Zlatan Ibrahimovic believes you should stick to what you’re good at, which is presumably why he’s been talking about himself again. The Milan striker is probably unique among elite modern footballers in that despite his considerable body of work on the pitch, the most memorable episodes of his career have emanated largely from his own mouth. Perhaps the warmest compliment you can pay Ibrahimovic as a footballer is that there are times when he is genuinely almost as good as he says he is.
Of course, we’ll never forget that famous solo goal for Ajax against that other Dutch team 17 years ago. The time he dominated Ryan Shawcross in an international friendly. The goal he scored into an empty net on his LA Galaxy debut. That’s all safe: golden memories. It’s just that, if he’s really serious about staying in his lane, perhaps he should set the football to one side for a moment and focus on his true calling: making provocative statements about himself in the third person, a field in which he remains utterly peerless.
Ibrahimovic’s most recent move in this direction came last week, when he was asked in an interview for his opinion of LeBron James. “I don’t like when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time,” Ibrahimovic replied. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football. I don’t do politics. If I would be a political politician, I would do politics.”
On one level, there is little in Ibrahimovic’s comments that bears even the faintest scrutiny. Sport and politics have been entangled with each other for as long as anyone can remember. From its earliest days sport has been a vehicle for control and a vessel for change, an expression of power and an expression of resistance. From Marcus Rashford to Colin Kaepernick to Naomi Osaka to James himself, the idea of the sporting activist has rarely been more deeply embedded in our culture.
We know this. Ibrahimovic knows this too, because he has previously described Muhammad Ali as his all-time favourite athlete for “what he did inside and outside the ring”. And so perhaps this is simply Zlatan building the brand: the professional provocateur, the gifted quote generator, the dickhead’s dickhead. Yet if you read between the lines, perhaps it is possible to glimpse some deeper impulse to Ibrahimovic’s comments, a largely unbidden outburst whose target and timing seems not to be accidental.
So why did Ibrahimovic take this stand? And why now? Perhaps the first of these is the easier to answer. From his upbringing in Malmö, the “Zlatan” mythology can essentially be characterised by a pursuit of personal capital, be it strength or goals or reputation or accolades or wealth. As he blazes a trail through European football, the world-view he develops is that of a man (and it is invariably a man) who through ruthless self-belief and dedication can become the sole author of his fate. “If you believe in yourself you will also make it,” he once said in an interview with this newspaper. “Everything depends on you.”
And so the outrageous goals, the comments about women’s football, the slapping of an opponent, the ability to carry on performing at the age of 39: all this really comes from the same place, an assertion of the individual’s right to do whatever the hell he wants. When Ibrahimovic was at Paris Saint-Germain, he justified his £250,000-a-week salary on the basis that “the market decides the price”, complained about France’s tax rate on high earners, declared himself uninterested in the moral quandaries over the club’s Qatari ownership. (“I have only been three or four times, I quite liked it,” he said of the place.)
Call it libertarianism, call it a touching belief in the sanctity of personal responsibility, call it a dog whistle to disaffected teenage boys the world over. But like it or not, it is innately political. The struggle for black rights, by contrast, is a broad and global social movement without an obvious measure of victory. It is not a story in which Ibrahimovic can cast himself as the all-conquering protagonist. Which is not to say he is antagonistic to the cause.
As a vocal advocate against global hunger, as a victim of racism himself as a child, he could have chosen to take up a more prominent role in the fight, join the conversation, be an ally. But to do so would have required him to be part of something larger and more important than himself. It is not entirely clear if he believes such a thing exists.
As he approaches 40, Ibrahimovic sees new heroes emerging all around him. Romelu Lukaku is declaring himself the “new king” of Milan. All over the world, athletes are using their platform to highlight injustice and advocate for change, and earning untold cultural kudos in the process. The game has changed. The rules have changed. Our idea of what a star athlete should look and sound like has changed. True greatness – the sort of untouchable crossover legacy to which Ibrahimovic has always aspired – comes with a different set of conditions.
And so perhaps when Ibrahimovic sees the likes of James and Steph Curry and the new class of athlete-activist, he sees something else too: the path not taken, the warmth and acclaim that might also have been his. The sort of sporting greatness that – for all he has achieved with a ball – he has never been able to touch.