The Winningest Loser
Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimović confounds the sports world's most-cherished clichés.
It's hard to know whom Zlatan Ibrahimović tortures more, his opponents or his fans. For his on-field adversaries, the big Swedish striker is the most consistently, and maddeningly, triumphant player in soccer. Ibrahimović wins soccer leagues the way FDR won presidential elections. Since transferring to Ajax from his boyhood club, Malmö FF, in 2001, he's picked up nine league championships in 10 years. (Two of them, won with Juventus in 2005 and 2006, were technically revoked by the verdict in the calciopoli case.) He has, ridiculously, achieved this feat while jumping to five different teams, in three countries. When his A.C. Milan squad clinched the scudetto last month, it was the Italian club's first title since 2004. It was Ibrahimović's eighth in a row.
And yet despite his status as either the game's most dominant figure or its most improbably potent good luck charm, Ibrahimović is widely perceived, even by his own supporters, as a moody, eccentric player. The accepted narrative of his career depicts him as a locker- room prima donna who wilts under pressure and whose success is a kind of monstrous joke. Pained Ibraphiles can look back on a long catalog of slights. There's the general mockery: of his appearance (tall, vulpine, shaggy), scoring record against English clubs (dismal), stretch Hummer (gold), jeans (factory distressed), tendency to vanish in Champions League games (real), and ego (prodigious). There's the embarrassment brought on by his famous sense of modesty. "Can anything stop you from becoming the best player in the world?" he was asked in 2001, to which he responded: "Injury." There was the time Martin O'Neill called him "the most overrated player on the planet." There was the day the great centerback Alessandro Nesta, now his teammate at Milan, declared that he was "a shit."
And there are the controversies. By soccer standards—restaurant DJs are hospitalized and children mowed down seemingly every day, and that's only Steven Gerrard—Ibrahimović's scandals aren't especially outrageous. For Ibrahimović, scandal is a volume business. He specializes in a particular type of micro-flare-up, the blog-post-sized crypto-drama that draws attention simply by being so strange. Last month, he celebrated Milan's scudetto win by kicking his squadmate Antonio Cassano in the face. During his stint with F.C. Barcelona in 2009-10, he made bizarre homophobic comments to a reporter who questioned his sexuality after an equally bizarre picture of him standing extremely close to defender Gerard Piqué started circulating on the Internet. Ibrahimović scored 16 goals in 29 league games with Barcelona. But supporters debated whether his blockbuster transfer was merely a bad mistake for the club or the worst of all-time.
Thus the peculiar agony of the Ibrahimović fan: Your club gets to win a championship, magically, but you're simultaneously forced to endure an endless series of embarrassments. It's enough to make supporters wonder whether winning a championship is worth it. Perhaps the best measure of Ibrahimović's legacy is that he's not particularly well-liked by fans at any of the clubs he's left, despite the fact that he brought nearly all of them trophies. Ibrahimović might be the only athlete who could win eight titles in a row and not have that seem like the most salient fact about him.
When he's paying attention, Ibrahimović is a player of vast talents, amazingly graceful for his size, with a body that's able to arrange itself into any combination of angles. In four of the last five seasons, he's led his team in goals scored; the exception was the year at Barcelona, when he finished second behind Lionel Messi. "He can change the breathing patterns of 80,000 people," a friend in Milan once told me. He can score with power, with slippery technique, with devastating timing. In one delirious goal, netted for Ajax against NAC Breda in 2004, he starts with the ball 10 yards outside the penalty area. Then he embarks on a low-tempo invalidation of the entire NAC defense, a leisurely dribble through the area during which he foils six separate challenges, then the goalkeeper, with a string of erratic feints. By the time he finally shoots, four defenders have fallen down. The rest have forgotten what year it is.