Word of mouth

wsc302Zlatan Ibrahimovic spares no one in his hugely popular, highly readable and uncompromising autobiography, writes Marcus Christenson

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it turns out, tells a story the way he plays football: he pulls no punches. The player, who has kung-fu kicked his Milan team-mates Rodney Strasser and Antonio Cassano, punched Jonathan Zebina and reportedly kicked Mark van Bommel on the shins several times during a half-time interval, published his autobiography in Sweden at the end of last year. It did not disappoint.

The book, now available in English as an app at the player’s personal website, set all sorts of records when it was released in November. It sold 415,000 copies in less than a month. As a comparison, the number two on the best-selling list, a biography of Steve Jobs, had sold 35,000. Mattias Fyrenius of KF Media, which owns two of Sweden’s biggest bookstore chains, said: “Zlatan’s book is a phenomenon. There is no book – not Stieg Larsson, not Harry Potter, not Dan Brown – that has sold so many copies in such a short time.”

The content of the book made headlines all over the world. And no wonder: it is a brilliant read. Ibrahimovic talks about when there was no food, only beer, in the fridge at his Dad’s flat and how he was slapped rather than cuddled by his mum when he fell off a roof. He describes in detail the difficult relationship he had with Pep Guardiola, his coach at Barcelona for one year. “Barca wanted me to be like Lionel Messi, Xavi or Andrés Iniesta who sat there like schoolboys and obeyed every command without question,” wrote Ibrahimovic. “But I am a guy who likes those who drive through red lights.”

He added: “One time I completely lost it. I said to Guardiola: ‘You are shitting yourself because of Jose Mourinho. You can go to hell!’ I was completely mad. I threw a box full of training gear across the room and it crashed to the floor. I’m not violent, but if I were Guardiola I would have been frightened.”

In Sweden, the media went crazy about the book. It was a marketing triumph for the publishers, for whom the newspapers signed contracts stating they would not leak the contents of their advance copies. Instead there was a series of exclusive interviews in Swedish and Italian papers. The Swedish public was drip-fed snippets for two weeks before the book finally was released.
We learned that Ibrahimovic stole bikes when he was little. That he drank enormous amounts of vodka with David Trezeguet and slept in a bathtub after one of Juventus’s league titles. That he threw homemade bombs at a friend’s shop in Malmo. And that he thought Arsenal’s Freddie Ljungberg was a prima donna.

There was not universal praise for the book, however. In Spain they were, predictably, defensive of Guardiola and his methods. When Ibrahimovic’s current club, Milan, were about to meet Barcelona in the Champions League, one paper published a cartoon with the book as toilet paper, saying: “Pep has some new paper to wipe his bum with.” Xavi added: “I am surprised and a little disappointed with Ibra. Our manager has taught me everything about football and at Barcelona we always looked after Ibrahimovic when he was with us.”

In neighbouring Denmark, several players questioned the motives behind the book. “People believe what they read, but one does not know the whole truth about these stories,” said Dennis Rommedahl. “It could be that Guardiola and Ljungberg have a different version of events. Also, I wouldn’t let the whole world know if I had a problem with someone. Why would I hang someone out to dry in such a public manner?”

The critics, too, were divided. Johan Esk, at Sweden’s most widely circulated paper, Dagens Nyheter, thought Ibrahimovic’s book was a good read but that it did not offer anywhere near the same insight as the remarkable autobiography of a high jumper, Patrik Sjoberg, which was also released last year. Mats Gellerfelt, of the daily paper Svenska Dagbladet, said: “There is a lot of intrigue and power battles, but there are no attempts whatsoever to address the problems with the world of football, or its ruthless commercialism.”

There has been talk of the book becoming a film and, after Ibrahimovic’s destruction of Arsenal in Milan’s first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie, he has shown that his footballing powers are not diminishing. For Ibrahimovic, that is important. What is the point of talking the talk if you are not walking the walk?

From WSC 302 April 2012