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Aleksandar Hemon: In Paris, Zlatan Ibrahimović Learns to Share

In Sarajevo, Bosnia, where I grew up playing a lot of soccer, the slang word mahalaš refers to a cocky player who much prefers feints to passes; who’d rather nutmeg someone than shoot; who deplores defending. All the lost balls and all the teammates ignored while in scoring position are relegated into oblivion by each small masterpiece: dribbling past an entire defense, scoring from an impossible angle, bamboozling a goalie.

At the root of the word mahalaš is mahala—an old fashioned word for neighborhood or, indeed, ghetto—suggesting that the noble title requires street cred in the literal sense: it has to have been acquired in the hood, where the intricate ball skills are developed playing on parking lots and dead-end streets. The ultimate reward is not money or success—as you never really get out of your mahala—but the continuous respect of your mates and enemies. For a mahalaš, it is never enough to pass or score; everyone in the mahala and beyond has to tell stories about it.           

Zlatan Ibrahimović, the great Swedish player of Bosnian-Croatian origin, could be the greatest mahalaš of all time. His career, as documented on YouTube, consists of spectacular moves and goals, commonly occasioning his immense and arguably well-earned cockiness. The recent friendly match between Sweden and England, in which Ibra scored all four goals for his national team, provides plenty of story-worthy highlights: the perfect run and chest control for his second goal, the brazen free kick from nearly forty yards out for his third, the outrageous overhead bicycle kick for his fourth, already elected as one of the greatest goals ever. But between the highlights, one could also spot mahala-bred mannerisms: at one point, Ibrahimović had the ball near England’s eighteen-yard box but did not deem any of his teammates interestingly positioned, so he kept backing up, rolling the ball in his feet, waiting for some clever run to occasion a phenomenal pass. It never came, the run, and he lost the ball to a comparatively talentless, hard-working English defender who ran off with it into the infinity of forgettable routines.

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The notion of mahalaš is pertinent in the case of Ibrahimović because his father Šefik came from Bijeljina, a Bosnian town where the mahala is at the heart of urban geography. (His first coach at FBK Balkan, an immigrant club, was also Bosnian.) Moreover,  he grew up and started playing in the Malmö hood called Rosengård—an immigrant mahala par excellance. According to Ibrahimović's autobiography, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic (a runaway bestseller in Sweden), Rosengård was “full of Somalis, Turks, Yugos, Poles, all sorts of immigrants, and Swedes” where the “most important were the feints and the nice moves.... You were supposed to impress the lads with tricks and moves.” When he was not stealing bikes (which he was very good at), he was practicing fancy footwork—all of Zlatan's spectacular moves can be traced back to his Malmö mahala. “You can take the boy out of the ghetto, but you can never take the ghetto out of the boy,”  he says in his book, recounting his rift with the Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, whom he mockingly calls the Philosopher—someone, that is, as far as can be from the feet-on-the-asphalt spirit of Rosengård.

In his book, rambled off to the Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz, Ibrahimović plays up his mahala loyalties and his immigrant background. He recalls a game he played as a kid for FBK Balkan against “a bunch of snobs from Vellinge, it was brown kids versus posh kids,” in which he came off the bench worked up enough to score eight goals. Starting his professional career at Malmö FF, he felt out of place: “they didn’t really want any brown kids or hotheads who do showy Brazilian moves…all the [other] players had been blonde and well-behaved, with names like Bosse Larsson.” For Ibrahimović, the mesmerizing footwork and cheeky goals have become the flags of Rosengård he plants in each enemy pitch. Someone somewhere must have written a Ph.D. thesis on the Zlatan phenomenon as symptomatic of rapidly transforming Swedish society. A cursory Internet search quickly yields websites where football-loving white supremacists work themselves up over Zlatan’s identity (a Muslim? a Jew? a white Muslim?), many wistfully wishing him to be properly pale.

At the mature age of thirty-one, Ibrahimović is far more than a non-aryan epitomy of a mahalaš and can claim a rightful place in the soccer Pantheon, rife with brown kids. Quite possibly the biggest natural talent in modern European soccer, he is someone in whom extraordinary ball skills are combined with incredibly quick thinking and a winner’s drive and confidence. The most expensive player in history in combined transfer fees (about $240 million), he has played and scored for six different teams in Champions League competition (Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, PSG). He has played for some of the best and most accomplished coaches in the game: Capello, Mancini, Mourinho, Guardiola and, presently at Paris St Germain, Ancelotti. He has won national leagues in all the clubs he’s played for (except for PSG, which might yet happen). He has won, during his unhappy stay at Barcelona, the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. Still, the Champions League trophy, the holy grail of European professional soccer, has eluded him. So have the best player honors—he has never been named UEFA’s player of the year or the FIFA World Player of the Year.

Zlatan’s problem, if you can call it that, is that he has to be the biggest one on his team; he has to be the first and only one in the mahala. He is at his best when his team entirely depended on his performance, as evidenced in the game versus England, where the rest of the Swedes were a gaggle of paint-mixers assisting the master: they won the balls so that Ibrahimović could do the immortal bicycle kick.

So far, Ibrahimović has played for the clubs that were too big for him, disinclined to reorganize themselves to suit his commanding talent. He has not managed to feel at home in any club or place since he left Rosengård as a teenager. That is why Paris Saint-Germaine might be the perfect place for him at this time.  The Paris club had been wallowing in mediocrity until last year, when it was taken over by the manicured arm of the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, bringing in practically unlimited amounts of money. Zlatan is the axis of PSG’s ambition to become a European and global superpower. He evidently relishes the responsibility, not least because the club pays him $18 million after exorbitant (75 percent) French taxes. At PSG he scores a lot and is more generous with passes than ever before (witness the four brilliant assists in a recent Champions League destruction of Dinamo Zagreb), leaving in his wake the headlines of the “Ibra destroys” sort. He has become the biggest boy in the Paris mahala and the surrounding banlieues. The Parc de Princes, the PSG home stadium, has the highest average attendance in League 1, which they currently lead. PSG also lead their Champions League group, already qualifying for the knockout stage. Ibra is the undisputed team conductor and if their ultimate ambition of winning the Champions League is fulfilled, he will be forever remembered in the mahalas of the world where kids of all colors skin their knees practicing step-overs.