”I am Swedish and I represent Sweden wherever I go. And the story I have written about what I have done, about being the best football player in history, I stand by it. Tell me anyone that has done what I have done on the field. No-one. No-one. But sometimes shit happens, and when shit happened, it felt like some people liked the shit better than the success. I sensed a closeted racism there. If my name would have been Svensson, it would have been another story…”
There are, seemingly, two Zlatan Ibrahimovićs.
One is the legend, the myth, the god-like persona that has mesmerized an entire world since he set foot in the zeitgeist some 15 years ago. He is the fierce football player that has made more national goals than any other Swedish player (62 to be exact) and won player of the year a record 11 times (whereof 10 consecutive). He is the world-class striker who has scored over 500 career goals, won championships in four different leagues, played with legendary clubs like Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, and Manchester United, and continues to stun audiences and commentators alike with his magical, mind-bending, gravity-defying goal-making. He is the entertainer that delivers crowd-pleasing one-liners to American talk-show hosts (”I’ve decided to give myself as a gift”, he told Jimmy Kimmel) and generates endless social media memes (”Zlatan Ibrahimović once had a cigarette. The cigarette became addicted to Zlatan.”). He is the PR machine that placed a fullpage ad in the Los Angeles Times upon his arrival to his current club LA Galaxy. It read, with his typical brand of un-Swedish self-confidence:
”Dear Los Angeles. You’re welcome.”
This is the Zlatan that we all know. The one we’ve become so proud of. The one that conquered the world and exceeded all expectations. This is the Zlatan that, when becoming rich and famous, lived lavishly like you’d expect a football player to live. Who bought the cars and the watches and the dream house in his home town of Malmö, almost against the sellers’ wishes (eventually, money talked). He is the one that, when realizing he would not be granted the city permit to build a wall as high as he wished around his new house, decided to lower the entire garden to get the privacy he needed.
And it is my conviction that this is the Zlatan that Zlatan himself has believed in ever since he was a kid. The superhero he dreamed up, and then with brute force and fearless dedication decided to bring to life.
Then there is the other Zlatan.
The calmer, more thoughtful, even vulnerable Zlatan. The man behind the myth. The father to his children and the husband to his wife. He is the guy that cares more about representing his country in the National team than playing for a seven-figure salary in a club. The one who is troubled by the hostility in our culture. And for some reason, possibly because he is getting nearer the end of his football career, with less and less to prove, this Zlatan is shining through more and more in the public perception.
The best example of this is in a documentary that ran on Swedish national television SVT last summer, called ”Zlatan — för Sverige i tiden” (”For Sweden, in Time” is alluding to the official saying of the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf). In it, we get to hear Zlatan talk about his upbringing in the rough neighbourhood Rosengård in Malmö, where his dad would fail to feed him (”If someone gave you food, you ate to be full for three days”) and his mother give him a hard time (”I’d come home after I fell down from a roof, and she’d give me a slap, saying, ’who told you to go there’”). Anyone who has seen the film, myself included, can testify to the tears running down one’s cheeks when hearing him talk about how every child should get a chance to succeed, and that his goal for Sweden is to inspire new ”Ibrakadabras”.
— Zlatan is a paradox, says director Leo Razzak when I speak to him about making the documentary.
— He is both humble and cocky at the same time. I saw something very human in him. The little boy who wanted to be seen. The sadness. I felt a strong connection to that.
Leo Razzak is a well-known Swedish actor and social entrepreneur that grew up in similar conditions as Zlatan. He is half Swedish, half Bengalese (”for a long time I thought I was half, but then I realised I’m actually double!”), and grew up in Norsborg, a troubled projects-type suburb south of Stockholm.
— You have to understand, this ”believe in yourself”- attitude that Zlatan has conveyed his entire career, that was inherent in the type of areas that we grew up in. It’s not just a Zlatan thing, it’s a Yugoslavian thing. He often gets credit for something that is culturally conditioned. But when he broke out, it was a kind of release for us. All of sudden, your baggage was not necessarily bad, it could be transformed into something amazing. Zlatan has personified an entire generation’s attitude to itself.
