When Zlatan Ibrahimovic moved his distinctly unshy and non-retiring footballing presence to Paris Saint-Germain, it didn’t take him long to make an impact on both the French leagues and the language. A new word was minted for this gigantor striker – the verb “zlataner”, which more or less means “to crush”.
Well, your correspondent and many other fans of the bold Swede’s critically-acclaimed autobiography I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic felt “zlataned” when his ghostwriter admitted he’d made up a lot of the quotes. Since most were absolute zingers, this was devastating news for those who yearn for football books to be lifted out of the mire of stage-managed, say-nothing bilge.
But the man can speak. He is not the handsome buffoon in Cyrano de Bergerac, depending on the lyricism of a poet with a tragically big nose to feed him lines – he can come up with a good one all by himself. Straight after shooting Sweden into next year’s Euros in an all-Scandinavian play-off, he quipped: “Denmark said they were going to retire me. I sent their whole nation into retirement.”
This is great news for the finals; they need The Zlat. Yes, they’ll have Wayne Rooney but he often toils under the weight of national expectation. Yes, they’ll have Cristiano Ronaldo but he’ll have to carry Portugal as usual.
A tournament featuring Albania, Iceland and – back from the football wilderness – Hungary will be crying out for a big star. A man who is laird of his own private island. Who strides this dot on the map, called Davenso, hunting wild boar. Who is himself never boring.
Remember when English pundits used to all nod in agreement about how Ibra could never score against English opposition, parroting each other regarding this perceived flaw as if knocking over a couple of stout yeomen in white shirts on the way to slotting the ball past a shampoo-model goalkeeper was some kind of absolute test of a player?
Well, in 2012 Ibrahimovic didn’t just slot it past Joe Hart. He allowed the keeper to charge from his line, well out of his box, to show off his heading technique and the goalie must have thought the danger had been averted. He didn’t think this player, reckoned to be quite lumbering, would attempt to score. With a bicycle-kick. From an angle. Forty yards out. It’s one of football’s greatest individual goals, maybe it’s most audacious. Oh, and it was also his fourth of the night.
Ibrahimovic’s story is a remarkable immigrant’s tale. His parents, a violent Croatian charwoman and a drunken Bosnian janitor, separated when he was two. When that’s your start in life, and you’ve been a bicycle thief yourself, you’re maybe not going to take too kindly to your manager – in this case Pep Guardiola at Barcelona – issuing a code of humility banning flash cars at the training-ground. Fed up with the manager’s creepy control-freakery, he reacted to being benched for a key game by parking his £247,000 limited-edition Ferrari outside the club’s front door.
Ibrahimovic’s time at Barca is not viewed as an outstanding success but he still won a title. He always wins titles. Maybe, in light of ghostwriter David Lagercrantz’s admission, his book can’t quite be acclaimed as the greatest football biog, but Lagercrantz says he was trying to find “the literary Ibrahimovic” and you can’t say it doesn’t exist in those bicycle kicks and backheels and, occasionally, his words. Told that Lagercrantz had just finished reading David Beckham’s autobiography, The Zlat spat: “Who the f*** is Beckham?”