Because she doesn’t have a mod’s login any longer, I have to publish this under my name. But this is an absolutely fascinating piece on the psychology of Ibrahimovic, and why he didn’t fit it at Barça, by Kari. It’s lovely to have her voice in these parts again, and let’s hope this isn’t a one-off.
A man sits on a barcalounger, hands folded in his lap as gazes out the window. His therapist listens attentively as he says, “My life right now is really good. I have a wife and two kids, live in a sunny, dream destination town, my co-workers are nice, upstanding guys, the workplace environment is very healthy, and I’m doing really well at my dream job where I make an obscene amount of money.”
The man pauses, scrubs at his face. “But I feel so…empty inside. My confidence is at an all time low, and I don’t feel like myself at all. I’m in this funk, you know, feel really depressed all the time, and I don’t – I don’t understand.”
So an interesting thing happened the other day. We won a Clasico and I was exiled out of the house because people couldn’t stand seeing my smiling mug derping all over the place. Okay, not actually true – I decided to go out myself, but at any rate I ended up going to a local bookstore (complete with comfy chairs and a Starbucks) because that’s what I do for fun.
In said bookstore, I bee lined for the sports section which is like 65% hockey and picked up two books to read that stood out to me. The first was The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons, for reasons I will detail below, and the second was a pleasant surprise – I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ibra’s autobiography. I heard a lot about the book obviously, but I hadn’t really expected to find it in a medium sized bookstore (Chapters, for you Canadians) in Ottawa. So I went to a nearby chair, got settled, and cracked it open, curious to read what Ibra had to say.
Let me tell you: it was a humdinger, and I don’t even use that word in casual conversation. I couldn’t put it down.
Ibra was brutally honest, didn’t pull any punches, and the book was better for it. In all honestly, though I didn’t agree with some of his reasoning for his decisions, and I thought he could do with some better advice in his life, I understood them and I can see clearly why he made them. I came into the autobiography not really knowing what to expect and came out with a new found appreciation for Ibra.
The greatest praise I can give it is, he made me think. He reminded me football players, no, athletes in general, are people, just like you and me. And while you think, duh, what were you thinking before, let me just say I mean that at a fundamentally deeper level.
But before I get into that I want you all the get a taste of what kind of background Ibra has, the kind of culture (of prejudice and overcoming them) he grew up in and how it molded him into the person he is.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic grew up in Rosengård, a district in Malmo, Sweden that was home to many immigrants – Somalis, Poles, Serbs, etc – with two siblings, a older sister and a younger brother, a hardworking mother who Ibra says “had no luck with men”, and house full of other family members, including a drug addict half-sister. His father and mother divorced when Ibra was young and it wasn’t until social services separated Ibra and his sister that he found out his dad was an alcoholic that was so messed up by the Balkan War he had to drink away his sorrow. Previously, the ten year old Ibra thought his dad was the “fun weekend father” that bought he and his sister pizza and Coke they could never get otherwise.
He details how he spent a lot of his time at a child care centre, because his mother worked fourteen hours a day, and how he struggled in an environment where he constantly felt like he didn’t belong. He makes a point to say his family was nothing the typical Swedish family that said things like, Darling, please pass the milk, over the table (his family, he notes, would say, Get it yourself, asshole!). One time he fell off the roof as a child and he came to the centre crying, expecting a hug or some form of consoling gesture, only to get smacked upside the head and berated for being on the roof in the first place. Ibra had a speech impairment complete with a lisp that had to be trained out of him as a child.
All throughout his childhood, adolescent and young adult life Ibra was dogged by “bad boy” label, the image that he was nothing but trouble. At school, he gives an anecdote on how he was good at math, could understand numbers easily, but lazy to show his work – and his teacher assumed he was cheating because they didn’t expect a guy like him – rowdy, gets kicked out of class – not to. And as his grades struggled, he was saddled with special one-on-one teacher which Ibra notes really messed him up. It affected his self-worth, his confidence, his perception on how people saw him. Another anecdote he gives is how he mustered up the courage to ask out a girl and then thought he was stood up because she hadn’t come at the scheduled time – he beats himself up, thinking, as if a girl like her would go out
with “the kid with the special teacher following him around at school.” Turned out the girl’s bus was late and she was upset when she didn’t see him there.
