Zlatan and the law of Jante: Sweden’s dilemma or triumph?

No Zlatan, no party? The opposite seems to be true for Sweden, as the structured squad looks set on upsetting their opponents in Russia.
Illustrator: Charbak Dipta

When Jay-Z joined long-time musical partner and pupil Kanye West for a collaborative album in 2011, many fans were left unsatisfied. Watch the Throne – adorned with a gold-etched cover – featured songs that will go down in hip-hop history, but the hype that preceded its release transcended the production itself. The collection was, in many opinions, a dirty speck in an otherwise gleaming assortment of Kanye West’s discography.

The Chicago south-sider had brought on his mentor…no. He brought on his hero and things simply didn’t quite mesh. What went so wrong? Kanye burst onto the scene by producing beats for Jay-Z and they’d been pals for years. The difference wasn’t “Ye” nor Jay-Z, but the duo’s dynamic together. West brings on dozens of producers and artists to work on his albums, so perhaps the intimate work with Jay threw off the whole scheme. Back then, Jay-Z was still somewhat of a hero to the problematic MC. Sometimes, having a star of such stature ruins the complex, vibrant build-up to an album.

Janne Andersson’s Rap Camp

Zlatan Ibrahimović: just the verbalization of the name itself evokes partisan, deep-seated opinions. Sweden’s top goal-getter of all time has put his home nation on the football map throughout his illustrious career. Whether it’s by virtue of scoring a thirty-yard bicycle kick for the Blågult (Blue and Yellow), winning the Capocannoniere with both Milan clubs, or crowning himself PSG’s all-time top scorer, Zlatan has earned the right to mention his name among the modern legends. But he’s not going to the World Cup.

See, the stature of both Zlatan and Jay-Z has the potential to rankle – to upset – a project, especially one of the magnitude of a World Cup performance or a musical album with millions of copies sold. The best results are often garnered when the production process is more natural and cohesive. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – often quoted as the most important album of the 21st century – evolved in Hawaii, morphing the predictable influences of people like RZA, Nicki Minaj, and Jay-Z himself with non-hip-hop artists like Justin Vernon and Elton John.

Janne Andersson, manager of the Swedish national team, clearly felt that a “Dark Twisted Fantasy” approach brings his side the most potential in Russia. Ibrahimović retired from international football after Euro 2016 but calls for his return could be heard from around the globe after a gritty Swedish side scraped by Italy 1-0 on aggregate to claim a World Cup appearance. It’s their first trip to the world stage since 2006 – a tournament in which Zlatan failed to score – but the debate wasn’t focused on how far they could go this summer. Instead, online forums pounced on the question: Should Zlatan go to the World Cup?

And that’s disrespectful. Zlatan may be Sweden’s hero, but the team is insurmountably more important than the LA Galaxy forward will ever be.

“Since the retirement of Zlatan and the appointment of Janne Andersson, Swedes are much more about teamwork instead of seeing Zlatan as the solution to everything as it was before.”

— Maxi Angelo


A Consistent Progression

Sweden have achieved more international success than most countries ever will. A World Cup final appearance in 1958 and three semi-finals – the most memorable being in 1994 – are phenomenal achievements for a country yet to eclipse a population of 10 million. Add to that consistent showings at the European Championships and the Swedish people can be extremely proud of their achievements on the continental and global stage. The yellow-laden squad may have missed out on the last two World Cups, but the country itself is no stranger to this scene.

But surely, even if the team operates better as a cohesive unit, there is no reason to leave out their most prolific scorer as at least an option off the bench, right? That’s the message many fans around the world have been sending out as they ponder the absence of Ibrahimović from the squad headed to Russia.

What many don’t realise is that the national team has been in a constant state of improvement ever since the Euro 2016 exit and subsequent Ibrahimović retirement. According to Maxi Angelo, administrator at LFC Transfer Room, this progression is “due to the focus being on the collective instead of centralising the focus – both tactically and media-wise – on [Ibrahimović].” Angelo notes that, while Zlatan is still Sweden’s biggest hero and celebrity, a majority of Swedish football fans agree with his exclusion from the squad.

At the 1994 World Cup – in the United States, no less – Sweden were the top scorers of the tournament. They didn’t make it past Brazil in the semi-finals, but their classic formation gave the two forwards Kennet Andersson and Martin Dahlin the license to score freely. A young Henrik Larsson was yet to fully put his talents on display for the world to see, and  the Swedish team made their impact by virtue of teamwork and diligence.

Now, in 2018, Larsson’s international career has come and gone, as has that of Zlatan Ibrahimović. The current Sweden squad has been advertised as one of the most boring teams offered by UEFA at the tournament, with Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg being the only recognisable star name. But we know from past experience that star power, for all of its importance in the country over the past decades, means very little to their success.

