Mercurial. Fiery. World-class. Tempermental. Quirky. Audacious.
These are all words that, at one point or another, have been used to describe the Paris Saint-Germain and the Swedish national team Striker, Zlatan Ibrahimović. And, rightfully so, they all fit his demeanor and behavior. But, despite all of the extra baggage he brings with him, one thing is for certain, Zlatan is not Zlatan without that extra baggage. The very things that make him such a polarizing figure in world soccer are the same attributes that help him experience his massive success and popularity.
I’ve known about Zlatan and all of his insane dramatics for club and country on the field ever since I started following soccer more closely in 2009. But, aside from the random news story or two about his exploits, I had never thought to examine further the obvious genius behind the man.
Thankfully, I came across his engaging and well-written autobiography titled, “I Am Zlatan,” [affiliate link] recently and had the opportunity to dig deep into the psyche of one of the world’s greatest soccer players. What I would come to find out is that Zlatan can definitely come across as a crass and egotistical individual who only cares for his own success if you are looking at him from the outside, but there are certainly layers of complexity to him and his unique personality. Accordingly, Ibrahimović’s multi-layered personality comes predominately from a small town in Sweden called Rosengård, which is also filled with many multi-layered personalities of its own.
Zlatan details in his book that when he was young, his mom and dad didn’t have time to give him comfort since they were both too busy working their fingers to the bone in order to provide for their large family (Ibrahimović 17). “Nobody asked, How was your day today, little Zlatan? There was none of that” (Ibrahimović 16). Instead, Zlatan learned to handle his problems and tasks by himself and without adult supervision and, of course, if he messed up, there were always “a fair few smacks and slaps” to go around (Ibrahimović 16–17).
As rough as Ibrahimović’s childhood was, there were a few moments where his struggle actually related to me on a personal level. He wrote about times where there was “nothing but lager” in his parents’ fridge and since he didn’t drink, his stomach would growl from the terrible hunger (Ibrahimović 23). “That’s a pain I’ll never forget,” wrote Zlatan (Ibrahimović 23). In fact, now that he has a much better lifestyle due to his soccer success, he makes it his life’s mission to ensure that his fridge is always full of food and that neither he nor his family ever experience that level of hunger again.
In regards to soccer, Zlatan wasn’t the child prodigy that many other soccer greats are early on in their youth and playing careers. In fact, it took Ibrahimović a while to impress his coaches and it took a few more months after that for him to move up to the top flight of Swedish club soccer. But, he had vast reserves of restless energy and, at times, that got him in more trouble than was necessary. Parents complained that Zlatan was too tempermental with the other kids and didn’t pass the ball enough. Zlatan’s crazy family didn’t help matters either; however, they always made sure they stood up for him when he couldn’t do so alone.
“You can take a guy out of the ghetto but you can never take the ghetto out of the guy.” — Zlatan Ibrahimović
While he slowly started to turn heads on the soccer fields of Malmo, Sweden, Zlatan was still primed to run into a few messes and behavioral issues both on and off the field. However, one day, he met a guy from Trinidad and Tobago who told him the following: “If you’re not a pro within three years, it’s your own fault” (Ibrahimović 63). Zlatan took that criticism to heart and began to focus more on his play and less on his antics and that soon enough started to gain the attention of some of the biggest clubs in European soccer like Juventus and Inter Milan.
Juventus and Inter
Things got off to a bit of a slow start at Juventus for Ibrahimović when he signed with them in 2004 after spending the past three years at Ajax, a top club in the Netherlands. Italian soccer is known worldwide for its tough defensive games and, at times, players like Zlatan who can score often and out of the blue are integral to the success of an Italian team. But, upon arrival at Juve, Ibrahimović wasn’t scoring enough, so his coach at the time, Fabio Capello, instructed him to watch film of another A.C. Milan great, Marco van Basten, and study van Basten and his skillful movements. Additionally, Zlatan began doing extra shooting work with the skills coaches at Juventus.
Soon enough, he had finally realized his goal-scoring potential and now the Italian papers were writing that there was once a time where “he wasn’t scoring enough goals. Now he’s already socred fifteen” (Ibrahimović 188).
After winning the League Cup with Juventus, Zlatan moved on to another challenge at Inter Milan, where he would make his presence known as one of soccer’s very best Strikers. While at Inter, Zlatan came to know and respect his coach, José Mourinho, and Zlatan even asserts that Mourinho would come to “become a guy I was basically willing to die for” (Ibrahimović 284). They formed a special bond and over their time together the player and coach came to have a mutual trust and respect of one another.
This deep trust and respect for his coach was something that Ibrahimović would come to miss when he embarked on his next team, F.C. Barcelona, which was coached by Pep Guardiola at the time. Guardiola was a former team captain and midfielder for Barcelona in the 1990s and Barca had experienced great success in his short time with the club. So, when Zlatan made the 66 million Euro move to the Spanish club in 2009, he thought he was going to experience success at both the club level (like he had with Inter and Juventus) and also in his relationship with his coach (as he had with Jose Mourinho at Inter and Fabio Capello at Juventus).
