Tommy Martin column: Vainglorious, thuggish, mercenary - why I love Zlatan

Ahead of tonight’s PSG v Chelsea Champions League tie, Tommy Martin looks at how the controversial Swedish striker has managed to make himself likeable, for all his many flaws.

France Soccer League One AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

WHICH IS WORSE: a yellow card or world hunger?

In a Ligue 1 game against Caen at the weekend, Zlatan Ibrahimovic received the former in the act of combating the latter. As part of his commitment to the UN’s World Food Program, Zlatan temporarily tattooed the names of 50 ‘hunger sufferers’ on his torso. He revealed the body art to an unsuspecting public – including his manager, Laurent Blanc – while celebrating scoring PSG’s opening goal.

“If I could, I would write every single name on my body, but there are 805 million people suffering from hunger in the world,” he said later.

A worthy sentiment, but, alas, a bookable offence. “Imagine if the game had become more heated and that he’d got a second yellow card,” moaned Blanc later.

Well quite. But come on, Laurent, y’know, world hunger?

That’s Zlatan. You think he’s wrong, but he’s right. You think you should hate him, but you don’t. On one hand he represents everything that’s wrong with football: vainglorious, thuggish, mercenary. On the other, he’s one of its crown jewels: brilliant, proud, hilarious.

He is a joyous contradiction; a glorious bastard.

It was ‘I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ — or at least the 2013 release of the international edition of his autobiography — that did it. Until then, his highly successful career — currently standing at 11 league titles in 13 seasons, if you include the two stripped from Juventus post-Calciopoli — was blemished by his volcanic temperament and the sense that, for the stupendous goals, he would always remain just short of true greatness.

At the time, his transfer from Inter Milan to Barcelona in 2009 — for a fee of €40 million plus Samuel Eto’o — seemed like an act of grand larceny on the part of the Italian club. For Zlatan, it was his chance to finally win the Champions League, the absence of which from his medal haul acted as a giant question mark. A year later, Inter were European champions and he was shouting at Pep Guardiola about his lack of balls.

He still hasn’t won the Champions League, but he has done other things. In November 2012 he was banned for two games for kicking Saint Etienne goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier in the chest. The following February a stamp on Valencia’s Andres Guardado earned him another two-match ban.

Soccer - Ligue 1 - Paris Saint Germain v Stade Brestois - Parc de Princes

And then there’s his behaviour inside PSG.

One day in November 2012, shortly after his arrival, he drove into the club’s training complex. Eschewing the players’ car park, he reportedly headed instead towards one designated for the technical staff, closer to the training ground entrance. On being denied entry by a vigilant warden, he deposited his vehicle at the car park entrance, barring the way for superstar and groundsman alike. If Zlatan wasn’t parking there, no-one was.

In March 2013 Lucas Moura had to backtrack on quotes that suggested Zlatan “asks for the ball and insults us a lot. He is a bit arrogant and complains,” while last month, Javier Pastore was on the receiving end of a verbal fusillade for not passing him the ball during a League Cup tie with Saint Etienne.

Officials are not spared either: Lyon coach, Hubert Fournier, recently accused him of abusing referees in English and Italian, the better to castigate without fear of retribution.

Then there’s the media. Just this month, the journalist Julien Laurens noted on Twitter that Zlatan had led five PSG players past a row of waiting journalists, saying “Follow me, follow me. Nobody talks. Zlatan is the boss.”

Torres comps / YouTube

Factions, fights, strops, sulks — the rap sheet is endless. But his autobiography contains the case for the defence; it is his character witness.

It is a story of conflict: the Balkan war that haunted his Bosnian father; familial fracture and the struggle against abject poverty; a petty criminal kid from an ethnic minority battling for acceptance by the Swedish mainstream; the training ground rows, on-pitch fights and transfer agitation of his restless progress through the great clubs of Europe.

There are the many references to Muhammad Ali, whose swaggering, belligerent persona he borrowed as a survival tool in the tough Malmo neighbourhood of his youth. And there is the love of his life, Helena Seger – a cool, sophisticated Swede, older and with a career of her own, the antithesis of the archetypal footballer’s wife — and the fierce devotion to his sons, Maximilian and Vincent.

Most of all, there is a delightful sense of irony about the whole fantastical, riotous story of his career. Recently, naming his ‘Dream Team’ of the best 11 he had played with for a piece PSG’s YouTube channel, he listed himself up front alongside Lionel Messi. “Zlatan Ibrahimovic… the God!!” he proclaimed, a twitch of an eyebrow and a goofy smile undercutting the arrogance.

The honesty contained in ‘I Am Zlatan’ and elsewhere provide an object lesson for professional sportspeople on how openness about who you are and from whence you came is infinitely preferable to the manufactured sheen of corporate PR. That’s not to say that Zlatan’s rebel warrior act is not a carefully constructed image, but the truth of what we know about him makes us forgive his failures and excesses more readily. Indeed, we feel a little silly for taking him, and the whole shooting match too seriously.

As he prepares for another tilt at the elusive Champions League title, he seems at peace with the perennially missing medal. “No it’s not,” he replied when asked in a recent interview by Laurens whether winning the Champions League was an obsession. “Because if it becomes an obsession for you, it feels that you have not reached what you wanted in your career.

“Me, I have achieved what I wanted in my career, 100 per cent.”

It’s a yellow card, Mr Blanc, not world hunger.

  • Tommy Martin presents Champions League football on Tuesday nights for TV3.

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