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Zlatan Ibrahimović playing for AC milan

Zlatan Ibrahimović: Sweden’s Immigrant Superstar Striker

A boy can be removed from Rosengård, but Rosengård cannot be removed from Zlatan Ibrahimović. In Sweden, Rosengård, a suburb notorious for its crime and poor economy, has these words painted at the entrance to a tunnel leading to it. Approximately 80% of the 24,000 residents come from immigrant backgrounds, and only 38% are employed.

As a result of Sweden’s ‘open-armed’ immigration policy, it is not surprising that Rosengård is at the forefront of an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, which poses significant challenges to the balance of the welfare state.

Top 10 Greatest Strikers Of All Time
Top 10 Greatest Strikers Of All Time

However, despite its reputation as the ‘Ghetto of Sweden,’ Zlatan Ibrahimović has managed to rise from those deprived circumstances to become a symbol of the area and the immigrant population of Sweden. Such is his influence that his first name is now officially listed as a verb in the Swedish national dictionary to mean ‘to dominate,’ derived from what the French media has termed ‘Zlataner.’

Prolific Goal Scorer

Zlatan Ibrahimović position as one of the best soccer players globally is without doubt as he has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, such as Ajax, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, and Manchester United. However, there are as many critics of him as there are fans. That said, whether or not people like him is entirely subjective, but one thing for sure is certain: Zlatan Ibrahimović epitomizes the essence of the new, multicultural Sweden.

Born in Rosengård to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, Zlatan Ibrahimović endured a broken childhood and a strict upbringing. Growing up with his mother in the rough Rosengård neighborhood after his parents divorced when he was two. She sometimes worked fourteen hours a day, meaning that everything depended on his ability to thrive and survive. He was an outsider living in a parallel world to mainstream Sweden.

Although it was evident from an early age that he possessed tremendous talent in soccer, with the Brazilian samba style acting as his source of inspiration, playing soccer in the streets of Rosengård was not only about demonstrating skill; it was all about developing character – a rugged, robust, and unbreakable appearance, both mentally and physically – to stand up for himself and take responsibility for his actions. Talk the talk and walk the walk – this has always been Zlatan Ibrahimović unwritten motto from the very beginning.

Zlatan Ibrahimović Childhood Challenges

Like the challenges, Zlatan Ibrahimović faced in the streets, the experience of an empty fridge whenever he was staying with his father further embodied his mindset of not taking anything for granted. He became the man he is today as a result of this experience, which shaped his attitude toward life and reminded him of his past.

“I would often come home hungry as a wolf and open the fridge thinking please, please, let there be something! But no, nothing. I could search every drawer, every corner, for one single macaroni or a meatball.”

Even Zlatan’s mother would often curse at him when he’d come back from his father’s place hoping to find something to eat, yelling: “Are we made of money? Are you going to eat us out on the street?” Therefore, from an early age, the invaluable lesson for Zlatan Ibrahimović was that only hard work, discipline, and perseverance can lead one to success and that there is no one out there to lend a helping hand. If you want to achieve something, it’s up to you to make it happen.

But because of his immigrant background, his ‘ghetto’ attitude, and his fascination for Brazilian-style tricks and flicks, Zlatan Ibrahimović was never accepted nor appreciated by his teammates’ parents as a teenager when playing for the native, Swedish-dominated Malmö BI (now known as FC Rosengård). “Who let the immigrant in?” could often be heard whenever he featured. Even now, some people perceive Zlatan Ibrahimović as nothing more than an extension of the “immigrant problem” in Sweden who, despite his status as a soccer hero, is only highlighting the growing racial tensions between the natives and the immigrants.

The exceptionally generous welfare policies combined with an unusually warm approach to immigration only places a greater financial burden on the Swedish national government that, in the long run, only makes the Swedish model even more unsustainable. And according to some natives, the immigrants, like Zlatan Ibrahimović, are the ones to blame.

Zlatan Ibrahimović Kept Chasing His Dreams

However, this viewpoint towards immigrants did not stop the striker from pursuing his dreams; it only poured more gasoline to an already ignited fire of passion and determination that drove him forwards. The more criticism he received, the more it pushed him to challenge the odds against him. Crucially, whenever he went, he always carried his personality and attitude with him, never forgetting where he came from and what he has been through, and constantly stayed true to his roots and values. This has undoubtedly been one of the most important factors to his success, and as he puts it:

“For those who are seen for the wrong reasons, it’s okay to be different; keep being you. It worked for me.” Like the samba style of soccer, it represented something different from what the kids in Sweden were accustomed to, which was precisely why Zlatan Ibrahimović came to adore it and finally master it.

