Swede with a different view

Swede with a different view

Swede with a different view

For more than a decade, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has carried a reputation as soccer’s bad boy, not so much a 6-foot-5 striker but a highlight-making, coach-criticising, teammate-punching lightning rod whose inflated scoring totals were matched in size only by his ego.

It is a narrative that Ibrahimovic and his marketing team have not exactly disputed. His résumé includes stops at a half-dozen of Europe’s top clubs, but never a stay of more than a few years at any of them.

His Twitter account quotes him in the third person to his nearly 1 million followers, and Nike has mounted an advertising campaign that showcases a flowchart of his on-field thoughts. One example: “Should I score an amazing goal? Of course.”

One can argue that Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo have more talent — Ibrahimovic smiles and says, “I don’t like to talk about myself,” when asked for his opinion — but neither can match the Paris St-Germain star’s combination of quality and flair.

Maybe not surprisingly then, Ibrahimovic’s everyday reality is a bit more mundane.
Is he a character? Certainly, and his list of quirky, if not divalike, behaviours is long: He did, in fact, lobby Twitter to make a special exception and grant him more than 140 characters a tweet.

He does, in fact, speed around Paris in a limited-edition Ferrari (“I haven’t washed it in four years,” he said proudly). And he has, in fact, had his share of petulant blowups with coaches and teammates, including a fight with his US teammate Oguchi Onyewu in Milan four years ago that Ibrahimovic readily admits was “childish.”

But there is another Ibrahimovic behind those well-chronicled tales. In a rare extended interview last week before the first leg of Paris St-Germain’s Champions League quarterfinal against Chelsea, Ibrahimovic, 32, never once referred to himself in the third person and did his best to explain the distinction he makes between his soccer existence and the rest of his life.

It can be difficult, particularly since his stardom continues to grow. In Sweden, a stamp, or “Zlamp,” bearing his likeness has been released, and the verb zlatanera, meaning “to dominate,” has been included in the official dictionary since 2012.

But at his apartment near the Champs-Élysées, Ibrahimovic claims to be little more than a homebody: He says he enjoys his wife’s cooking; he appreciates a good nap; and he takes an active role in the care of his two young sons.

“I changed diapers when they were babies,” he said, adding, “I know other footballers may not, but I do.” Then he shrugged, as if slipping back into character. “Of course, I am very good at it,” he said with a grin.

That confidence has long been Ibrahimovic’s public trademark, but even he admits it comes and goes.

The last time — the only time? — that Ibrahimovic felt fear was about three years ago. This was during the dead of winter in Sweden. Clutching a rifle on his first hunting trip, Ibrahimovic was perched in a tree stand in the middle of a forest wearing sound-magnifying headphones. The slightest sound spooked him.

“To stay still, it was very difficult,” he said, adding: “Every noise I made, with the jacket, or something, it was so loud in my ears. But then I heard the snorting and I knew the real animals were coming.”

As he related the story, Ibrahimovic was seated in a stunning restaurant atop a downtown office tower in Paris. The ornate surroundings notwithstanding, Ibrahimovic began to demonstrate, somewhat joyfully, what the wild pigs he was hunting sounded like. He grunted and sniffed. He groaned and snuffled.

“I was going crazy then,” he said. “The pigs were coming, and the guide I was with told me, 'Shoot, shoot!' And I fired, but I don’t even know where I was pointing.”
He sighed. “I think I shot a tree,” he said.

Despite the humbling climax, Ibrahimovic was hooked. Hunting became his outlet, his escape from the pressure and scrutiny that comes with being one of the most colorful and recognisable soccer players in the world.

Whenever he can find a break in his schedule, he said, he decamps to his native Sweden in search of peace and quiet (and pigs and deer and moose, which offer “the best meat in the world,” in his opinion).

Though he has played for seven clubs in five countries since 2001, Sweden remains home for Ibrahimovic. He grew up in a poor part of Malmo and honed his soccer skills (and temper) there. He got into fights. He was interested in tricked-out cars.

But he also scored goals, once recording eight in a single half as a teenager, or so the legend goes.

