The gawky boy – he is still a boy, really; you can tell by the picked acne and over-crunchy hair gel – yawns, fidgets with a shirt clearly not his own choice and giggles at his own jokes. He’s delighted with himself, brimful of it, you can tell. The older man he’s travelling with counts twenty-four football players’ pictures in his newspaper, and the boy smirks. “I’m worth more than all twenty-four.”
He’s not, yet, the stone-faced star the world knows today, all sinew, slicked ponytail, and contained, channeled anger. He’s not yet famous for some of the most spectacular goals ever scored in football, for the star-spangled career at many of Europe’s biggest clubs, for his angry clashes with both opposing players and team mates or his outspoken, frequently controversial pronouncements. It seems almost impossible that this excitable puppy-dog of a player we first meet at nineteen could ever grow into that man.
Zlatan Ibrahimović has dominated European football since the millennium. Physically, the Swede just seems bigger than other players – he takes up more room on the pitch, draws the eye towards his 195cm frame (6’5”), and powers across the field on massive thighs. And he likes the attention: from his earliest days he has played flashy, tricksy football, lining up goals to make the crowds gasp. He has taken more shots per game in the Premier League than any other player. His career is studded with trophies, leagues won and records broken; his legend testified to by the ever-increasing millions of transfer fees. But it could have all been very, very different.
The documentary Becoming Zlatan tells two interlinked stories, two years apart. With unprecedented access, it follows the 17-year-old striker through a season at his local team, Malmö FC, sniggering as his elders admonish him for skipping school. It also tracks that cocky 19-year-old we see being transferred to Ajax in the opening scenes for a record 7.8 million euros, through his first few years playing at the club, the weight of expectation and failure changing him. Being big and different – and refusing to comply with the way things were done – made him a target.
On a bridge in Öster, the new eastern city district of Malmö, someone has printed “You can take a guy out of Rosengård, but you can never take Rosengård out of the guy.” It’s signed “Zlatan”, and although he claims he never actually said it, he seems happy with the sentiment, including a shot of himself posing underneath it in his autobiography. It’s impossible to ignore the impact that growing up in Rosengård (now part of Öster), an area he didn’t properly leave until he was 17 and a professional footballer, had on Zlatan’s formation, and when you consider where he came from it makes his arrival all the more impressive.
For years, right-wing media outlets have pointed to the former suburb, where 86% of the residents had immigrant backgrounds, as an argument against multiculturalism, due to its rates of crime and poverty. These sorts of simplified, knee-jerk reactions don’t take into account the huge strain immigrants are under and the lack of choice that leads them to poverty, and many of those in Rosengård have come from troubled areas like Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and – like Zlatan Ibrahimović’s parents – the former Yugoslavia. These attitudes also offer a clue as to why the son of a Bosnian Muslim, who grew up with nothing, surrounded by crime and drugs, might grow up feeling like an outsider to an establishment that met him with suspicion when it acknowledged him at all.
Zlatan Ibrahimović: I would have become "a criminal"
Zlatan was born in Sweden, but he makes the distinction between “the Swedish kids” he met in youth football teams and “the brown kids” of Rosengard often in his autobiography, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović. One wonders whether the Dutch journalist Hugo Borst, who in one of the film’s ugliest moments borrows the language of anti-Islamic politician Pim Fortuyn to describe Zlatan as a “second-class foreigner” and a “lazy migrant worker” during his tenure at Ajax, would have felt able to say that had the player been a typically blonde Swede living in the Netherlands.
When asked what he imagines himself doing had he not become such a successful footballer, Zlatan often replies “a criminal” and while he usually laughs it off, Becoming Zlatan shows how close a line he walked, and how youth football programmes, perhaps uniquely, can offer extraordinary mobility to teenagers with nothing. Towards the end, a friend he meets in Turin soon after his transfer to Juventus marvels that “a person growing up with nothing winds up living in the Piazza Castello,” the historical, cultural and political heart of the city.
Youth football programmes can offer extraordinary mobility
That’s not the final scene of the film, though. We end up back at Rosengård, in 2006, where crowds line the streets as a car pulls up. Zlatan glad-hands the crowd, smiles almost nervously, and points out the ash pitch he used to practise on and the balcony his mother would shout from when he’d been playing football too long. Then he lights up the football pitch known as Zlatan Court, his gift to the area, declaring it officially open.
The last shot is of another small boy from Rosengård, practising his moves with the ball, in front of the tower blocks.
#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?