For Ibra, his only solace was football. It wasn’t even that he was better than anyone else when he was young, he just kicked around the ball, played with the kids on the streets, because what else did he have to do, really? He got those collectable cards of footballers, like those kids in the US collect baseball cards of their heroes, at stores when he had the money. He’d see Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee on the TV and admired them, particularly Ali.
Even when he played for Malmo FF, his hometown team, he didn’t really think he’d be professional until a guy on trial for them told him, “If you’re not professional in three years, it’s your own fault.”
He’d never gotten that kind of encouragement before – his dad wasn’t like other football fathers who supported their kid at a young age – and he started to think, hey, maybe, I could. Ibra himself used to say he talked big back in the day, like when he shouted back to his Italian teacher once that he’d learn the language when he played in Serie A, but that he didn’t actually believe he could make it.
A pivotal day in his life and his career was when his dad came to the Malmo training ground one day. A visit apropos of nothing (though Ibra would speculate it was because his father had been in a low point in his life, with Ibra’s mom and sister drifting from him a bit, particularly Ibra’s sister who Ibra said was the “apple of my father’s eye.”) his father had come to the ground, cleaned up and spiffy in a grey suit jacket, and looked so proud of Ibra that he felt buoyed by something for the first time in his life.
Since that day, his father followed the team religiously, cut out newspaper clippings about Ibra, and his dad’s suite because a “shrine to him.” In fact Ibra would change the name on the back of his shirt from “Zlatan” to “Ibrahimovic” in honor of his father, who he rediscovered that day and is still close to even now.
From there, Ibra became professional, moved to Ajax where he met van Basten, who he would admire for being “independent” and who gave him the advice that if he knew his own way, he shouldn’t listen to coaches. People still thought Ibra was unbalanced, that he was a time-bomb waiting to explode, and Ibra was getting tired of those thoughts that were never said but always implied – though Ibra did note he was a wild child. A case of ‘ people keep seeing you one way, what’s the difference if you become that way, anyway?’ And Ibra does admit that though he himself wasn’t a bad kid, he and bad friends gravitated to each other, like magnets.
Eventually the idea of “I’ll show them”, of him being against the world, became his philosophy. If he was always seen as an outsider and a loose cannon, then f it all, he was going to embrace it. He was the guy who drove red Ferraris because he loved fast, flashy cars – but more importantly, to show he made it.
Yeah, he was the kid with the special one-on-one teacher, the kid from the broken home, the kid no one expected would be anything other than a criminal, but he’d made it. He was good at what he did. He wouldn’t change himself to fit in anymore, because he stood out regardless, and it was better for him and his self-esteem that he embraced his “otherness” than reject it for people who wouldn’t truly accept him, anyway.
Ibra, in many ways, reminded me of those kids with crippling self-esteem issues who hid their insecurity with bravado and a cocky attitude. In fact, he so much as says it himself. The difference is he channelled all of that into his training, worked harder, ran faster, so that all that hot air would be reality. He wouldn’t just be the guy who talked the talk, but walked it too. Not at all surprising for a guy who heavily admired Muhammad Ali, a man who defied all conventional thought for athletes his day and was as deadly with his words as he was with his fists.
And Ibra succeeded. The misunderstood kid with a chip on his shoulder who fought against the prejudices against him (tabloids constantly derided him for being bad news and he always made headlines for the wrong reasons) became one of the most celebrated players in the world. The kid who wanted to be special and liked for the right reasons now had people chanting, “Zlatan, Zlatan” wherever he goes and he was the idol of the country he felt he was an outsider to.
It was a fascinating biography that I recommend, but it really got me thinking about this other theory I’ve had simmering at the back of my mind but could never really fully articulate. Now, I think I can and it has to do with the different attitudes towards sport.
Remember that Bill Simmons book I talked about earlier? In the end, I didn’t really read it since I was so engrossed with the Ibra bio I hadn’t found the time. But the reason I picked it up was for two reasons: 1) I like basketball and I wanted to read more about it, but more importantly, 2) every time I read a book, or an article by someone from North America, particularly the US, it’s always a jarring experience and I’ll tell you why. It’s something that intrigues me.
The only sport I follow closely is football, particularly football in Spain, specifically Barcelona. The attitude in Barcelona with regards to team dynamics is this: you are subservient to the team. The team is always first. No player is being than the club.
