Zlatan Ibrahimovic: The Man, the Myth ... the Very Normal Dude?


Let’s get this out of the way up front: it’s going to be hard to write this post without veering into self-indulgent territory. Given the subject matter, that’s probably appropriate and the only way it could happen.

Last week, out of the blue, my email box received a missive from the official Paris Saint-Germain press office offering a conference call with the only-and-only Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Considering Ibrahomivic’s supreme talent — and legendary arrogance — it was impossible to pass up even in the sterile environs of the conference call format. Immediately I took to Twitter to ask my followers what kind of question I should pose to Ibrahimovic. Most of the responses were of the joke/goof variety, which (let’s face it) is the proper response to an inane query such as mine.

As nice as it would have been to get on a phone line and ask Ibrahimovic something like, “when was the last time you cried?” in the realm of the real world all you end up doing is waste everyone’s time — like the dopes at Super Bowl Media Day who ask players what they ate for breakfast, with a cartoon face painted on your hand. Some baseline of professional decorum is needed.

Ibrahimovic’s participation in this conference call with American media was, nominally, to talk about the friendly in Qatar next month between PSG and Real Madrid, which sets up another matchup with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo’s Portugal eliminated Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in the World Cup playoffs in November. Surprisingly, when he came on the line, the big Swede didn’t seem too aggrieved or annoyed. Make no mistake, Ibrahimovic didn’t come off like an effervescent morning host, but given how much athletes tend to hate talking with the media — especially anonymously over the telephone line — this wasn’t too bad.

If any (stress any) mild conclusions can be drawn it was how regular and boring Ibrahimovic is when asked a question. The English-speaking media have built Ibrahimovic into nothing short of a pompous, mustache-twirling cartoon villain — an image you’d have to think the PSG star plays up for his own good. So when the first question on the line was about who Ibrahimovic thought should win the Balon d’Or: Ronaldo or Lionel Messi — it was somewhat surprising how his answer came off about as vanilla as a typical Derek Jeter quote.

“I think it will be difficult,” Ibrahimovic said. “But, whoever wins will deserve to win the Golden Ball. So, let’s see who wins. And for me, I don’t know, I wish the best to win.”

Exciting, right?

He was also exceeding diplomatic when queried about  playing for Qatari owners at PSG, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.  Ibrahimovic also played it down the middle when asked about playing in MLS before he retires — he didn’t dismiss it out of hand, but don’t start printing those LA Galaxy replica jerseys, either. It would appear PSG’s massive investment also includes media training.

Asked again about the comparisons to Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic remained in full-on shrug mode:

“Whatever other people say it’s up to them, but it’s nothing that concerns me or even if they don’t talk about — I mean, they talk about me,” he said. “I don’t know how much you see in Europe, but what can I say.  Like I said, I’m the bad boy. I’m not in that pole position. So, I prefer to be like that.”

Something that always impresses me is when athletes go to another country and learn to communicate another language. That’s not easy by any means. It’s one thing to go down to the local McDonald’s and order food, another entirely to speak with the media in your non-native tongue. Ibrahimovic’s English is pretty good,  aside from a couple standard “how you says.” It’s also hard to put a finger on Ibrahimovic’s accent, it’s not exactly Swedish, more of a “pan-European” inflection of the Tommy Wiseau variety — albeit not nearly as hilarious.

The biggest surprise: Ibrahimovic didn’t refer to himself in the third-person until prompted by somebody else asking questions on the line. This was supremely disappointing when you’ve been led to believe Ibrahimovic has nothing but utter disdain and contempt for anyone on the planet not named Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That cocksure attitude has helped him win league titles with Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona and now PSG.

Eventually the moderator called my name to ask a question, and boy was it lame: “Hey Zlatan, thanks for your time today, which players out there do you enjoy watching play?” He answered his favorite all-time player is Ronaldo, the Brazilian star of the 1990s and early 2000s but admitted he doesn’t spend every waking second of his life consumed by soccer.

“As you play every day, train every day, play games every three day, it’s not easy to watch football when you get home,” he said. “I have two kids. I have other hobbies. It’s not like football 24 hours. I like to see big games. That is exciting. I’m not the one to watch a lot of football.”

That’s almost a human-sounding answer from Ibrahimovic, right? Putting your children above watching games on television is something mere mortals struggle with on a consistent basis. Who would have guessed Ibrahimovic might be a “cool dad.”

Later on Ibrahimovic played up more toward his arrogant, sneering public persona albeit in a very flat, matter-of-fact way. When asked about his ego, the Swede said simply: “I try to be myself. You have the media that puts the level on the conversation. When you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer. It’s the way it is. I try to be myself. … if you have a big ego you don’t win 20 collective trophies.”

That’s a little more like it. Sadly, the arrogance — or supreme self-confidence — was short-lived.

“The collective” was a term Ibrahimovic used consistently during the 25 or so minutes on the call. Again, this was a little strange since everything we’ve been led to believe about him is that he’s a me-first, prima donna — one who’ll fight teammates in practice such as former USMNT defender Oguchi Onyewu at Milan. Yet the Swede kept repeating — when asked about advanced analytics used as measuring tools in soccer — that it comes down to the collective, rather than one player, citing the example of Sweden vs. Portugal.

If there was one , Zlatan-esque answer during the entire proceedings, it was when asked why he’s getting better as he gets older? “I think I’m like the wine, you know,” he said. “The older the wine gets the better it is. So, the older I get, the better I get.”

The moderator allowed me time for another question, so I cocked my arm back and lobbed up another softball for the Zlatan to crush: who will you be rooting for at the World Cup? Again, a simple softie. Apologies for not asking him about the current protests in Ukraine or his take on Bitcoins or some other edgy, hot-button issue.

Here’s Ibrahimovic’s answer to my dumb question, “I did my best and I think my national team did everything they could to — they it in a way that we couldn’t do it better. (sic) But unfortunately, we played against a better nation than us. So, already there, I’m suffering, because I didn’t come to the World Cup. …Any goals I waste, slowly, slowly every game that I’m playing and trying to bring out this anger in the game of course, in a positive way. And, I think that disappointment will come back during the World Cup. So, for sure I will see some games. …But, it’s not like I will run home and sit in front of the television and say, now the game begins. If I switch channel and the game is there, I will watch it. And I will be cheering my teammates that will be playing the World Cup, so hopefully one of them will win. And, I will be as happy as I would play the World Cup, for them.”

Yawning yet?

Often that’s the biggest downside to working in media, when you pull back the curtain — if ever slightly — on a legend like Ibrahimovic you walk away a little disappointed since the man himself doesn’t come off sounding quite as exciting as his press clippings — or his surreal goal highlights. Either way, it’s more more compelling to watch Ibrahimovic play — and potentially lead PSG to the Champions League crown — rather than listen to what he has to say for a couple minutes on a conference call.

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