Covering the 2014 World Cup this past summer allowed me to spend some time writing about some of the game’s best players. But one player in particular was missing. The World Cup left a small hole in my soul for there was no Zlatan Ibrahimović. Pensive and growing perhaps too self-aware, like Beckett’s Vladimir, I was waiting for Zlatan to show. And now that I have the chance to write a little bit about him, I’ve found that I can’t help but close my eyes and drift.
Three years ago, when, with the birth of our first child less than three months away, my wife and I gave up our apartment in the West Village to move into another one uptown in Yorkville. For those of you not familiar with Manhattan, Yorkville is, geographically speaking, the upper east side of the Upper East Side.
After suffering through several spirited renditions of The Jeffersons theme song from our so-called friends, we settled in and soon discovered that our new neighborhood, despite its notoriety for being a buttoned-up enclave of buttoned-up types, had some perks we quickly grew to love: the proximity of the museums; the abundance of good schools; the realization that I was at a point in which “the good schools” was an actual category in my actual life; idyllic Carl Schurz Park; a weird strait in the East River called Hell Gate that flows in different directions night and day; the daily A Love Supreme-like sunrise; and even—lo and behold—a soccer field just across the street from our building.
Suffice it to say, I got a little excited.
After spending years tracking down soccer fields or inventing one out of some scrap of space and a few well-placed backpacks, here now right across the street from our new building was a pristine field with goals, complimentary balls, and a glimpse of the river. I’d play more and my wife would see more of me. It was like a dream. In terms of soccer, I was already riding a high from FC Barcelona winning La Liga and the Champions League just that past May. And they didn’t just win: They seduced, they convinced. And I had been playing myself all during that time. I was happy.
I was in the habit of having a kick around four times a week. Finding soccer games in New York can require the skill of the accustomed itinerant, a willingness to wander. More often than not I played pickup games at Pier 40 in Hudson River Park, but before that I used to crisscross the city to find a game. There was the too-fast-for-its-own-good turf field on top of a landfill in Harlem, the caged field in East River Park just south of Delancey Street, the Saturday morning games in Prospect Park that went uphill and downhill and potholes and no discernible out of bounds, the Saturday night games at the Chelsea Soccer Field … car, train, bus, cab—somehow, somewhere I’d find a game.
I was one of a faithful group of transients who found places to play good soccer by word of mouth or by simply pounding the pavement. That person jogging by for the first time or, the extreme condition, that guy walking by in street clothes with his girlfriend who asks to get in “for just a minute” and from then on never missed a match. People came from everywhere and were from everywhere. It was anarchic but never chaotic. Playing was cathartic, exhilarating. The commuting? Let’s just say that that part was not.
But now I’d have a pristine field right across the street, a field with real goals and ball just left on the field all day and all night. The hardest thing for a lover of the beautiful game to find in the city was suddenly mere feet away. I was in heaven.
Three years now have passed and I have not once played on that field. Not once.
Typical reasons come to mind: I’ve become busier, slower, and joyous in the entrapments of family—that all sounds about right. But the truth lies elsewhere. Has something you loved to do—nights out with friends, sex with your partner, a trip abroad—ever come to feel too organized? Something in the quicksilver of its pleasure lost to regiment?
Day after day I’d stroll past the soccer field across the street and day after day I’d find players of every age, rows and rows of them, layers of orderly chaos, everything serious like rows of corn. Double-parked black cars idled on side streets and as one child jumped into one and it pulled away, another, even larger car, would take its place for the next scheduled round of practices and games. When evening came, the adult leaguers replaced the children and then the idling cars were gone, but the seriousness remained.
If I was going to play, I was going to have to form a team or join one, pay my fee, and then enter what felt less like a string of games and more like a world, a simulacrum of a world with its simulacrum of pleasure. I thought to myself, I play this game, that’s what I do, it’s part of what defines me so let me get on with it: Isn’t so much of being an adult, being a professional, about doing just that? But for some reason I couldn’t. I didn’t feel the quick jolt in my chest that used to lead me out the door.
There are some good players and teams who use that field, don’t get me wrong; but they all seemed good in the same boring way. The paucity of spontaneous games echoed the absence of spontaneity in the play. I find myself yearning for things I used to take for granted: a nutmeg, an elástico, or something you don’t usually see, something neither thought nor taught, something that—trust me, I understand—can easily be mistaken for self-indulgence instead of self-expression. This, of course, is the inherent risk of self-expression.