That attitude is exacerbated (so to speak) by the culture of humility that Catalans have. To go into it would be a long tangent, but the gist is it stems from the political environment that Catalunya has in contrast to Madrid. They are the simple, humble people who don’t stand out and give into excess whilst Madrid are the opposite – fast cars, wild fashion statements, grandiose personalities., etc.
At Barça, you don’t stand out, you drive the club car, you’re respectful of your teammates, the coaching staff and the club’s history, you listen to the coaches, you have to give everything and sacrifice anything for the team. Remember, to play for Barcelona is a privilege and you are not bigger than the club. You play for Barça, you respect our values. (At least that’s how I see it. Please, correct me if I’ve said something wrong!)
That works for me. I get it. As a Canadian, that’s pretty much how I’ve been conditioned since forever and my personality is such that I have no problems co-operating with people or deferring to others, anyway. This is not to say we don’t know how to lead or that we’re followers; it’s just that we are polite and like to work well with others and not cause any friction.
So in football when you have more than one “star” player on the side, the (sometimes unspoken) expectation is that these two will work together. The media ask them if they can play together and even if one journalist wants to play devil’s advocate and ask them how it feels to be one of many stars instead of the star, the expectation is – there won’t be any problems, or rather, there shouldn’t be any problems.
These guys will put aside whatever egos they have and play for the team. Otherwise, get out. And this is the kicker: if the team starts to rely inordinately on one player, that’s horrible. The worst. The team will be questioned to all hell and scorn will be poured on them. “One-man team,” the detectors will say in disgust. “Take that player out and they’d be so crap.”
And I think in general most countries have that same attitude to team sports. You can’t have one player carrying the team. That’s just not how it should be. It’s a team sport for a reason – all for one, one for all – that sort of thing.
So when I pick up books like The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons I know I will reading things through the lens of someone who has a diametrically opposite view of team sports.
The North American attitude (actually, I should say American, because Canada for the most part has the same view as Europeans re sport) to sports has always interested me, like the whole idea of a team being “yours” and being The Man and how it’s not seen as a bad thing like in football/Europe, and it’s like it’s expected that these top stars will be arrogant(ish), that they’ll stand out in every way, have this grandeur personality and drive flashy cars, etc. And it seems people who grow up in this ‘culture’ seem to expect the worst from the top stars all the time, like it’s normal, and they bring that attitude with them to football and it’s like seeing a clash of two very different ways people view sports stars.
That’s why it’s always jarring when I read books/articles by American people, whether it’s b-ball or when I hear pundits talk about hockey; this sort of jaded attitude, like this constant imagine of what a (star) athlete should be is constantly perpetuated – this whole big man on campus thing- and it’s really alien to me, like I’ve never seen this mythical arrogant sports star outside the US (even Canadian hockey players are drilled to be humble or whatever) to the point where I can’t help but think the athletes themselves buy into it too; that when they “make it” they think that’s the way they’re supposed to act. Like fans shouldn’t expect loyalty, they’ll leave for more money, they will always put themselves before anyone else, but they will carry the team, “step up”, etc.
It really fascinates me, the cynicism. In Ottawa there was this hockey player, Dany Heatley, who was a big star, I think – why else would people care so much? – and there was this big circus about how he was leaving for more money or something and people were really pissed off, betrayed, but there was this undercurrent of, well, what did you expect? He’s a star athlete.
He’s got swagger and the skill to back it up. Only thinks about himself but it’s expected cos that’s how it goes. I see it in basketball too. As a pal of mine, @Jniceee17 on Twitter, said, “It’s true. LeBron, Kobe, etc. are expected to be THE MAN. There are debates daily on ESPN about how if LeBron doesn’t take the final shot… he’s hiding, and how they have to be selfish at the end of games. It’s pretty incredible.”
You have the story of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant at LA Lakers. While Kobe worked with Shaq and won together, they couldn’t stand each other because they both felt they were the best.
And so you have me who perceives things through the team > all lens, that it’s expected that players will submit to the club, and on my twitter account there’s other people who have that other mindset, that jaded one where they expect the worst of footy players, that they will hold the club hostage for more money in contract negotiations, that there will be friction between star players because they’ve seen it before, with Shaq and Kobe – and it’s really jarring. Not bad, per se. Just different.
Then I read Ibra’s autobiography and I gained new insight into the nature of his departure from Barça.
