Zlatan Ibrahimović, football’s most and least important player, enters his final act.
Zlatan’s last for Sweden is against Belgium, in the group stages of this June’s Euros. It starts as ordinary football— a long cross from the right, early and a little hopeful. A low bounce, and Marcus Berg’s foot is racing Toby Alderweireld’s face for a touch just beyond the penalty spot. A gentle upward loop, back toward where Zlatan has stolen half a yard from Thomas Vermaelen. He glances quickly at Thibaut Courtois’s positioning and takes a short, chopping step toward the ball.
It’s a clear chance, but a challenging one. Central, only eight or 10 yards out, but the ball’s coming down slowly enough that Vermaelen will get near it, and in this late afternoon of his career Zlatan’s a six-foot-five pillar of muscle and self-certainty, but not the world’s fastest. The percentage play, the way to work Courtois, is for Zlatan to rise up immediately into the elite athlete’s momentary antigravity, to twistee-treat his whole spinal column, and dart a header toward either of the closest corners of the goal.
But this is Zlatan. Instead he waits, gathers, until Vermaelen is seemingly closer to the falling ball than he is, and then he rises up on his right toes, stretches a long left leg up into the sky (past the surprised chin of Vermaelen), and hooks the ball across Courtois and into the far upper corner of the net. It’s perfect Zlatan: There are a few hundred other players large enough to reach the ball before Vermaelen, maybe 20 with the technique to keep the ball below the bar, and possibly two who’d even have the idea in the first place, but the intersection of those sets—of technical ability, insouciant creativity, and sheer bulk—is only and exactly Zlatan Ibrahimović.
Except there’s another, sadder way this goal is perfect Zlatan, which is that it didn’t count. Berg had already been whistled for a high boot. Courtois was already straightening, settling onto his heels. It was no goal. Zlatan knew. Already as he spun away from his shot he had extended arms and a rueful smile for the linesman. According to the game it did not exist. Zlatan was 34. He had already announced his retirement after the Euros. There were 30 minutes left in his international career: 116 appearances, 62 goals, no titles, no finals. Later, Radja Nainggolan scored a 25-yard curler, and Sweden lost 1-0.
This summer, Zlatan moved on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain to Manchester United. It feels awfully like a last act. At his age, Zlatan has already outlasted most elite center-forwards by several years. Overall, it’s been an odd career, part triumph and part absence, from Malmö FF to Ajax to Juventus, then Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, PSG, and now United. He’s tallied 392 league goals, won domestic championships in something like 75% of his professional seasons. In the Champions League and internationally, though, only a single agonizing semifinal tie, in which the team he’d left that summer beat the team he joined. Zlatan’s unquestionably one of the two or three most talented players of the modern period, but as his peers have revolutionized the game, Zlatan has only kept scoring goals and winning leagues. There’s been no tiki-Zlatan, false-Zlatan, gegenZlatan or Zlatanpressing, no Zlatan-centric system reimagining the sport in the manner of a Lionel Messi, Andrea Pirlo, or Cristiano Ronaldo. We have to ask: Why has Zlatan mattered so little?
But he’s mattered enormously. There are very few 34-year-old center forwards whose free transfers to Europa League qualifiers would merit public comments from club legends like Eric Cantona and the current No. 9, Anthony Martial, surrendering his number, who’d have Wayne Rooney muttering about how he hopes for an effective partnership. And so we also have to ask: Why has Zlatan mattered so much?
Largely, this is a testament to the force of his personality—Zlatan’s the loudest and almost unquestionably the most honest individual in the recent professional game, author of a million press-conference zingers and the best sports autobiography of all time, I Am Zlatan. In this final transfer, there’s more than a hint of the personal: Manchester United are surely not the side that gives him the best chance to win the Champions League title he’s always longed for. But they’re coached by José Mourinho, whom Zlatan loves and has some regret over leaving at Inter.
