Who is he and why is he famous?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the golden boy of Swedish football. In fact, he’s so precious that his name even translates as Golden Son of Ibrahim. Raised by a Bosnian father and Croatian mother in Malmö’s immigrant suburbs, he has made the journey from Sweden’s most maligned neighbourhood to the centre of the footballing world. But some would say he’s more fool’s gold than 24 carat.
The blighters! Why would they say that?
Because he is one of those players whose moments of genius are tempered by periods of infuriating mediocrity. On a bad day he might only awaken from his unproductive stupour to fell an opponent with a malicious and well-timed lunge.
But when his footballing brain is fully switched on he has a fleetness of foot that can make even the most expert defender seem like a feckless amateur. In fact the Swede’s unpredictability has led to one Italian journalist famously describing him as “half ballerina, half gangster”.
Sounds a bit like Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.
You mean “Diddy”? Just because he produces dance music doesn’t make him a ballerina. But there is a tenuous link there actually. P. Diddy Daddy is a keen Arsenal supporter, the same club that once tried to lure a young Zlatan to London.
Tenuous indeed. Where did he go instead?
His first major club in Sweden was Malmö FF: once a giant of European football, now prone to losing to Swiss teams nobody has ever heard of. But it was a good apprenticeship for the rangy youngster and he was soon being ogled by a big Dutchman called Leo Beenhakker, who negotiated a transfer to Ajax of Amsterdam in 2001, when Zlatan was 20 years old.
Do people really call him Zlatan or are you just being overly familiar?
No, in Sweden people know him as Zlatan. But, just like Diddy, he has accumulated a veritable cornucopia of alter egos over the years, especially since his move to Italy a few seasons ago.
Why, what do they call him there?
Mostly Ibra. But Il Mago and Il Genio are also common currency. And then there’s the magic spell once invoked by Turin prisoners.
What sort of hocus pocus did they engage in?
When Zlatan played for Juventus the team would regularly train beside a prison on the outskirts of the city. While waiting with great anticipation for a ball to sail over the wall the prisoners would regularly begin chanting the name Ibracadabra.
Ah, those magical moments when sport rubs shoulders with crime. But he has left Turin now, has he?
Yes. His former club, the grand old lady of Italian football, was transformed into a wrinkled wreck last season when it was heavily implicated in a major match fixing scandal. Zlatan eventually jumped ship when the Serie A champions had their title stripped from them and were ignominiously dumped into Serie B.
Where did he go instead?
He moved on to Europe’s fashion capital to play for Inter Milan, a club with seemingly limitless resources and ambition. If his time at Juventus ranged from the sublime to the indifferent, his start at Inter has been sensational. Zlatan has been instrumental in placing the club way beyond the grasp off the chasing pack.
What about the national team?
Good question. We currently find ourselves in the midst of ‘the great snub’. A few months ago Zlatan and a couple of other players were a bit naughty, going out to a nightclub and missing their curfew on the eve of a European qualifying match against Liechtenstein.
The cheek! They’d need to be on top form against the mighty Liechtensteiners.
Exactly. And the coach didn’t like it one bit. He sent the brazen millionaires home without so much as supper and the team played the game without them. The other two later mumbled their apologies and came slinking back into the fold, but Zlatan preferred to burn the bridge than rebuild it.
Are they ever going to kiss and make up?
Who knows? With his typically sharp tongue he once bemoaned the fact that his rampant individualism was out of place in a team that thrives on the power of the collective. The coach has said that he would be made welcome should he choose to return, but so far there are no signs that Zlatan is ready to pull on the yellow jersey again.
Speaking of cycling, couldn’t he do a Lance Armstrong and come back stronger than ever?
It’s not out of the question. He would certainly love more opportunities to silence his detractors. Like Armstrong, Zlatan has had a fractious relationship with the press. And he has not been shy about letting some Swedish journalists know what he thinks of them.
Is he not popular here then?
Depends who you talk to. He has a disarming, mile-wide smile and a sense of fun that endear him to a lot of people.
The smile of an assassin maybe?
Well, his favourite movie is Scarface and there is a touch of the Pacinos about his grin. But sometimes he lets the gentle ballerina shine through. Last year for example he took part in an evening’s entertainment on TV4 in aid of UNICEF. He took penalties against actor Mikael Persbrandt on the streets of Sao Paolo.
Ah, Persbrandt. Another man with press problems. Has Zlatan ever sued a Swedish tabloid for libel?
No, but he’s only 25. Give him time.