Ibra in many ways was a player with an American mentality dropped into a team that had a diametrically opposite view to everything that Zlatan felt made him who he was. Ibra had all the tools to succeed at Barça but chose to preserve his own perceived identity instead. If someone told me when he was sold that he’d leave his dream because of that instead of something more shallow like wanting to be The Man, well. I don’t know what I would have thought because that stuff’s significantly deeper than the football fandom is used to.
The reason he liked Mourinho was because Mou gave Ibra extra attention, made him feel special like he was The Man. In his autobiography he says he didn’t know what to think of Mourinho, knew his journey from translator to coach and was intrigued by his story in England, already indentified and sympathized with Mou’s status as the bombastic foreigner with unusual swagger (he was an outsider, a feeling Ibra was intimately acquainted with), but he didn’t know him. Then Mourinho texted him constantly, told Ibra’s partner specifically to take care of Ibra, and Ibra was instantly won over. Mourinho pushed him, fought with him, and Ibra understood him better than any of the coaches he’d had. Because him and Mou – they were cut from the same cloth. They started from the bottom up. They were outsiders who beat the system, so to speak. They were guys driven by their passion; they fight tooth and nail one second, be the best of buddies the next.
At Barça, the club and Guardiola treated Ibra like he was just one of the guys. Who cares if he was the most expensive signing in Barça history; he’s here now and it’s just like everyone else. He doesn’t fly in private jets, he doesn’t drive his Ferraris, he respects his teammates, and listens to the coach unconditionally. He’s polite, humble and a team player. There is no man here, only the team.
And he struggled with that.
“Here everyone did as they were told. I didn’t fit in, not at all. I thought, Just enjoy the opportunity. Don’t confirm their prejudices. So I started to adapt and blend in. I became way too nice. It was mental. [..] I was the second most expensive player in history, and the papers wrote that I was a problem child and had a flawed character, all the rubbish you can imagine, and unfortunately I was feeling the pressure of everything – that here at Barça we don’t make a show and stuff, and I guess I wanted to prove that I could do it too.”
He makes a point to mention Messi coming to Barça at 13, being “raised in that culture”, and you get the feeling he’s thinking, if I adapt here, if I fit in, I’ll be assimilated. I’ll change and I’ll be throwing away the person I am to become the person someone else wants me to be. I’ll be changing for them instead of them accepting me. It’ll be like my life as teen again. He always had that chip on his shoulder, of being the misunderstood outsider, and he used the rage and insecurity he felt and channelled it into his football. Trained harder, thinking, I’ll show them, and when he came to Barça – his teammates were nice, ridiculously talented, accommodating. There was no push and pull, no bite, no bravado or a need to impress. He suffered what essentially read like an identity crisis : a man who built his life bashing through barriers found himself with no obstacles to break though. That constant battle, the passion, was gone, and Ibra felt he had gone with it.
And well, what can you say to that?
“I said what I thought people wanted me to say. It was completely messed up. I drove the club’s Audi and stood there and nodded my head the way I did when I was in school, or rather the way I should have done when I was at school. I hardly even yelled at my teammates any more. I was boring. Zlatan was no longer Zlatan.”
Ibra acknowledges, “I started off the season brilliantly. I scored one goal after another. We won the UEFA Supercup. I was amazing. I dominated the pitch. Yet I was a different person. Something happened – nothing serious, not yet, but still. I grew quiet, and that’s dangerous – believe me. I used to be angry to play well. I used to shout and make noise. Now I was keeping it inside. Maybe it something to do with the press. I dunno. [..] I was still awesome on the pitch. It just wasn’t as much fun anymore.”
He also says: “Mino Raiola, my agent and good friend, said to me, “What’s up with you, Zlatan? I don’t recognize you.” Nobody recognized me – none of my mates, no one at all. I started to feel down, and you have to know that, ever since my days at Malmo FF, I’ve had the same philosophy: I do things my way.
“I don’t give a damn what people think, and I’ve never enjoyed being around uptight people. I like guys who go through red lights, if you know what I mean. Now, though, I wasn’t saying what I wanted to say.”
It’s clear there is a clash of cultures and identity here, but a key difference is that he didn’t begrudge Leo Messi at all. He says: “Lionel Messi is awesome. He’s totally amazing. I don’t know him all that well. We’re very different people. He joined Barça when he was thirteen years old. He’s been brought up in that culture and doesn’t have a problem with that school crap. Within the team, play centres around him, which is entirely natural – he’s brilliant.”