Zlatan Ibrahimović rolls up alone in his Volvo xc90 to the house in Hollywood Hills that we have borrowed for this interview. He’s bringing neither an entourage, nor a publicist. He is dressed head-to-toe in a Swedish sportswear brand whose flagship store he recently raided on a vacation (”we bought everything”). He lowers his neck when stepping into the mid-century modern house located in Laurel Canyon.
— Hi, I’m Zlatan, he says with a clear Yugoslavian enunciation to his name.
I’m thinking about what Leo Razzak told me, that one of the most striking things about Zlatan is that he actually lives up to his god-like reputation. ”Time stops when he enters a room.” For a moment, it is absolutely true, but then his wide smile cracks up and he shakes the hand of every crew member, and a collective level of ease settles in the room.
— Oh, you’re also an eighty-one? he replies when I mention that we are born just a few weeks apart in the fall of 1981.
We were both kids when the war in Yugoslavia broke out at the beginning of the 90s, and the first really big wave of immigrants started flowing into Sweden. For Zlatan, who was born in Sweden to a Croat Catholic mother and a Bosniak Muslim father, it was especially present.
— I remember my dad having to fight to help all our relatives and friends. He made phone calls in the middle of the night, tried to help everyone. I remember going to these refuge accommodations in Sweden and hanging around with my relatives. I thought it was fun to see them, it was only later that I started to think about what really had happened.
Do you think Sweden was immature at the time when it came to dealing with immigrants?
— I don’t know. Sweden is neutral and wants to help. That’s why we love Sweden. People are saying we take in to many immigrants, and that we should close the borders. But we are kind in Sweden. I think we have a big heart. If someone needs help, Sweden are there to help. If Sweden won’t do it, who will?
In Zlatan Ibrahimović’s 2011 autobiography, I am Zlatan, he describes the difficulties of getting accepted early in his career. By his fellow team members in Malmö ff, his first professional team, but also from other teams and football fans around Sweden.
— I came from a generation that that brought something new, given the war in Yugoslavia. It wasn’t typical to have an Ibrahimović in the national team, or even Malmö FF. When I came to Malmö I felt, ”fuck, I’m not welcome here”. I came with this name, and I represented something new. He’s not Swedish, they said. He’s not like us. I had to go through all that. But I grew from it. I took all that criticism, all that negativity, and turned it into power. I realised quickly that I had to be better than everyone else to get the same chance as the guy next to me.
In the book, there is a vivid scene from his early career, when he played against the Stockholm team Djurgården. He describes how the audience chanted: ”We hate Zlatan! We hate Zlatan!” His team ended up winning by 4—0. ”Do you know what happened?”, he writes. ”I was surrounded by Djurgården’s fans, and no-one wanted to fight or hate anymore. They wanted my autograph.”
His way to cope with hostility has always been to beat the doubters on the field.
— Where I come from, it’s all about having a lot of confidence. When something new came up, I needed to be the best. It wasn’t just about football, it was about basketball, ping-pong, everything we did. It was not about being one in the crowd, it was about being the best. Everyone had that attitude where I came from.
— When I moved from Malmö and became a pro at Ajax, I remember being asked: ”Will you change as a person?” Never, I said. I have always promised myself, the way Zlatan was since day one, he will be until the last day. It doesn’t matter what happens throughout the journey. I will always be myself. It was in his early career that he developed a complex relationship with his publicity and public persona.
— In the beginning, I felt that the Swedish journalists were after something that didn’t feel natural to me. They wanted dirt, and I was just being myself. They asked, I answered. I said what was on my mind. Right or wrong, it came from the heart. I’m not perfect, I’m not trying to be perfect. But in Sweden, they were not grateful for the football player that I was, and they weren’t proud of what I did on the field. So I thought, ”Ok, I don’t need you, but you need me”. I think that’s when I started being more reserved in interviews. I wasn’t trying to be boring, but to answer simply. If you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer.
I think it is fascinating that you now live in a country where individualism is rewarded. It has many times been the individualism that you’ve been criticised for in Sweden.
— The collective is typically Swedish. The individual is not supposed to be bigger than the collective. Within football, yes, we are eleven men on the field, a few on the side, and the coach. Without the team, I’m getting nowhere. But when it comes to me, then I’m best. There are no two-ways about it. That’s my attitude, my confidence. I’m the one making the difference. If I’m the best, then my team is the best.