Perhaps more meaningfully, local rivals Manchester City are coached by Pep Guardiola—likely the one football figure Zlatan would most like to humiliate. It’s not hard to read this last transfer as a shot at exactly the kind of pulp-fiction affair Zlatan would love—that would have a personal meaning that is more important than one last Champions League campaign. Both Zlatan’s play and his public image, after all, are animated by an extraordinary charisma—the irrepressible, totalizing presence of Zlatan. It’s thrilling—the source of his charm. But what if it also has to do with his absence?
A brief history: Mourinho came to Inter in summer 2008, after leaving Chelsea the first time. Zlatan—established in the No. 8 shirt by then—loved his new coach but worried about the side’s quality. After a disappointing loss to Manchester United in the Champions League round of 16, Zlatan decided the side simply wasn’t good enough and forced a transfer. At the time—sold for £60 million plus Samuel Eto’o—he was the second most expensive transfer in history, and he was joining an absolute behemoth. Guardiola’s Barcelona had won the Champions League that year, and signing Zlatan seemed at the time like it would only confirm a years-long tiki-taka dynasty.
The next year, Mourinho coached Inter-minus-Zlatan to a counterattacking Champions League victory, knocking out Barcelona along the way. Zlatan had to content himself with a La Liga title and a diary of little alienations—Zlatanish hyperswagger was definitively out at Barcelona, whose players considered themselves not stars yet fabricantes, workers in Guardiola’s factory of hypermodern football. Zlatan was asked to play for the team rather than himself, to drive an Audi rather than a Ferrari, finally to cooperate meekly when Messi asked Guardiola to move him to the center of the field.
Guardiola agreed, at Zlatan’s expense—play through the center of the pitch henceforth culminated in dribbles and passes by Messi rather than shots by Zlatan. Here was a transfer record reduced to an accessory. Worst was that his usual methods—to boast and confront his way into a better situation—found no purchase. Guardiola wouldn’t even fight with him about it. He’d leave the room when Zlatan entered, ignore tirades, recite puzzling mantras, or just simply drop him for a few games. In the end, Zlatan forced a transfer back to Italy. Barcelona won the Champions League again the next year.
The bigger joke, though—and the reason Zlatan’s season in Barcelona is another inclusion in Zlatan’s flipbook of absence—is that in both of these cases the assholes may have been right. Inter-with-Zlatan may not have been good enough to win the Champions League, for example. It was only after replacing Zlatan with Diego Milito, a briefer and lesser player than Zlatan but one whose knee-mangling mobility was crucial to Inter’s press-and-counter playing style, that the side was (barely) good enough to do it. And more painfully for Zlatan, Guardiola’s decision to move his most creative midfielder into the center at the center forward’s expense might have been the right one even if the midfielder in question hadn’t been Messi.
That’s because—and here is one fundamental sadness of Zlatan’s career—the fundamental conversation of the modern game hasn’t been about center forwards or goal scoring, but about midfields and possession. You can phrase this however you want—Mourinho vs. Guardiola, Xavi vs. Ronaldo, order vs. entropy—but the drama has been about whether it’s better to hold or give the ball. If Guardiola keeps the ball for long enough, he’s making gestures at perfection. If he loses it suddenly, Mourinho’s side can gobble up goals in the chaos of transition. To win these ties, you need midfielders of impossible technical quality (Xavi and Messi) or hive-mind level defensive coordination (Javier Zanetti), along with wingers (Ronaldo) who can burst brightly through the shattered spaces following a turnover.
In either style of play, the point is almost to remove the center forward’s quality from the set of variables: A possession No. 9 wants to tap in past a baffled keeper and his involuted center backs; a counterattacking No. 9 wants to take a pass with so much space that he can chip, or round, or sidefoot past from 20 yards. Other than that? Center forwards don’t pass in midfield, and they don’t defend in midfield. Zlatan, in particular, scores the kind of goals that win you leagues—muscled headers and acrobatic finishes from amid an inferior side’s parked bus. That’s why his transfer to Barcelona is still history’s second most expensive (after Luis Suárez) for a center forward—and he’ll repay, will convert a few percent more chances than a Olivier Giroud or Karim Benzema, but overall the center forward isn’t really at the center anymore. He’s necessary rather than sufficient. You need a center forward, but it’s much better to build a side around a midfield. All the more expensive players—Gareth Bale, Ronaldo, Neymar, James Rodríguez, Kevin De Bruyne, and Ángel Di María—are passers and runners, contributors to possession or transition in ways the center forward almost can’t be.