SwedeStats on Twitter (a fantastic source for Swedish World Cup coverage in English) pointed out to me that the main goal of manager Janne Andersson’s 4-4-2 formation has been to “be solid in the defensive part of the game…and to close down spaces for the opponents, especially in midfield.” They may have replaced Larsson and Ibra with Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen, but the teamwork and persistence of this side is unlike most Swedish teams over the past decade. “I don’t think Ibrahimović’s absence matters at all since he had already retired [before World Cup qualification]. Ibra doesn’t do the same work in defense as Toivonen does,” remarks the SwedeStats admin. Clearly, most people see an ageing Ola Toivonen as a suitable replacement to one of the greatest target-men in the game’s history. The whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts and Zlatan.

I Am a God (feat. Zlatan)

The metaphor comparing Ibrahimović’s individuality to Jay-Z’s production shouldn’t be stretched any further than I’ve taken it; it’s often much better to focus on the whole instead of one person. However, if there were a true comparison to Zlatan in the American rap scene, it would be Kanye West. They are two brilliant performers in their own fields of art. Zlatan rose from the ghettos of Malmö to become his country’s greatest footballer, possibly ever. Kanye West did the same, rising above the crime-stricken city of Chicago to achieve his dream of being one of the best producers and rappers to ever live.

Not only are they some of the best, but they’re also some of the most controversial. Ibrahimović’s on and off-the-pitch semantics has earned him a fair bit of criticism, while his mentality is sometimes described as lazy. Not to mention his arrogance: sometimes warranted but almost always over the top. His stints at Barcelona, Juventus, and Manchester United were lackluster despite the immense talent surrounding him. Zlatan is Sweden’s hero, their footballing saviour, but there’s no surprise as to why he’s not in Andersson’s squad.

“And all my people that’s drug dealing just to get by/stack your money till it gets sky high,” the opening words in West’s debut album, put an uplifting spin on the struggle for many young Americans living in poverty. The pressure put on those raised in inner cities in the United States by the government and society are often too large to absorb. Kanye embodied the potential to make it out of the hood and succeed on a global level; his American dream, for over a decade, has been a shining example of both the issues and upsides to growing up in the United States.

Zlatan Ibrahimović’s story is very similar. Growing up in an immigrant district of Malmö, the lanky Swede felt the pressure to steal and bully as a child. Even as a teen, when his footballing talent was becoming visible, Ibra was nearly forced to quit playing in order to take on a job himself. Luckily for him, and the country, Zlatan kept playing. He eventually made the springboard move to Ajax Amsterdam, kicking off his international career. But he never lost that competitive drive to keep moving up, just like Kanye.

This summer, Sweden are going to do it without the big man. Even the best to ever play the game see their careers dwindle before retirement, and Ibrahimović is no different. Rest assured, unlike the popular but (probably) incorrect opinion, Andersson’s squad will not miss the forward currently playing in front of Major League Soccer crowds. They’ve been playing without him for nearly two years and have done just fine. “He’s the biggest celebrity there is over here,” writes Maxi Angelo, “and the football fans portray him as a god. But it’s been a clear progression for the better in the Swedish NT after his retirement.”

Kanye West’s “I Am a God”, from his 2013 project Yeezus, is sung from the perspective of a deranged, egotistical maniac. His requests for massages, Porsches in garages, and croissants are ignored, and he becomes lost in a jungle of screaming. The song’s subject is extremely talented but his self-perception is incorrectly conjured. Sound familiar? Not only can “I Am a God” be related to West’s overworked state when he crashed the 2009 VMAs, but also Zlatan Ibrahimović’s inflated sense of himself.

Maybe the Jay-Z collaboration album, Watch the Throne, isn’t as much of a let down as I’ve made it out to be. Music is extremely subjective, after all. In that same train of thought, maybe Zlatan’s impact at the World Cup would have been more positive than many Swedes let on. But football is a lot more objective than music – we have results: Sweden 1-0 Italy…not critic reviews. Sweden’s success or failure in Russia will be as clear as day. A failure to clear the group stage will be met with mass criticism of Ibrahimović’s exclusion. The entire squad will be heralded worldwide if a deep knockout stage run encurs.

Zlatan may be the king on the throne, but this Swedish squad may see their fantasies come alive without him.

“Turn up the lights in here, baby

Extra bright, I want y’all to see this

Turn up the lights in here, baby

You know what I need, want you to see everything

Want you to see all of the lights”

— Rihanna, written by The-Dream, produced by Kanye West

Special thanks to Maxi Angelo and @SwedeStats for their crucial knowledge of the Swedish national team and Zlatan Ibrahimović.


Alex Dieker

Alex is a fan and writer based in the U.S. with a particular passion for Dutch football. His work outside FP can be found on crossbarpost.nl or on his Twitter, @alex_dieker.