Zlatan moved to Los Angeles in the spring of 2018, following months of speculation on where he would go after his two-year stint at Manchester United. In interviews, he has hinted that it was his wife Helena Seger that pushed him to take the job in California. ”She wanted to see what it was like to live in la, and that was of many factors why I chose la. It was not like la chose me, I chose la”, he told the bbc in November last year.
The couple live in Beverly Hills, ”the flat part, not the hills”, with their two sons Maximilian, 12, and Vincent, 11. When he describes his life he uses the Swedish term ”svennebanan-liv”, which can be translated into ”Average Joe-life”.
— We live a very simple life, he says. In the home, we barely have a housekeeper. We are very organised. We’ve moved around so much so we know exactly what we need to have a good life.
Every parent struggles to be fair to their children, especially when they have such different preconditions than you had growing up. What do you bring with you from your own childhood as a parent to your children?
— Ouch… I try to bring with me everything, really. I think it is about finding a balance. As you say, my kids have it much easier than I had it growing up. If they want something, they could point at everything and get everything. But that’s not what I like and that’s not what I stand for. It’s about earning, and working for what you deserve. I try to bring a lot of discipline and respect. If they have that, then they will get very far as independent individuals. Because one day they will move out and take care of themselves. Sure, we are mother and father, but we won’t stand next to them in all their lives. We will be their support, but they will be independent. I try to raise them to think, to be disciplined and respectful, and to give them a lot of confidence.
Given your situation, where you can have anything you want, what is luxury to you?
— Luxury for me is not that I have a lot of money. With a lot of money comes the opportunity to make it easy for yourself. If I need to travel, I might not take a commercial flight, I might take a private jet. But that doesn’t make me happy. That’s what it means to have it good financially. Things become easier, you have more options, but it doesn’t make you happier, definitely not.
— What I try to create are the best opportunities for my kids, and give them the chance. But they have to take the chance themselves. I can open the door, they need to go through it. That’s what it is about. It’s up to each and every one to do what they want. Just because your dad is a football player and made some money, it don’t mean that you don’t have to do anything. Absolutely not. You have to do twice as much, and more and better. That’s what it’s about.
That’s how I see it.
Your own parents continued to work, even after you became financially independent.
—Yes, they still work to this day, both of them. In a way, I don’t like it, but at the same time, I do like it. Because they are proud people. They always used to say: ”what’s yours is yours, what’s ours is ours”. I want to help them in every way, and when I became a pro and made some money I told my mother, ”you don’t have to work, I will help you with everything.” And she told me: ”What am I supposed to do? Sit at home and die? No, I’m gonna work.” She actually works less hours, but she still works. They are both proud, hard-working people. I bring that with me, I like to work hard. Because I believe that hard work always gives back.
When Zlatan talks about the differences between his own upbringing and his children, he quickly mentions social media.
— It’s a whole other world compared to when I grew up, he says. We didn’t have social media. Today, you can be seen in a whole different way. Sure, you have to keep up and see where the world is going. But my kids don’t do social media. I don’t think they are ready. They don’t know how what the world is like out there, with all the followers and commentators. Out of ten people, maybe one or two are good people. The rest want something else. That’s why I choose not to show them in my social media. When they grow up and become independent, they can do what they want.
— The thing about raising children is that you always ask yourself: ”Is it right or is it wrong” when you do certain things. If I do the right thing all the time, I don’t know. That’s why I have my Helena. We share opinions, we share responsibility. And we do it in a way that we believe in. She was raised in her way, I was raised in my way. Yes, our children has much more possibilities than we had. But we try to do the best for them. It’s a beautiful thing, to see your own children grow up, to see what they become. After all the work you put in, all the time you spent with them, all the boring things you had to do. One thing is for sure. Now that I have my own children, I know what my own parents went through.
You have been together with Helena for 17 years now.
— Yes. Every day is a record.
What have you learned from your time with Helena?
— I’ve learned a lot from her. She is eleven years older than me. What we’ve been through has been rollercoaster, ups and downs, which is normal in every relationship. Since we got the kids, everything has gone 200 miles an hour. It’s a high speed rhythm, where everyday something new is happening. Helena has had a lot of patience and she has been strong. She would survive without me. That’s how strong she is.
