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History of Soccer, Week 6: The modern game and Zlatan Ibrahimovic

In our final class, we will look at several of the great teams, games and controversies since the 1970s, and we’ll also look at the complexities of the modern game en route to previewing this summer’s World Cup.

In anticipation of that, I want to devote this post to the best player in the world that will NOT be playing at the World Cup this summer: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Known to his fans and enemies alike as “Zlatan” or “Ibra,” he is in many ways characteristic of the modern soccer star. The first thing to know about him is that he is a Swede, born of a Bosnian Muslim father and a Croat Catholic mother, both of whom immigrated from Yugoslavia before it completely dissolved into civil war. Ibrahimovic won’t be playing in Brazil this summer because Sweden narrowly missed out on qualifying. *

Ibrahimovic grew up in underdog circumstances, in a scruffy immigrant neighborhood in Malmö where he spent a lot of time outdoors—away from his cramped apartment—playing soccer on the streets and in playgrounds. In his early adolescence, he began playing for the youth teams of the local club, Malmö FF, traditionally one of the top clubs in Sweden. By his late teens, it was clear to the club that he had the potential to become the best player in the history of Sweden.

After two seasons with Malmö’s senior team, when he was 19 years old, the club sold him to Ajax Amsterdam for about $12 million. It was by far the most money ever paid for a Swedish player, and the deal continues to be good for Malmö FF: The contract had what is known as a “sell-on” clause, meaning that every time Ibrahimovic changes clubs, Malmö FF gets a piece of the transfer fee. (This practice is intended to reward clubs for developing players.)

His star just kept rising. He was still very raw when he arrived at Ajax, but he received exceptional training at a club that is renowned for its tutelage of young players. After three seasons at Ajax, he was a bona fide star. In one of his last games for them, he scored what is still one of his most famous goals (and he has scored *many* spectacular goals).

Shortly afterward, he was sold to Juventus of Turin, Italy for about $22 million (with Malmö FF getting a cut). More successes followed as he went to Internazionale of Milan (“Inter”), then Barcelona, then AC Milan, and now Paris St. Germain. This last transfer cost PSG approximately $31 million (with Malmö FF getting a cut), and Ibrahimovic’s salary, including bonuses, is now supposed to be about $19 million a year. This doesn’t include his endorsement deals with Nike and other sponsors.

Now 32 years old and in his absolute prime, he’s been fortunate in avoiding major injuries, and he takes exceptional care of himself. Ibrahimovic can be unbearably obnoxious, egotistical and piggish, but he’s also funny, self-aware, and extremely intelligent (despite his rough upbringing, he was admitted to the most academically competitive high school in Malmö, although he ultimately dropped out to focus on football). He has the focus and discipline to make the most of his physical gifts, as well as the business savvy to ensure that he is paid what he is worth.

He’s a quintessential modern footballer in that he moves easily between countries and has a worldwide following. He speaks five languages fluently. He continues to score spectacular goals, too: Here’s a very famous one from late 2012, the fourth of four goals he scored against England in a comeback from 0-4.

There’s a wonderful documentary from 2000 called The Road Back, which I included in the syllabus. In 1999, Malmö FF was relegated to the second division, an unthinkable humiliation for such a proud club. The filmmakers decided to follow the team through its 2000 season in the second division as it worked to regain its place in the top flight. But the film’s focus soon turns to the teenage prodigy on the team, the mercurial but erratic Ibrahimovic. It’s a fascinating look at the culture of a storied club, first of all, and it’s an intimate portrait of a future superstar who is still living at home in a small apartment and struggling to live up to the expectations people have for him.

Here’s the link. It’s about 50 minutes long.

You may also be interested in this eloquent interview he gave to BBC last year.

* Sweden came close to qualifying for the World Cup, but lost in a two-legged playoff series that must have been wrenching for marketing executives: the opponent was another smallish country, Portugal, with a singular superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal won the first game at home in Lisbon, 1-0, setting up an exciting return game in Stockholm. Despite Ibrahimovic’s two second-half goals, Portugal clinched the last berth with three second-half goals by Ronaldo. The aggregate score was 4-2. Highlights of the second game.