Zlatan, the golden boy (literal meaning of his first name), must be one of the most famous Swedes of all time, among the likes of Abba and Björn Borg. He received the Swedish Golden Ball prize seven years in a row, and I can tell you that his four goals against England at the Friends Arena north of Stockholm — which included one of the greatest goals in football history — conquered Swedish hearts that had been closed to him.
But feelings will always be mixed. Sweden, and I guess other people around the world, love him, hate him, love to hate him, love that they love him, and hate that they love him. There may be other ways to relate to him, but indifference is seldom an option, even for someone like me who has no clue about sports.
On the football field, Zlatan is larger than life. “Sometimes when you see him do things you don’t think it’s possible,” Sweden manager, Erik Hamrén, once said. “It can feel like you are watching a video game.” But it’s not just that he’s scored a whole lot of spectacular goals, and that he’s won championships with six clubs in five countries (Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, PSG). It’s his attitude, his self-confidence, his alpha-male swagger. He is also the most unpredictable forward in the game, and that spirit he carries off the field as well. He’s a maverick.
OmranRights, “Zlatan Ibrahimović: Funny Moments” (2013)
During Sweden’s traditional Almedalen Week of intense political debates on the beautiful island Gotland, representatives of the extreme right-wing populist party, the Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), did everything to ensure that the question of Swedish national identity was identified as Sweden’s most pressing concern. If only we could define Swedishness correctly, our social problems would be resolved! From immigration policy to the kind of cookies we should eat and how we should stand in queues.
During the debate, the name that came up as an example of someone who is a non-Swede masquerading as a Swede: Zlatan Ibrahimović, whose family comes, as mine does, from Bosnia. Here is the SD Party’s platform in a nutshell.
SD, “Sverigedemokraternas Valfilm” (2010)
So there he was, Mattias Karlsson, the press secretary of Swedish Democrats — who may publicly deny he is a racist and a neo-Nazi but whose rhetoric and actions speak otherwise — throwing Zlatan into the political game, thinking he can screw the ball better than the soccer virtuoso. Zlatan, he argued, is not Swedish because he speaks with an accent. I could not believe what I was hearing. A huge chunk of the Swedish population had just been denied their Swedishness, myself included. But I was not entirely sure what the man meant. Was he referring to Zlatan’s Skånska, the famous southern Swedish dialect that the rest of Sweden likes to make fun of?
Probably not. No one had forgotten Karlsson’s remarks that Zlatan did not have “typical Swedish body language” and that his “attitude” was “not Swedish.” But the bosses at Volvo obviously begged to differ because this year they paid him millions of kronor for the latest ad in which he recites (rather than sings) the national anthem and travels through Sweden like the mighty Volvo, only to finish with the words: “I want to live, I want to die in Sweden.” The original anthem has it this way: “I want to live, I want to die in Norden” (meaning, the “Northern countries”).
Volvo, “Volvo XC70 — Made by Sweden (like Zlatan)” (2014)
If we look at some ways in which the media have covered Swedish celebrity athletes, especially those of immigrant background, we see how the Swedish tag is attached to them only as long as they are successful. The moment they make a mistake — be it a doping scandal or simple “inappropriate” behavior such as swearing or some kind of “impudence” — they are immediately referred to as immigrants. Suddenly, their family background is the most important aspect of their character.
In Sweden, there is a fear of standing out, and so there is a fear of being “bad boys” like Zlatan (and girls, of course, we are a land of equality). Sweden is the land of lagom — a Swedish notion with no direct English translation meaning “the golden mean” or “just the right amount” — ie., the adequate, the suitable. A favourite Swedish dictum: “Lagom är bäst” (“Lagom is best”).
I have heard people complain Zlatan is not a football player per se. He is not a perfect team player. He can either shine or suck. He is not terribly lagom. His goals against England in 2012 were as far from lagom as it gets. The same goes for his his height, his aggressiveness, and his strut.
ApplausiPerFibra, “Zlatan Bad Boy” (2010)
So yes, we love Zlatan, but we also fear that love. We must love with a dose of restraint. Lagom makes it hard for us to fully accept that we are very far from being a homogeneous people and culture. By embracing Zlatan, we embrace our inherent differences.
IbraAlliance, “Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Top 10 Goals Ever” (2018)
Analysts in Sweden praise and critique Zlatan’s goals as elaborately as I praise and critique novels in my literature classes. But I detect something Puritan in the way people feel compelled to complain about the extravagance of Zlatan’s goals even while praising him. I know I said I’m not interested in sports, but I have to admit I have watched a lot of YouTube clips with his goals. I even want to recommend the E-Book version of his autobiography (for iPad) because it contains nice clips and pictures.
“In Sarajevo, Bosnia, where I grew up playing a lot of soccer, the slang word mahalaš refers to a cocky player who much prefers feints to passes; who’d rather nutmeg someone than shoot; who deplores defending. All the lost balls and all the teammates ignored while in scoring position are relegated into oblivion by each small masterpiece: dribbling past an entire defense, scoring from an impossible angle, bamboozling a goalie… Zlatan Ibrahimović, the great Swedish player of Bosnian-Croatian origin, could be the greatest mahalaš of all time.”
BEINSports, “Who Is Zlatan Ibrahimović?” (2014)
What I like about Zlatan as a public figure, global as much as Swedish or Bosnian, is that he makes me step out of my safe zone and feel something weird. If lagom defines us as Swedes, and tamam as Bosnians — tamam being the Bosnian word for lagom — then it may be difficult to understand this absolutely crazy interest in Zlatan. The fierceness of our interest scares us.
We Swedes usually go abroad to get crazy and behave wildly, but here at home we (pre)tend to be lagom. Not true in the case of Zlatan! When it comes to Zlatan, we are crazy here at home. We are in love. We are fans. We are fan-atics.
ESPN, “Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores two amazing goals in MLS debut” (2018)
This is what Zlatan reminds us of with his extraordinary goals, his body language, and his southern accent: that lagom can no longer represent domestic Swedishness. This is why Zlatan can release an autobiography before he has even lived long enough to earn writing one, and he can entitle it “I Am Zlatan.” And above all, this is why he is, for me, without any question, Swedish.
I lived half my life in Bosnia before becoming a refugee, which is enough for me to know that Zlatan is not quite Bosnian in the way an SD politician might want to claim he is, or in the way Zlatan himself might want to say he is. Though many try to make a big deal of his Bosnian background, I am sorry to say: No, the Golden Boy is Swedish.
This may make us freak out at times, and confuse us, but this is why I dribble this preposterous claim through our beautiful Swedish fields of identity hoping to score at least one weird goal: I am Zlatan, we are Zlatan, Sweden is Zlatan.
– Adnan Mahmutović