As I’m writing this, yet another story about Manchester United’s highest-profile new signing hits the UK press. Fenerbahçe centre back Simon Kjaer has described Zlatan Ibrahimović as “the kind of chest-puffing player, who is arrogant” following a mid-match clash where Zlatan grabbed the other player’s throat. While Kjaer seemed to be shrugging off the incident as just part of the game, a quote like this is catnip to sports journalists, who since his early days at Malmö FC have fed off Zlatan’s larger-than-life public persona and his on-pitch spats.
Arrogant, cocky, aggressive, a maverick, not a team player – as we see in Becoming Zlatan, these accusations have dogged the Swede since the early days of his career at the turn of the millennium. Opposing team player Patrik Eriksson-Ohlsson, whose job it was to mark Zlatan, recalls the eighteen-year-old player as “a young, arrogant, cocky guy who didn’t really have anything to be cocky about. It was like he enjoyed humiliating his opponents more than scoring a goal.” Eriksson-Ohlsson recalls how he managed to unsettle Zlatan in a game, by taunting and winding him up until he reacted aggressively, lost his cool and ultimately lost the match.
“I can be a pain in the ass”
On the field, we watch the teenager using his sheer size to keep other players at bay – like the school bully holding the ball away from smaller kids. In the interviews directors Magnus and Fredrik Gertten conducted with Zlatan at that time, he smirks when talking about both his playing style and his attitude: “I can be a pain in the ass. I’m hard to get along with. I have my dad’s temper – he’s a confident guy too...”
Zlatan at Ajax with his father
Becoming Zlatan traces the player’s rise to fame as a teenager, going from a promising Malmö player to one of Ajax’s biggest-ever signings, then struggling with the weight of expectation on him. We see the Dutch media begin to turn on him as he fails to score goals under pressure, then become downright hostile when he receives a five-game suspension for yet another outbreak of aggression, elbowing an opposing team player. The then Ajax manager Co Adriaanse is interviewed about his troublesome player, and says: “He definitely has to learn that football isn't just playing solo, it's also about playing together.”
“A very cold world”
Perhaps what got lost under the media storm, the outrage and the headlines, was that Zlatan at this stage was still really a boy, and a boy who had never really been able to depend on anyone but himself. If you scratch the surface, as the Gertten brothers were able to do in their early interviews with him, there’s a very lonely, troubled teenager, the son of an alcoholic father who pushed him very hard, a boy grown up isolated on a tough estate.
“He doesn't have faith in many people,” Malmö director Hasse Borg observed in 2000. “It must be tough at his age, not having anybody to turn to.”
We watch the young players at Ajax arriving in their various sports cars, with money thrown at them in lieu of any emotional support. Zlatan and his friend/rival Mido are still teenagers, living far away from home, with no friends or family or anything much to do when not training. Zlatan is settled in a grey suburb outside of Amsterdam, and, as teammates recount, spent his days sitting on his sofa by himself playing computer games.
When I spoke to Fredrik Gertten about the film, he described it as “the story of a very young man dealing with the football industry, trying to negotiate a very cold world, while all by himself. And it is a very cold world. A very unforgiving world.”
“Big and tall and never smiled”
Ajax was a crucible for Zlatan – at eighteen, at Malmö, we see him celebrate a goal by strutting about the pitch, arms outspread like an eagle, lips mouthing the air like Mick Jagger. Two years later, at Ajax, after everything that’s happened, he just looks relieved to have scored.
The action covered in Becoming Zlatan draws to a close in 2004, as Zlatan leaves Ajax, having scored a particularly beautiful goal and transfers the next day to Juventus. The player we see in 2004, mainly in television footage, is much more recognisable as the famous figure the world knows in 2016. The trademark headband is in place and the puppy fat has burned off – he’s matured, gained self-control, but retreated even further inward.
An Italian sports reporter recalls that they were intimidated by Zlatan because “he was big and tall with a deep voice and never smiled” – a far cry from the giggly, smirking boy we see at the beginning of the film. The experience at Ajax might have been the making of the megastar, but what the film also shows is how the pressures of major league football affected the boy he once was. After his transfer to Juventus, a friend – the barista in his local coffee shop – describes how he would spend his time in the food court at IKEA, eating Swedish meatballs alone.
“Today Zlatan has built a fortress around him, like most other world-famous celebrities,” Magnus Gertten told me. “Maybe that's what you need to do, in order to survive.”
#ZlatanStyle – Show us your best goal
Marking the release of Becoming Zlatan in Italy and Greece, boys and girls aged 6-18 are invited to upload videos of their best goals to YouTube, Vimeo or Facebook, using the hashtag #ZlatanStyle, then send them to us using our online form for a chance of winning.
Have you got a beautiful volley? Are your headers something special?