Zlatan grew up in Rosengård, an immigrant district of Malmö. I Am Zlatan gives it as Dickensian. His father is Bosnian and his mother Croatian, refugees from a war in Europe’s south. He steals bicycles. His mother beats him with a wooden spoon until it breaks. He pours his father’s beer down the drain. He shoplifts. His family is investigated frequently by Protective Services. He survives meningitis. He misbehaves at school and is assigned a special teacher. His mother sends him to buy a new wooden spoon.
Throughout, Zlatan plays football. He plays for youth clubs all over Malmö. He yells at his opponents. In his father’s backyard he duplicates videos of Romário. He yells at his teammates. He plays for a series of clubs and scores apparently numerous goals. In his youth he sees himself as a dribbler. He plasters his room with Ronaldo posters. He hits the special teacher in the head with a shot. At the age of 17, he’s called up, finally, to the first team.
Throughout his youth, Zlatan is opposed by an endless procession of coaches, referees, and teammates’ parents—the good sporting fathers of Sweden. They buy their sons expensive cleats and polo shirts. They believe in Scandinavian social democracy and in equality and in the virtues of collaboration. They believe that youth footballers shouldn’t yell at one another and shouldn’t tackle all that hard. Above all, they believe that Zlatan shouldn’t dribble. Dribbling is too much. Anyone could dribble, if they were selfish enough—dribbling reflects no special talent but a failure to co-exist, an immigrant immodesty. Zlatan loathes them. “It made me nuts,” he writes. “Who the hell were they to stand there and judge me?” Over time they blur into one long smear of Nemesis: the dads who want you to restrain your self-expression.
Notably, this wasn’t an on-pitch problem. Once Zlatan had the ball nobody could stop him. The threat presented by the Swedish Dads was that he might not see the pitch at all. On one occasion, after a training-ground scuffle, some fathers petitioned to expel Zlatan from a Malmö FF youth side. And so Zlatan’s true struggle became not to play but to make social space to play the way he wanted. His solution, basically, was to allow his rage to become the guardian of his passion. “I just went for it,” he writes. “I kept at my tricks. I played the tough guy.” He fought with everyone, and the crucial early-career goals are often described as instances of proud revenge. “That face I made! That’s power. That’s, Here I am, you bastards who just complained and tried to get me to give up soccer.” This was the problem with Guardiola, less tactical than personal—Zlatan’s proud individualism had always been his self-defense against the Sporting Dad Club, but Barcelona’s collectivist politics made Zlatan feel, for the first time in his adult career, like the childhood outsider, the ashamed interloper rather than the superstar he’d made himself.
And so, another answer to the Curious Case of the Vanishing Zlatan: that there may have been not only a positional but a temperamental clash with the systems of the modern game. Both possession and counterattack, after all, are ideas about control. Guardiola and his fabricantes are a technocrat’s fantasy of solvable entropy—that a sufficiently well- ordered self can impose a similar order on the world. Mourinho’s a bit different. What’s controlled by his sides isn’t the world but the self. There’s a rich ascetic urge in the great Mourinho sides, a Catholic understanding of the ball and its joys as sources of temptation rather than delight. Having the ball, Mourinho knows, only pulls you out of the defensive shape you want to be in. Either way—technocrats or monks—control begins in the self; it begins with surrendering either your messy darkness or your joy.
