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01st Aug 2019

How Zlatan jumped the shark

Kyle Picknell

The self-perpetuated legend of a 37-year-old man still pretending to be a god, or a lion, or in any way remotely interesting

There’s a story Zlatan likes to tell, one of him arriving in North London as a 17-year-old Malmö player and refusing to trial for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal because, and let me just roll my eyes so far back into my head you can see my fucking optic nerve, “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions”.

Let’s pause there. Is that… is that likely to have been the case given that the incident must have taken place at some point during the 1998/99 season or the summer following, and depending on which, Arsenal would have either been reigning champions or Premier League runners-up at the time – finishing behind Manchester United by a single point?

Zlatan didn’t make his first-team debut for Malmö until the following year. How likely is it then, really, that an apparently inhumanly cocky young player two years removed from almost quitting youth football altogether to work on the docks would turn down the opportunity to show Arsenal Football Club exactly what he could do?

Or was this simply a case of Zlatan, the meme, rewriting his earlier, humbler, more anxious beginnings as Ibra, the player?

It’s become just another part of ‘Zlatan’ lore now along with the ridiculous bicycle and scissor kicks, the piledrivers from outside the box, the tattoos and abs flex combo whenever he rips his shirt off. These tall tales that must go with this apparently irresistible, insatiable ego.

Obviously, he has exaggerated pretty much everything he has said during his football career for effect. And it’s worked. But, let’s be honest, there really is no way he is flying to England as a teenager and turning down the opportunity to train with the likes of Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Dennis Bergkamp because ‘he doesn’t do auditions’.

There is even less chance he was talking about himself in the third person all the way back then. Perhaps he never really learned how to cope with that initial rejection (if he did trial, and wasn’t signed) or accept that once upon a time he was overawed, and that’s why he is what he is now.

To pinpoint exactly when Ibrahimovic got so fucking irritating isn’t easy. He has kept repeating the same ‘Zlatanisms’ over and over, an endless trough of pure school canteen 3/10 banter (and I loathe to use the word banter even semi-seriously but in this case, there is nothing else to describe it, he is a grown man photoshopping himself 11 times over into his own best-ever team) for approximately the last decade now, but my best guess is sometime soon after the World Cup qualifying playoff between Sweden and Portugal in 2013.

That game felt like a heavyweight boxing match or a lengthy, grunt-fuelled baseline rally between Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo, each the justifiably arrogant, muscle-rippling totem for their country. Ibrahimovic (68′, 72′Cristiano Ronaldo (50′, 77′, 79′) pretty much tells the whole story as the two stars traded knockout blows like sliced backhands, each moment of brilliance more individualistic than the last. But for Zlatan personally, it was a clear tipping point. 

That he can go toe-to-toe with a player like Ronaldo in a game of that magnitude and almost carry his country past a far superior Portuguese side is the whole basis of his schtick. There is at least some walk to match the talk. But the fact remains. He couldn’t do it, missing out on the last opportunity he had to play at the World Cup and quite graciously congratulating his even starrier opponent after the game. To the media, however, that gesture was eradicated by his keeping up of appearances with this typically immodest soundbite.

“A World Cup without me is nothing to watch, so it is not worth waiting for the World Cup”.

For most, it was the last time we felt some kind of affinity with Ibra as a heroic or at least semi-heroic figure, Atlas with a ponytail, an entire Scandinavian nation on his back. He was the second top goalscorer in the qualifying for Euro 2016 and scored a brace to put Sweden in another qualifying play-off but mustered no goals and a single shot on target during the tournament proper. He quietly (for him) retired from international football and without him, Sweden managed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Zlatan seemed quite bitter about the whole thing. Particularly when he expressed his desire to play in the tournament and was rebuffed by head coach Janne Andersson.

After that he joined Manchester United on a free transfer to finally conquer England, as he had promised throughout his career. By that point, however, the super-ego and ego had entirely swallowed the id. ‘Ibra’, the affectionately-earned, early-career moniker would never be seen again, swallowed whole by ‘Zlatan’, a word the man himself has gone through impossible lengths to establish as a verb, adjective and brand as much as a noun.

It is important to acknowledge that during those few years before he was scoring goals for fun in Ligue 1 for an utterly dominant Paris Saint-Germain team. During his final season at the club, just before his barren international farewell, he battered in an eyeball popping 38 goals in 31 games, numbers that quite appropriately demonstrate how much of a penalty-box bully late-career Zlatan had become; shrugging hapless defenders off like an ox swatting flies with his tail, towering over them like that viral video panning across to Knickers the giant cow.

He was great for a long period before that, and the run of nine domestic titles in nine years with four different clubs is a remarkable feat for any player. Above all, he was a genuine character and genuinely interesting. His autobiography ‘I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic’, published in 2011, has some fascinating moments within even if they are brief and then diluted by the showy conceitedness forced upon the anecdotes to make them more ‘Zlatan’. His recounting of feuds with former Ajax captain Rafael van der Vaart and, of course, Pep Guardiola at Barcelona are two memorable examples of absorbing dressing room conflict turned into the literary equivalent of one man repeatedly tensing his biceps in the mirror.

So it’s not about the abilities of the player, which are undoubted given the trophies, and the goals, and the ludicrous goals, and the even more ludicrous goals, and the general on-pitch air of a snooty prince with deep, psychological personal space issues. The point is that Zlatan’s thing, as opposed to Ibra’s, which was everything in that last sentence, everything that mattered whilst playing football, is reliant solely on an exaggerated projection of his own confidence. That he truly believes he is more lion than man, more god than lion, and undoubtedly the best football player to have ever, ever existed.

That is fun, I guess, when you are in your prime and dribbling around the entire NAC Breda squad and scoring 35-yard bicycle kicks and hitting half-volleys so hard and from so far that someone, somewhere, is watching it and quoting Alan Partridge over the footage. It isn’t that fun when you are in your late 30s and playing in the MLS and still calling yourself a Ferrari in a world of Fiats, a metaphor solely constructed for 14-year-olds addicted to masturbating and FIFA Ultimate Team.

The reason I think that play-off against Portugal was the tipping point, the moment Ibra jumped the shark and permanently became Zlatan, the old man on social media making the same tiresome anti-punchlines and getting lots of laugh-crying emoji reposts from betting company football pages in response, is that it was the last chance for step outside of the joke and acknowledge reality for a little while. The last chance to be Ibra, the player people will fondly remember, and not Zlatan, the guy starting public spats with Carlos Vela (Carlos Vela, for fuck sake) to remind everyone – hello! – that he still exists. The occasional powerful moment of humility goes a long way. There needed to be some kind of emotion after missing out on what would have been your last World Cup, when many of your fans were aching for you to be there. Not the same ‘I am Zlatan’ faux-Terminator bullshit you pull out after every hat-trick-including 4-0 thrashing of Lorient or Vancouver Whitecaps.

And maybe that’s the thing he doesn’t realise, in his endless pursuit to leave behind Ibra the player, and endure as Zlatan the meme.

Just how fucking boring one of the most exciting and unpredictable footballers in the world has become.