Euro 2016: For Sweden, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the real deal
The football public in Sweden have no doubts about their talisman’s greatness
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads Sweden out to face Ireland in the Stade de France on June 13th he will do so as perhaps one of the most divisive footballers in modern times.
Arrogant and aloof, yet outrageously talented, his detractors point to his pile of titles and note caustically that, one La Liga crown aside, none of them were won in leagues in their prime or against opposition that was actually any use.
Then there is glaring lack of a Champions League medal in his trophy cabinet.
His greatness or otherwise is a debate that rages everywhere whenever the footballing public needs a break from the endless Messi/Ronaldo conundrum.
Everywhere, that is, except in Sweden.
Put simply, in his native land there is little discussion – he is the greatest, the defining personality in a country that is rapidly changing, and where even his negative traits are seen as being positive.
“Arrogant? He’s street, man,” says Kadir Adan who, like Ibra, is a child of the Swedish housing projects built in of the late ’60s and early ’70s called the “Million Program”.
“Arrogant is going around with your nose in the air, but Zlatan? He stands by what he says. Arrogant? I wouldn’t say that.”
Born to a Bosnian Muslim father and a Catholic Croatian mother in Malmö in 1981, Ibrahimovic has come to personify Sweden’s myriad contradictions.
The idyllic “people’s home” espoused by Olof Palme and generations of politicians is rapidly changing, ethnically and demographically.
Yet Sweden also took in more refugees than any other European country in 2015.
It is a country constantly wrestling with its conscience, with some wanting to preserve their mythical heritage at all costs, while others want to embrace change.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nowhere is the love for Ibrahimovic greater than in the housing projects that mirror his own upbringing in Malmö’s Rosengård.
“He has paved the way for kids from places like this,” Kadir explains, waving his hand at the surrounding apartments.
“A guy with his background, who has been a troublemaker all his life, stolen bikes and all that? We recognise ourselves in that.”
Now 24, Kadir was born in Somalia but moved to Sweden as a baby. This evening he is sitting in the sunshine with his younger brother, Khalid, on the local football pitch, which is simply called Trean – “number three” – in Husby.
If the name of the suburb rings a bell, unfortunately it’s probably not football-related. When a Portuguese immigrant was shot dead here by police in 2013, Husby erupted in several days of rioting, making headlines around the world.
Despite the fact that it was a freak occurrence, the area is still struggling to recover its reputation. With burning cars and running battles with the police occurring nightly during the riots, one thing remained constant – football.
The world’s media gathered on what is normally a quiet square that houses a vegetable stand and a small supermarket, but training and matches still went ahead as normal, and that season Kadir, a skilful winger with pipe-cleaner legs and a sprinter’s turn of pace, won a third promotion in a row with his local club.
It was one of the few positive stories the papers covered from the area that year.
And like urban playgrounds all over the world, Trean is a harsh school. The older, bigger boys – and it is almost exclusively boys – dominate, and the smaller, quicker ones either learn quickly or get kicked off the park.
It’s a far cry from the rich, posh clubs of the wealthier suburbs, with their uniform tracksuits and an unending supply of coloured cones. With little or no adult supervision, this is where they hone their skills on the tight, unforgiving pitch. The art of dribbling is prized above all else, but a dozen or more years of Zlatan’s influence means intelligent play now receives almost equal respect. It’s no longer enough to play football – you have to know football.
For Kadir and the rest of the youths in suburbs like Husby, Zlatan’s success is like a beacon. It shows them that they too can make it.
“Every time Zlatan plays, like against England, he does something amazing – bicycle kicks from 40 metres, that kind of thing. Other guys don’t do that,” he says.
The influence of the first- and second-generation immigrant kids on the national team continues to grow, and Erik Hamren’s Euro 2016 squad is peppered with names that have a non-Nordic ring to them.
There will be more to come. Kadir’s little brother Khalid is 11 years old and cannot remember a time when Zlatan wasn’t Sweden’s biggest name.
Nor does he see him ever being bettered, not even by the kids who play here morning, noon and night, even in the snows of winter, plastic bags wrapped around their feet to keep them dry. “He has played for Barcelona, Ajax, PSG, Inter, Juventus,” Khalid says, gazing at the banners fluttering in the wind at Trean that honour local young lads who have played here but who have since passed away.
“Zlatan is an unbelievable player. No one will ever take his place.”