Zlatan Ibrahimovic: How the Swedish soccer star confounds the sports world's most-cherished clichés.

The stadium scene.
June 22 2011 6:45 AM

The Winningest Loser

Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimović confounds the sports world's most-cherished clichés.

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And this is where that gold stretch Hummer raises its deepest philosophical conundrum. One of the characteristic anxieties of sports culture is the tension between virtue and entertainment—a putatively old-fashioned ideal of discipline, moral instruction, and self-sacrifice against a narrative craving for theater, color, and flamboyant self-promotion. This division predates the 1960s—Achilles was the first contract holdout, just as he was the first draft dodger—but Ali's knockout of Liston in '64 and England's World Cup victory in '66 provide the guideposts for the age of modern media. From the mid-60s on, on both sides of the Atlantic, the games we watched would be populated by charismatic bigmouths and noble warriors of duty, with nobody in between.

The racial component to that division is obvious, Joe Namath aside, and it's relevant that Ibrahimović—a non-blond Swede whose parents emigrated from Eastern Europe—has at times been targeted for his racial ambiguity. (Fans in Serie A have taunted him as a "dirty gypsy," a hugely charged insult in Italy.) But the real trouble for Ibra is that his particular style of arrogance leaves him nowhere on the sliding scale that determines an athlete's cultural identity. You know how this works. The media, which creates the appetite for big personalities, also punishes the players that feed it. The modest-seeming guys, the Kevin Durants and Leo Messis—the ones who make commentators say, "as great as he is as an athlete, he's an even better person"—are held up as paragons. The bigmouths and the LeBrons, who represent mass-media values far better than the faux-conservative rectitude that's baked into most sports pundits,are the ones who drive ratings.

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The normal redemption narrative for a player who's been villainized for his ego runs through "passion" and hard work. Cristiano Ronaldo can be derided as a preening gigolo, but because every carefully gelled hair on his head seems to be devoted to soccer, he earns a measure of respect. Winning, commitment, and hard work are all supposed to be closely linked. But here's the thing about Ibrahimović: He wins and wins without seeming to give a fuck. Ibra checks out of games for long stretches, is easily distracted, doesn't try all that hard with the media, and, when he happens to feel like it, plays unforgettably awesome soccer. The one thing the sports culture can't stand is a player who doesn't acknowledge the sports culture—someone who gets Bill Russell's results with Wilt Chamberlain's lifestyle and work ethic. Ibrahimović wins championships without exhibiting any of the virtues that we've collectively decided to believe championships exist to corroborate. And so he's punished twice—first for not being stereotypically heroic, and second for not being stereotypically villainous.

The irony is that Ibrahimović's indifference to all this macronarrative folly is one of the qualities that make him so exciting to watch. It's his audacity, finally, that makes his fans love him, no matter how absurd he becomes. Once a game or so, Ibrahimović tries something that no other player would even think of. He scores goals in positions from which other strikers would never imagine a shot. See, for instance, his famous strike for Juventus, hit from 35 yards out, while tightly marked, with his wrong foot. Or his off-balance cross-goal scissor kick for Milan against Fiorentina last season. (After that amazing moment, he managed to injure himself during the goal celebration—a characteristically Ibrahimovićian touch.)These may be the moves of a player so anarchically self-absorbed that he believes his own fiddling around on a soccer pitch takes precedence over the rules that govern a multibillion-dollar cultural behemoth. They're also the moves of a player who can make 80,000 people hold their breath.

Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.