After beginning his professional career with Malmo, he began his journey through Europe. Ajax, the historic Dutch club based in Amsterdam, was his first significant stop and that was where, in 2001, Ibrahimovic met Maxwell, a Brazilian defender who became one of his best friends.

According to Maxwell, a teammate later at Barcelona and Inter Milan and again now with PSG, there was always a certain brashness to Ibrahimovic. Within days of their first meeting, Ibrahimovic asked Maxwell if he could move in with him because, “Zlatan had already spent all his signing bonus on cars and fixing his house in Sweden and did not even have anything left for food,” Maxwell said.

Stunned, but also a little overwhelmed, Maxwell agreed, and the two young players went through the ordeals of being newcomers together.

“We did crazier things then; we had some nights in Amsterdam, and he was wilder then,” Maxwell said, “but there was always a big heart that people did not see. He got his reputation in Amsterdam, and it hasn’t changed even though he has grown up. We all have.”

At Ajax, Ibrahimovic scored 35 goals and won a league title while also clashing with a major team personality (in this case, his teammate Rafael van der Vaart) before departing. Thus began a rough pattern: New city. Championship. Controversy. Move on.
Ibrahimovic acknowledges his wanderlust — “I’m not someone who feels settled,” he said — but points out that if he really was such a difficult person to get along with, it is unlikely he would have been able to jell so quickly with so many different teammates.

Ibrahimovic won a league title every season from 2003-04 to 2010-11, a remarkable span that covered three countries and five clubs (Ajax; Juventus and Inter Milan in Italy; Barcelona in Spain; and AC Milan). After a one-year hiatus from trophy-winning, he joined Paris St-Germain in 2012 and won the French league in his first season. PSG will probably repeat as French champion this year.

While he had a famous falling-out with coach Pep Guardiola in Barcelona, he has praised other coaches and teammates endlessly, calling Roberto Mancini a “mastermind” and José Mourinho, who now coaches Chelsea, a “quiet genius.” He also said he has worked to be a positive force in the locker room, encouraging players to work hard and match his level but also to enjoy themselves.

“If I had an ego as big as the Eiffel Tower, would I have won this many collective trophies?” he said. “I know people like to talk about it. And OK, I am not going to answer every story. But maybe I will let my collective trophies speak for themselves. I don’t know many other footballers who have won as much, do you?”

For all his domestic success, however, the Champions League remains a gaping hole on Ibrahimovic’s résumé. His aspirations for finally claiming the continental prize now dovetail nicely with his team’s, because Paris St-Germain — which is bankrolled by the Qatari royal family — has grand designs on becoming a global club. Winning Europe’s most visible competition is at the heart of any expansion of the PSG brand.

This year, the quest is particularly pointed for Ibrahimovic. Sweden’s failure to qualify for the World Cup means, try as he might, he will fade from the spotlight in late May. A hamstring injury during the game against Chelsea, though, can be a worry.

Of the night the Swedes were eliminated by Portugal last year, Ibrahimovic said: “I’m not sure there was anyone who slept worse in all of Sweden. I was devastated because I am in the prime of my career. And to miss the World Cup in Brazil, where football was born? It was awful.”

His motivation, then, is to squeeze as much out of this season as he can. In France, he has scored 25 league goals, 11 more than his closest pursuer, but there is always more to do.

Ibrahimovic is continually looking ahead, perpetually wondering what his future might hold. He expressed interest in someday playing in the US — saying it wasn’t realistic at this stage of his career but adding, “America, I think it is the future for me” — but is signed with PSG through 2016, reportedly earning about 15 million euros (more than $20 million) a season.

He frequently referred to the “crazy plans” — in a good way — of the team’s Qatari owners, who see Ibrahimovic helping push the team to the upper echelons of world soccer.

And yet, with Ibrahimovic, nothing is certain. He could stay in Paris. He could go to the United States. He could just stay in the woods and hunt. After that initial jolt in the tree stand three years ago, his shot has improved considerably.

“Do you know what I love about hunting?” he said. “That I am no one in the woods, no one at all.”
He winked playfully.

“I thought the animals might recognise me, but they didn’t,” he said. “They did not even ask me for any autographs.”

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