Anyone who has heard Zlatan talk about football can testify to the enormous detail in which he can describe his matches, and particularly his goals. Every ball, every pass, every thought, every strategy, where he stood, how he jumped, what the audience looked like, and finally: the feeling after he scored the goal. In the documentary by Leo Razzak, Zlatan describes the field as a Colosseum, an arena in which he wants to entertain his supporters.
— He is a storyteller, says Leo Razzak. He has a very detailed memory about his achievements. It comes with having a third eye for the game. He sees things that other people don’t.
There has been a lot of chatter about Zlatan’s next step. His move to LA Galaxy is generally considered to be the last stop in his football career. In recent television appearances, he has admitted that he would like to try out acting (”I need to be the action guy”, he told Jimmy Kimmel in February).
— I wouldn’t be surprised if he went into acting, says Leo Razzak. I think he is on a path to work out his identity right now. During filming, I remember asking him if it was hard to be Zlatan. And after some thought, he said that it would be nice with some peace and quiet. I think that was very telling. I think Helena and the kids have done him good. If you are the top one percent of the top one percent, a certain responsibility creeps up. It’s more about legacy now, what he leaves behind.
The last few years, Zlatan has made several commercial appearances to market everything from cars (Volvo) and smartphones (Samsung), to gaming sites (Bethard) and credit cards (Visa), as well as his own brand of perfumes. Some people have questioned his credibility, given the heavy amount of ambassadorships. Naturally, It has also spawned a meme, in which Zlatan appears as Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. ”I’m Zlatan”, it reads. ”I’ve come to sell you stuff.”
Perhaps that’s why he’s being so generous with his time for this interview and photoshoot. In the end, we get to spend almost three hours with him, which was twice what we agreed. During the photoshoot, he seems to enjoy being styled (”no-one has ever done this with me before”). He is doing something that is outside of his otherwise much-scrutinized work as a football player and brand ambassador.
— I wanna do things that triggers me, that challenges me, he says. Where I can go in with the same attitude as always, to be the best. I wanna take over, make a difference, in everything. It’s the same with Scandinavian man. If we don’t get the most readers or whatever you are after, then I have failed.
How do you think about the next step in your career? There have been talks about you becoming a coach, or an actor…
— The only time I planned my future was when I went to Barcelona. It took one year before that crashed. So I don’t make plans. I take it day by day. Carpe diem. I try to enjoy it as much as possible, to feel good, and make life simple for everyone around me. So… just to accept the fact that I don’t know what happens after football.
Have you learned anything about your Swedish identity since moving to Los Angeles?
— Only that we are so many that represent Sweden in different ways. I’ve gotten to know many Swedish people here from many different fields, which makes me happy. We are only nine million people and still show that we can succeed, over and over. Whatever we do, we do it right.
You have a house in the Swedish mountains. What does the Nordic nature mean to you?
— I think the Scandinavian nature is fantastic. Every time I come out there, in the fresh air, I feel free. It’s very green, and in the winter it’s very white. I feel like I belong in the nature. Once I’m out there I feel can breathe, just being myself, with nobody watching me. I can walk however I want, smell the woods. Where I grew up it wasn’t like that. For me to have the possibility to enjoy time in nature is amazing. If I could choose, I would prefer to live out there.
What Scandinavian values are the most important to bring into the world?
— I speak mostly for Sweden, because what’s what I represent. Sweden is a beautiful country, and I think we represent a lot of values by being good people, by being neutral, and making people feel welcome. People in Sweden have a big heart, and I can imagine the whole Scandinavia, because the mentality is more or less the same.
You have repeatedly talked about what an honor it has been to represent Sweden in the national team. Why is that so important to you?
— I feel like I’m the new Sweden. People with my background represent Sweden in their own way, but we all do what matters, which is to represent our country. We have different backgrounds, but we are all Swedes. I represent Sweden through football, and I represent Sweden the way it looks today. Way back when, Sweden didn’t look like it does today. But it’s growing in a new direction. I feel like I’m the number one to represent Sweden this way, and to open doors for those who have a similar background of not being accepted, not being welcomed, because of the way you speak. I feel 200% Swedish. Wherever I go, I hold the Swedish flag, and I do it with pride and confidence. No one can take that away from me.