guardiola of both. His Saipan moment came towards the end of the season at Villarreal. First he kicked the players’ kit box across the changing room. Then he screamed at the Barca boss: “You have no balls. You shit yourself in front of Mourinho. You can go to hell.”
According to Ibrahimovic, Guardiola made no reply. He just tidied up the kit and walked away. When David Villa arrived for the new season, the Swede reckoned it was time to go. But first he wanted to make Barca suffer.
He and his agent, Mino Raiola, devised a plan to put maximum pressure on Barca’s board. “I want to join Real Madrid,” Ibra told newly-elected club president Sandro Rossell. He was bluffing. Talks were already under way with AC Milan. But the possibility of losing the expensive striker to arch-rivals Madrid spooked Rossell, just as Ibra had planned.
Before long Barca were willing to listen to cut-price offers from other clubs. They didn’t know he wasn’t serious about Madrid. Rather than lose face they were willing to lose money. Milan eventually got their man for one year on loan, with a €24m transfer fee due for payment in Summer 2011.
Raiola, whose other clients include Mario Balotelli, played a pivotal part in the high-stakes poker. He has been a major influence on Ibrahimovic since they teamed up 12 years ago. “They’re very, very close,” confirms Lagercrantz. “Almost like brothers, you might say. They talk together every day and after every match Zlatan plays. I spent 100 hours working with Zlatan on the book and during every session he spoke by telephone to Mino.”
Their relationship got off to a shaky start. When Ibrahimovic walked into an Amsterdam hotel to meet Raiola for the first time, he expected to be greeted by a guy in a sharp suit, not the T-shirt and jeans merchant who looked like something out of The Sopranos.
The shocks didn’t end there. Raiola had prepared data on top strikers (Vieri, Inzaghi, Trezeguet), compared to which Ibra’s five goals in 25 matches for Ajax seemed like nothing. He set down conditions for representing the over-confident young Swede: “You’re going to sell your cars. You’re going to sell your watches and train three times harder. Because your stats are crap.”
Ibrahimovic accepted this reality check for two reasons. First, he knew Raiola was right. Second, he respected the guy as someone like himself. At key moments in Ibra’s career Raiola has plotted, persuaded and pressurised in the interests of his client. Born in the Naples area and brought up in Holland, his ability to exploit a negotiating opportunity has become famous. He convinced a solicitor friend to pose as a Juve representative to speed up negotiations with Ajax for Ibra’s transfer to Turin in ‘04.
Two years later, when Ibrahimovic was desperate to join Inter from demoted Juve, Raiola booked dinner for his client with Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi. Then he leaked word of the rendezvous to Inter, who jumped in to do a deal rather than be scooped by their city rivals.
Verbal outbursts of the kind directed at Pep Guardiola are just one example of Ibra’s excessive behaviour. He once sped around the outskirts of Malmo at 325 km/h in his Prosche Turbo. He has been known to spend hours on XBox (he found Gears of War and Call of Duty especially addictive) and describes himself as ‘crazy.’
Against Ireland his motivation will be massive, Jennifer Wegerup believes. “Zlatan is nearing 32, so realistically this is his last World Cup,” she points out. “He’s become more mature, feels more Swedish than before and as captain he cares very much about the national team.”
Another spur lies in the location of the 2014 finals. Brazil has excited him ever since he cheered for Romario & co – not for Sweden – in 1994, and the memory of tricks and flicks performed by Ronaldo and Ronaldinho inspired his outrageous volley against England last year.
Don’t be surprised if he believes that God has plans for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to run riot in Rio next year.
* I Am Zlatan is currently available in English as an e-book. The paperback version will be published by Penguin Books on August 1.
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