The problem was that Ibra thought he was brilliant too, and didn’t want to be sacrificed by the team. He wanted to be the one the team centred around. I don’t adapt to you, you adapt to me. You brought me here with a record transfer, I’m the star, I earned it, listen to me. He couldn’t understand why the others were so obedient, it was like being in not just another country, but on a different planet entirely.
“To be honest none of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang – they were like schoolboys. The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous. If the trainers in Italy say, “Jump” the stars will look at them and go, What are they on about? Why should we jump?”
So fundamentally, from a philosophical point of view, Barcelona and Ibra didn’t match at all. So many times when we talk about a transfer in football, we talk about the player’s skill set and remove the background and personality of the player. We think in “cold terms” so to speak. Forget the person, we talk about the player. Only here, the person was completely unsuitable to the team and it blindsided a lot of fans when we sold him. Reading the biography, there was no other option than to sell Ibra, it was inevitable, but from the outside, it was totally baffling. Almost inconceivable that we’d sell the most expensive player in Barça history after a season.
It’s all too easy to see players as fictional characters, because football is a spectacle for our entertainment and their players personal lives is just one more thing to draw some kind of amusement from. By ignoring his background, how he got to where he is, we missed the neon lights that would have told us Ibra and Barça were like oil and water with regardless to their philosophies.
Imagine coming to another country and the people there essentially said, we don’t know where you came from but buy into our, completely different, culture. If you’ve got to leave behind yours, then so be it. Obviously it wasn’t that black and white, but that’s essentially what the issue here is, and it’s about a million times more sympathetic than the ego show journos and fans were trotting out. This is some deep stuff.
Going back to the clash of mentalities between American and non-American sports fans, a pal made a great point in saying that the reason Ibra has been turned into this kind of memetic badass in football fandom – “I am Zlatan! Who are you?” – is the American type of personality he has. We are always talking about something he’s done or in awe of the way he goes, “I’m the best” but that’s done regularly by athletes in US.
Then you have the people who grew up in the American culture of the man, of big swaggering athletes, and they take that mindset and all that baggage with them when they go to footy and view it through that lens. They see Henry and Eto’o and Messi and think it’s only a matter of time before there’s friction or a bust up, because they’ve seen it before Shaq and Kobe, because they think there can only be one.
See the way Dwayne Wade was taking heat (ha!) for essentially ceding The Man status to LeBron, that by saying Miami was LeBron’s team and he was here to help him, Wade’s estimation went down in some fans/media’s eyes. He was a coward, happy to play second fiddle. Now contrast that with Neymar who said Barça was Leo’s team, see the way he was applauded for his humility.
In Spain, Messidependencia – Messi-dependency – is used as a pejorative word but in the US that would be the expectation. So I mentioned how Messi gets bad press for the supposed “dictator” thing, like it’s the worst thing in the footy world, and wondered aloud about how people in the US would react to a once-in-a-lifetime player like Messi and a team like Barça. The answer was the people would expect him to be “the dictator” there; they’d probably criticize him for lack of personality and want him to be more cocky and demonstrative and what not.
I really enjoyed Ibra’s bio and it made me think a lot. About the different sporting mentalities, how Americans view football stars and if they’re worried that The Man culture of individuality over the team will permeate into the football community, and the players/coaches that share Ibra’s kind of personality and background, like Cristiano Ronaldo. Those people who come from tough backgrounds, that fought to get to where they are now. People thought Ibra’d be a criminal but he became a world-wide football idol, supposedly it was the same for Cristiano too, who was derided in his youth (at Sporting Lisbon) for being homesick and a mama’s boy. (Lisbon and CR’s hometown are far apart, I think).
And on the subject of Cristiano, I don’t hate him, obviously, but the football fandom loves their pantomime villains. When Cristiano throw a tantrum on the field or is upset in general, millions take part in some unbridled schadenfreunde, myself included. But I suppose asking a fan to consider athletes and players as people is too much. We kinda mention it, in our serious moments, but mostly, it’s totally hilarious to see Cristiano denied a penalty and cry about it afterwards, and it will probably continue to be.
But sometimes, you read books like this and it makes you pause and think, and isn’t that something?