Everything now seems set for the Zlatan Ibrahimovic transfer from Inter to FC Barcelona: Exciting times for the player, and the clubs involved – but also for the fans of Zlatan himself. Now, Zlatan may represent nothing more to the fans of his previous clubs Ajax, Juventus and Inter than a great player who helped win titles, and ultimately left; but at least to fans of Malmö FF he is something much more.
Ten years ago, I followed my team Malmö FF as they spent a humiliating season in the Swedish Second Division, trying to get back into the top flight. That year, a lanky 18 year old player established himself on the team and went on to be key to the promotion. From the start everything about Zlatan Ibrahimovic was big – the talent, of course, but also the controversies around him, and the emotion he stirred up among his many fans and even more manifold detractors. He was the absolute opposite of what has always been considered an ideal Swedish footballer: always correct, always modest, always hard-working – and almost always mindbogglingly boring.
Zlatan would infuriate the media and rival fans for his apparant arrogance in pointing to himself as one of the greatest talents in the game, for actually believing he could be the best player in the world. He was 18 years old, came out of the most destitue area of town, and had very little to show for his cockiness. Pride was never a very good way to gain acceptance in Sweden… But for those fans that followed him, believed in him, and maybe even loved him – it was very liberating stuff. The fact that Zlatan turned out to be corrent in his beliefs are almost beside the point – the point is that he made it OK to believe it, and to say so.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that he saved the Club, on the field as well as off it. In 2001, Zlatan became the most expensive player ever exported from Sweden, and Malmö FF became the richest club. Again in 2004, when Zlatan moved to Juventus the millions poured over Malmö FF. It seemed for the last decade, everything good the club has been involved in, has had something to do with this one player, who left while still a teenager.
Being a supporter is a funny thing, we cling on to the things wthat make us proud, the stuff that singles us out from other fans. My personal contribution to world football is quite tiny, but it’s there: One time ten years ago it was my cheers that filled the ears of a young footballer, who went on to do a great first season in an obscure Scandinavian league. And he took some of that experience with him on his journey onward. In the coming season, our guy will hopefully be a key part of the best team of the world. And we’ll still be cheering him on.