Zlatan’s problem is that he isn’t interested in control. He’s interested in thrills, in encounter. As a young player at Ajax he ran through the suburbs tossing firecrackers into gardens. He fired one of his early agents in part because he didn’t run enough red lights. He stole bicycles because he liked stealing, not bicycles. World control, Zlatan might say, is boring. What’s going to get you going if it’s all just the way you planned it? He and his wife fell in love when Zlatan had a 106-degree fever. And self-control is even worse. Self-control is just a way of paying someone else’s tab. They’re the assholes who want you to fit in. That’s their problem. Zlatan’s solution is be Zlatan, as loudly and as fully as possible. But that isn’t what the sport has wanted.
Nor is it, in recent years, what Europe has wanted. Guardiola’s Barcelona—like Arsenal, Bayern Munich, and the other lesser lights of elegant possession—weren’t just a football team. They were a fairy tale about the continent itself, about the well-meaning fabricantes of many nations. Wearing gaudy shirts, they labored together in peace for a project greater than themselves. But by the time they first won the Champions League in 2009, that Europe of calm and open markets was already beginning to erode. Already—in housing markets, in Greek public accounts, in Schäuble’s intransigent boardrooms, on ex-Baathist IRCs—the counterattacks were beginning.
Well, entropy increases. Zlatan always knew. Watch Zlatan after a bad call against Bordeaux, excoriating not only a referee yet the entire idea of France (“Play 15 years, I’ve never seen a referee in this shit country—don’t even deserve Paris Saint-Germain in this country—too good for all of you”) and there’s an image of an entire other Europe, a layer of antler hats and heavy swords that the previous five decades had conspired to suppress. There’s an image of Europe as contest rather than collaboration—an idea that the path to peaceable co-habitation lies through struggle and exhaustion rather than conferences in Flanders. And more and more—with fabricante-in-chief Xavi replaced by the biter Suárez, Diego Simeone ascendant, Guardiola a sad flailer after leaving Messi, with Britain retching out of Europe, with Paris and Munich and Nice and Istanbul and all the other names of places being coined again each day as names of tragedies—it can feel that the darker parts of Zlatanism, the rages and demands, are what’s required.
Or maybe we should say apparent Zlatanism. Because as enthusiastic as Zlatan is about interpreting himself, there’s far more in him than anger. Here’s the paradox. Go back and watch those goals again. Watch the games between the goals. Watch Zlatan at Ajax, selling NAC Breda’s entire defense on two dummies before selling the goalkeeper on a third. Watch Zlatan for Sweden, bicycle-kicking in from 30 yards after Joe Hart muffs a header. Watch the man he is afterward, running and laughing and smiling. And then think of other players who you’ve seen—think of Costa or Suárez or Rooney, this whole generation of pugilists. Think of Cristiano Ronaldo, who scores, who leaps, and then just stands and smolders.
The point: We know what rage looks like on the pitch. We know the vacant eyes, the canny tugs, the stamps and kicks. But as much as it’d be consistent with his petulance in interviews, Zlatan doesn’t play angry. What he and his body are working out against the world is not a sense of grievance. It is not a wound. Zlatan was foreign, he was brown, he was encouraged not to dribble—but his mature play is precisely not revenge for these facts. What it expresses instead is a sense of unrestrained possibility. It expresses that, hey, maybe we can bicycle this in from somewhere in defensive midfield. Hey, maybe we can settle the ball with our thoracic spine. Hey, maybe even though we are embodied, even though we are besieged—maybe we can try these silly awkward things, and they can work. Hey, maybe we can steal that bicycle and have a nice long ride. Hey, maybe being alive—being right here, in the world, right now—maybe that can make us happy. If you had to give a single word, you’d say that Zlatan’s goals express something in the neighborhood of joy. That’s Zlatan’s alchemy—an impossible conversion of pain into sheer delight. And it’s the reason we’ll be lucky to have as many years from him as we possibly can. It’s 2016, after all: Paths ahead seem darker than they did. But Zlatan proves that life doesn’t have to be smooth to be worth loving, and that it can be lived well with values other than control.