“I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic” – this is no way to express oneself in Sweden, if you are aware of the silent, strict codes in order to be accepted (editor’s note: in reference to the title of the autobiography of the Sweden and Milan star).
I was once told how the former US ambassador to Sweden Lyndon Olson paid a visit to a daycare a couple of days after arriving in Sweden. He was baffled to see how the children, dressed up as pieces of pie in papier-maché hats, sang that they were part of the pie.
“This would never happen in America! There they would say ‘I am pie!”
Swedes possess, aside from their reputation as the Scandinavian Japanese (quiet, polite, punctual, conflict-shy, nature-lovers) a characteristic which ethnologists continually return to: Sweden is the country where similarity is appreciated more than anywhere else.
This peculiarity causes us trouble when faced with that which constitutes the contrast to similarity: difference. People who differ – for example, immigrants, emigrants, returning Swedes, odd personalities, those with high ambitions or unwillingness to adapt to the social regulations – are at high risk of being met with negative attitudes.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Lagercrantz’s readable book is not primarily about Sweden – even if some who have read it, amazingly enough, seemed to have missed at least ten years of debate on integration filled with stories of how social exclusion appears to many, naively treating this part of the book as “dynamite”. Wake up, like.
The comments and reviews by which the main character is met, both now and previously, are however illustrative. One person gets hung up for a large part of their review on Zlatan’s admission that he has not been interested or heard of some famous Swedish football players, and the reviewer concludes, after a long explanation, that Zlatan can’t be telling the truth. No one can surely be in the dark about Ravelli! (editor’s note: Sweden’s national team goalkeeper in the 1994 World Cup).
One thing is certain: We can bask in the glow of Zlatan, but not take any of the credit.
Sure, we like football and are happy to praise our heroes when successful. But Zlatan hasn’t succeeded because of Sweden and Swedish society, but despite it – or possibly hardened by the mistrust, the questioning, the complaints, protest lists, and other negativity that he has encountered.
The support he has received in Sweden has come from from certain individuals who have chosen inopportunistically to defy the entrenched norms.
In New York, there are currently around 25 other Swedes who meet to play football. Not as a pros, but as happy recreational amateurs. The team is called Blatte United, and consists mainly of Swedish-born guys who, when they lived in Sweden, were regarded as immigrants (sometimes classified into second or third generation…).
We lost them to foreign shores, because they diverged from Swedish norms and were never given a chance.
They thus chose to build their lives elsewhere. Today, they run lauded, world-renowned restaurants and advertising companies, or hold senior positions within banking and finance. Some of them can, without exaggeration, be called “Zlatans” within their respective fields.
We hold them up as Swedes who have succeeded internationally, but the truth is we bullied them away and showed them the door.
Sure there are a large number who look elsewhere as a natural part of a career choice.
But this completely new category of immigrants which Sweden has created are successful, global citizens who play football in their freetime, and who look back to reflect on Sweden, wondering when we’ll understand that the suppressed, sometimes hissing, envy and the difficulty in overcoming differences, is characteristic of our societal culture for which we are paying a very heavy price.
Tove Lifvendahl is 37-years-old and lives in Uppsala. She is the head of communications at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and the author of a new book on national identity, development and emigration.
This article was originally published in Swedish on the Aftonbladet daily. English translation by The Local.