Unfortunately, that was just a pipe dream as things quickly turned sour between Zlatan and Guardiola.
Troubles at Barcelona
In one of his first meetings with Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach kept asserting to Zlatan, “We keep our feet on the ground here. We are fabricantes. We work here. We’re regular guys” (Ibrahimović 319). At first, Zlatan took his coach’s words to heart, but after hearing those words repeatedly and without doing anything to warrant them, Zlatan began to feel as if there was perhaps something more that Guardiola was alluding to that Zlatan was failing to grasp. But, as he examined the issue closer, Zlatan began to see that these words were simply Guardiola’s feeble attempts at asserting his dominance over a player in Zlatan who he saw as a threat (somone who can upset the balance of things at Barca with his volatile attitude).
Looking back, Zlatan claimed that this sort of behavior by Pep Guardiola ostensibly assisted in the club eventually losing some of its biggest stars like Ronaldinho, Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Theirry Henry, and Zlatan himself. You see, most personalities at Barca tend to follow the company line and are not showy or flashy. From Lionel Messi to Andres Iniesta to Xavi, all of these guys are taught from an early age by the club to behave and act humbly and without much flair. In essence, these players are all taught to let their play on the field do the talking for them. Without a doubt, this philosophy works for Barca and has led to obvious success; however, it’s a philosophy that does not fit the mould of an eccentric personality like a Zlatan Ibrahimović, a player who finds it hard to act the “Barca way.”
Zlatan himself stated that he began to lose touch with his former wild and crazy self. Instead, over just a few short months at Barcelona, he began to lose a sense of who he was not only as a soccer player, but as a human being. Zlatan asserts that players like himself seem “threatening” to Guardiola, so Pep tries his best “to get rid of us” (Ibrahimović 320).
“If you’re not an “ordinary guy” you shouldn’t have to become one. Nobody benefits from that in the long run. Hell, if I’d tried to be like the Swedish guys at Malmo FF I wouldn’t be where I am today. Listen/Don’t listen — that’s the reason for my success.” — Zlatan Ibrahimović, Page 320
After things turned south between Guardiola and Zlatan, the coach began to simply ignore Zlatan, as if that would make the issue go away. Even if the way Zlatan describes the events between him and his Barca coach are totally untrue, I still learned an important lesson about leadership from their problems: Good leaders avoid an issue, the great leaders learn to face the issue head on. As great as Pep Guardiola is in the eyes of many, he hasn’t learned this one key trait of leadership yet and I don’t know if he will ever learn it.
Just a few months ago, Guardiola, who now coaches at Bayern Munich — one of Germany’s and Europe’s best clubs, came to the United States with his team for their preseason matches. In the MLS All-Star Game, Guardiola’s Bayern Munich played an exhibition game against the MLS All-Star team and, in the course of the events, Guardiola took exception to a few hard challenges made by the MLS All-Star players on his Bayern Munich players. I definitely understand the ire he felt and could have totally understood his reasoning for being upset: It was a pretty meaningless game for Bayern Munich, so having one of his players injured by one of those nasty tackles is not worth it. But, instead of talking this out with the MLS All-Stars Coach, Caleb Porter, he instead ignored him at the end of the game and wouldn’t shake Porter’s hand. This act of arrogance left Guardiola looking like a sinister and petty individual. Again, like I said, great leaders learn to face their issues head on and, so far, Guardiola has disappointingly been just good enough in that area.
AC Milan and PSG
Leaving his troubles behind in Barcelona, Ibrahimović moved to AC Milan in 2011. After winning the League Cup with Milan in 2012, it meant that Zlatan had now won the League Cup in Italy while playing for three of Italy’s best teams: Juventus, Inter Milan, and AC Milan. Next, Ibra made the big-money move to France where he now plays for Paris Saint-Germain.
For an immigrant kid who had all the odds against him, Ibrahimović has shined on the world’s brightest teams. His career has allowed him the unique opportunity to play for, arguably, the best clubs in each of the countries he has played. His star and popularity continues to rise and while the days of empty fridges, stealing bikes, and causing havoc are long gone for Zlatan Ibrahimović, the personality of who he is has never gone away even when others like Guardiola have tried to wrestle it away from him. And, that perhaps above all else, is his lasting achievement.
- Ibrahimovic, Zlatan, and David Lagercrantz. I Am Zlatan: My Story on and off the Field. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
This is my very first blog post in a series of (hopefully) 52 posts throughout 2015 as a part of my challenge to read and write more in this new year. If you would like to follow along to this challenge and get updated on the blog posts as they come out every week, then please follow a collection that I set up right here on Medium called The 2015 Book Reading Challenge. Thank you!