I walked my dog daily past the field in the late afternoon and saw a kid with his own personal soccer trainer kicking a ball on a leash. It became a regular sight at the field. First it was one child, then two, now it’s a Thing at the park, as common as the nearby pre-school tutor ads and assorted parenting cold wars on the sidelines that I can’t even pretend to understand. A kid by himself in a corner of the field with a ball wrapped in a net and tied to a leash. He’s training for his future. He has his hired help. He kicks the ball aware that he won’t have to go chase it. He mishits it and it squiggles off his shoe. He tugs at the leash and the ball comes back into his stride. He kicks it again and catches it square on his laces. His personal trainer says, “Good job!”
Something had happened—nothing serious, not yet, but still, I grew quiet, and that’s dangerous—believe me. I need to be angry to play well. I need to shout and make some noise. Now I was keeping it inside.
No, that’s not me, that’s Zlatan Ibrahimović from his recent autobiography, I Am Zlatan. He was talking about a move he called then, and still calls now, a dream: In July 2009 he signed for FC Barcelona from Inter Milan. Aside from Frank Rijkaard or Marco van Basten signing for Barcelona, this was as exciting a player signing as I could imagine. It went well, then it didn’t go well. Club, player, and coach didn’t gel; Zlatan felt like a shell of himself and things fell apart. Most of Barça’s players came up through the youth teams and have the club’s culture ingrained in them. Zlatan didn’t. He tried, he says, but he couldn’t. He only played one season with Barça. The following season, with Zlatan already at AC Milan bagging goals and leading it to the Scudetto, was the aforementioned annus mirabilis for Barça—as was the case, to even a greater extent, the season prior to Zlatan’s arrival.
The child of a Croatian mother and a Bosnian father, he was born in Rosengård, a by-and-large immigrant neighborhood in Malmö, Sweden.
“Traditionally it has had connotations with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, falafel, fires, and riots, but there is an everyday life in between which is quite similar to the rest of Malmö and other parts of Sweden,” the then head of PR for the City District of Rosengård told a local paper in 2012.
I won’t condescend to you with euphemisms, Rosengård was the hood and Zlatan was a kid of the streets, and as a kid his taste in the game leaned toward the extravagant.
The most important thing was the nice moves. There was a lot of ‘Hey, wow! Check that out!’ You were supposed to impress kids with tricks and moves, and you had to practice and practice until you were the best at them. Often, mothers would shout from the windows.
His talent took him from local soccer sides to Malmö FF to legendary Ajax of Amsterdam to Juventus. Even if you don’t know the story you know the story: Kid grows up in the hood, kid has skills, kid makes it out. If you’ve read anything about an athlete then you’ve read that story. But this type of story, his story, is about the marriage of order and disorder. Close your eyes and you likely won’t see the Zlatan I see. There’s no ideal Zlatan the mind can simply call up.
There’s an interruptive unpredictability to his play that parries away paraphrase and refuses the offer of allegory, the symbolic story of the player in motion. The greatest players have this—the slaloms of Messi and before him Maradona that seem to rupture time and space, Pele’s use of technique as wit with the artful feint or trap with the chest, Xavi’s tendency to raise and turn his head like a periscope—surveying options and the opposition—as the ball speeds his way, Zidane’s pigeon-toed pauses and the elegant awkwardness of his gait. If you put a paper bag and potato sack over any of these players you would be able to tell who they are.
But for as many teams as he’s played for—and won with—there are at least as many iconic versions of Zlatan to go with them: Zlatan the dribbler of Amsterdam, Zlatan the tank of Turin, Zlatan the killer of Milan, Zlatan the creator, Zlatan the terror, Zlatan the accommodator, Zlatan the prodigal son of the Sweden, Zlatan the blood of the Balkans, he has been beginning of the goal and the end of it, amasser and provider.
Now when I step out of my apartment building and walk past that field, I find myself thinking of Zlatan, but in a way I’m not sure I can explain to you. Just can’t seem to touch him. How can I put it, then?
Rosengård was absorbed into a larger district named Öster. So Rosengård now technically doesn’t exist. But there’s a five-a-side field there, made of recycled athletic shoes, surrounded by projects, and lit at night. It’s called Zlatan Court. It bears an inscription, in Swedish, at the entrance: Here is my heart. Here is my history. Here is my play. Take it further. Zlatan. And that field—my rosebud—is still in Rosengård. As is Zlatan. As am I.