At this point, Zlatan Ibrahimovic must have the image stored in your phone. You almost certainly must have seen her already: Ibrahimovic in profile, dressed as an angel (and with a beatific look on his face), wrapped in an iron arm against a muscular demon.
He used the image for the first time when signing a new contact with Manchester United in 2017, a year after an arrival in England that supposedly represented the last stop of his career.
The iconography is not very clear: Ibrahimovic was making a commitment to United – a team known as "the red devils" for everyone except his cheerleaders – but in the picture he seemed to be fighting the devil. After all, angels and devils used to be on opposite sides.
He reused it a few weeks ago, near the end of December, by confirming his long-anticipated return from Major League Soccer (MLS) American to European football, this time to Milan, another team whose uniform is red and black and which is also known by the nickname "devils", although by fewer people. “Even Zlatan, different devil,” read the caption.
It's hard to figure out precisely when this joke started. Ibrahimovic has certainly always been a talkative character and has never been afraid to let the world know how he feels. Never, not even in his teenage years in Malmo, his hometown club in Sweden, was there any doubt about how special he is. Ibrahimovic is given to boasting, hyperbole and exaggeration by nature.
Ibrahimovic's personality is not the same as the Zlatan character, however. This began – I imagine – with the publication of his memoirs, “I Am Zlatan”, in 2011.
In retrospect, the book marked a moment of immense change. That was when Ibrahimovic abandoned any attempt to resist his reputation for selfishness and decided to exploit it, not only to be Zlatan, but to play Zlatan. It was the moment he started talking about lions.
Like the image of angel Zlatan, the lion is a recurring motif in much of his public pronouncements. His Instagram biography, for example, says "lions can't compare to humans." It's a quote he conjured up in a TV interview while still playing for United. And clearly the phrase pleases him very much.
The decision worked, of course. Ibrahimovic has long been regarded as one who did well in easy tournaments, starring teams capable of crushing their national opponents but unable to shine on the bigger stages. He will retire without ever having won the Champions League. Without ever having scored a goal in the World Cup.
In recent years, however, the perception of him has changed – and rightly so. England has always been the last bastion of cynicism towards Ibrahimovic. Scoring four goals in a friendly between Sweden and England in 2012 helped break down much of that resistance, and his performance at United, even in the final years of his career, eliminated any trace of doubt.
But England didn't really fall in love with Ibrahimovic, the attacker, but with “Zlatan”, the cartoon character, the marketing creation, the content provider.
England loves the eccentric; but more and more, and it hurts the country, she loves the boasting: an entire country under the control of anyone who says outrageous things enough to cause laughter. If you want more references, see the 2019 British General Election.
It was this second wave of viral fame, in addition to his golden resume, that made him such a big hit at MLS. David Villa is Ibrahimovic's partner in many ways, but when he arrived in the United States he did not deserve a series of full-page newspaper ads to declare the player's intention to conquer the city.
It would be interesting to determine how much of this happens by accident and how much as part of a public relations plan or strategy – and you can be sure that “Zlatan” exists in part as a public relations campaign.
Is the character organic, represents an amplified version of Ibrahimovic's personality, or is he pure confection?
The feeling has always been that Ibrahimovic is joking and says his dialogues with a smile and a wink, but it's impossible to be sure.
Over time, it has become easier to believe that he is not joking. It has been almost a decade since your book was published; nine years of absurd statements, funny dialogues and comparisons with predators. The joke is starting to tire.
At some point, even people who keep laughing will realize that the joke has lost its fun.
Maybe that no longer matters when it happens. Ibrahimovic will have retired. You will have extracted everything possible from your talent for playing a sport and from your talent for playing a role. But maybe it does matter.
Maybe when we have to remember it, we end up remembering the character, not the player. We may remember the joke, but not why it was funny.
Paulo Migliacci Translation
. (tagsToTranslate) international football (t) Ibrahimovic (t) Milan (t) Italy (t) sheet