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.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Click image to expand.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of A.C. Milan

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.

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.

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.