“I am living proof that even if you feel different, or if you have minimal possibilities, you can still succeed. I didn’t have the ‘wow’ life. I didn’t have the ‘wow’ friends. I didn’t live in a ‘wow’ area. So I want to tell those who feel different that they will also succeed if they keep believing in themselves. There is always a possibility. Everything depends on you.

As for Zlatan Ibrahimović, being different is not a deficit but an asset that, if channeled accordingly, can uplift one from being segregated to integrated. Even though it’s easier said than done, having a voice and an example to follow can sometimes be the first step towards change.

The King Of Sweden

After scoring his 50th international goal for Sweden in a friendly match against Estonia in September 2014, making him the Swedish national team’s all-time leading goalscorer, and earning his 100th international appearance a few days later in a Euro 2016 qualifier match against Austria, Zlatan Ibrahimović, the “punk” from Rosengård, is rightly heralded by the Swedish media and public discourse as a national hero and ‘The King of Sweden.’

Even before his outstanding merits for the Swedish national team, his iconic national status has already been illustrated, for example, at an art exhibition located on Djurgården island in Stockholm, Sweden, where Zlatan Ibrahimović was portrayed dressed in a soccer uniform with the addition of a royal red, fur-lined mantle and the Swedish regalia. Nationalism at its finest, some might argue.

However, the rapid growth in support for the nationalistic and anti-immigration right-wing Sweden Democrats Party, which has become the third most popular party in Sweden according to recent polls, argues that the new multicultural Sweden is only generating feelings of insecurity among Swedes, who are in danger of feeling foreign in their own country; the notion of a distinct Swedish culture provides the glue that bonds Swedes together.

The Symbol for Social Problems

In this respect, Zlatan Ibrahimović is often viewed as the symbol of the social problems caused by poorly integrated immigrants in Swedish society. Moreover, many people question his allegiance to Sweden and his national status and image because of his immigrant background, his gesture of not singing the national anthem, and his outspoken, non-Swedish personality. “Zlatan Ibrahimović isn’t Swedish. A Swedish citizen? Yes, of course. An ethnic Swede that should represent our culture, land and people? No.”

Despite the criticisms, he remains a symbol of the multi-ethnic nature of the country that people can identify with, be inspired by, and feel a sense of pride and solidarity. More importantly, Zlatan Ibrahimović is at the forefront for reinforcing the ethnic diversity of the national side as well as creating identity among children and a sense of belonging; his ‘Zlatan Court‘ soccer ground foundation with Nike in the Rosengård neighborhood forms a natural node that helps to not only integrate and unite young people from different ethnic backgrounds but also to instill ambition and optimism.

Furthermore, the long-lost homogeneous Swedish society is also shifting the national identity of Sweden to portray and embed a more multicultural image to the notion of ‘Swedishness.’ As a result of his influence and leadership, Zlatan Ibrahimović can play a pivotal role in combating racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination by acting as a catalyst to promote a more positive acknowledgment of cultural diversity and intergroup attitudes and interactions. This modern narrative of a multicultural Sweden is further exemplified by Volvo’s recent commercial ‘Made by Sweden’ featuring Zlatan Ibrahimović and his family, highlighting the importance of his role in fostering multiculturalism and constructing national identity by creating a story of who we are in Sweden today.

Proud Of His Background

“Whenever I go, I represent Sweden, but I also represent Rosengård. You never forget where you come from.” Although Zlatan Ibrahimović might not fully embody an authentic ‘Swedishness’ in his demeanor, what he brings to the Swedish nation in terms of pride and glory is immeasurable. If one person can promote cultural cohesion and community stability by changing people’s attitudes to become more permissive towards immigrants, it is he.

His record-winning twelfth Golden Ball (Guldbollen) award signifies his iconic status in the Nordic nation. In addition, the connotations of Malmö to Zlatan Ibrahimović is also gradually transforming the infamous, multi-ethnic district of Rosengård to become a model for positive change; innovative social projects and a responsive community are slowly changing the image of Rosengård, and although Zlatan might not be directly involved in these changes, his contributions in promoting a sense of identity within Rosengård and across wider communities cannot be underestimated.

If the idea of a distinct Swedish culture provides the glue that bonds Swedes together, then Zlatan is the key component of that glue, a hope beyond soccer and a symbol of unity. These are and will be his most remarkable contributions to the nation.

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