A Man of Parts
by Joe Kennedy
Penguin, 272pp, ISBN 9780241996089, £10.99
These days, footballers often do autobiography in the plural. With first playing memoirs released earlier and earlier in careers, second volumes are frequently required by the age of 40, or earlier, to soak up the residues of what took place on the pitch, and perhaps to describe early efforts in coaching. The explanation for the prematurity of some modern football autobiographies is unsurprising: the desire of agents to derive maximum added value from players while the latter are at their most competitively and culturally relevant. Get a book out early, and you’re comparatively insured against a catastrophic crash in public interest should you be elbowed aside by the next ‘generational’ talent.
At the time of the publication of I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović, his first book, in 2013, the Swedish forward could well lay claim to being, allowing for the special category necessitated by the excellence of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, world football’s best-of-the-rest. Neymar and Robert Lewandowski were still to conclusively prove themselves, Kylian Mbappé was two years off his senior debut, and Mo Salah was playing in the Swiss Super League. Ibrahimović, by comparison, was pushing 32, had twice won the capocannoniere award for the top goalscorer in Italy’s Serie A, and had won that taxing league on no fewer than six occasions, along with a brace of Dutch titles and one apiece in France and Spain. He’d made his international debut 12 years earlier, and pretty much dragged an otherwise middling Sweden team behind him ever since. The book felt neither rushed nor padded; arguably, given its subject’s innate raconteurism and apparently boundless capacity for conflict, and its perceptive commentary on the immigrant experience in Sweden, it could have been longer.
Leap forward nine years and Ibrahimović is, maybe inconceivably, still going, and has just completed another season in Serie A, leading AC Milan to their first scudetto since another Zlatan-driven triumph in 2011. In between these titles, he’s been peripatetic, helping Paris St-Germain dominate the undemanding Ligue 1, putting up with the long-running interregnal farce at Manchester United for a couple of seasons, and doing — as he, probably rightly, sees it — the Americans a favour by taking a turn in Major League Soccer for LA Galaxy. Once more in Lombardy, he regards himself as having mellowed somewhat, gradually becoming, simultaneously, a team player and a man of parts as he contemplates the imminent nebulousness of footballing retirement. Nevertheless, much is the same in Adrenaline: Zlatan is boisterous, self-justifying, funny and problematic; antagonists such as Pep Guardiola and latter-day nemesis Romelu Lukaku are depicted as laughable annoyances; family and fast cars still orient life beyond the pitch and the training ground.
There are a few sub-genres within the field of football autobiography. These could be categorised by master trope: the rags-to-riches tale (often hyperbolic; I ghosted one where the rags amounted to having been born in Nottingham), having it all and screwing it up or getting injured, being so good and famous there is no obligation to be interesting, being the team’s water carrier and making your labour’s invisibility into a masochistic USP, being a zany goalkeeper and, usually the worst, Not Being Like Other Footballers. The latter tends to mean terrible books like Zlatan’s one-time Milan team-mate Andrea Pirlo’s I Think Therefore I Play, which shipwrecked the vineyard-owning Pirlo’s reputation for profundity by containing not a single interesting insight. It also beckons smuggery like the former Chelsea and Everton winger Pat Nevin’s The Accidental Footballer, which consists in the main of associative lists of authors Nevin likes and bands he’s met. With his self-proclaimed ‘ghetto’ background in the Malmö microrayon of Rosengård, Zlatan’s books share elements of the r-to-r mythology — although he’s catty about ‘players [who] talk about how they first started playing with a football made of rags or old socks’ — but they are less reliant on a sentimentalised past than many others. It’s fairest to say, though, that both I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović and Adrenaline locate a niche in the space reserved for the nominally unconventional footballers, albeit in a fashion which, thankfully, relies predominantly on narrative form to express apartness rather than tedious declarations of cerebralism.
Both Zlatan’s books have been co-written with novelists. David Lagercrantz, mantle-inheritor of Stig Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, worked on I Am Zlatan and Italian author Luigi Garlando on Adrenaline. Between them, Ibrahimovic and Lagercrantz created something fairly noteworthy in I Am Zlatan, which resisted the urge to claim literary value (as Pirlo’s book does) with hackish errands into the notionally poetic and instead established a wily, slippery voice which brought its readers into its confidence before blasting them from it with absurd inflatory pronunciations or daft vignettes absent of self-awareness. What I suspect was rarely in short supply was self-consciousness; in other words, the oscillation between intimate confession and, quite frankly, bombastic annoyingness was stylised in a manner which parodically unpicked the autobiographical contract and put Ibrahimovic into a tradition of self-problematising memoir that has of late been rebranded as autofiction. It feels contextually notable that the most prominent Scandinavian author of the 21st century — other than Zlatan, should he be reading this and fuming — is Karl Ove Knausgård, whose fundamental narrational schema is to draw the reader in with humble facticity and then say something which makes them hate him.
As its title suggests, a running theme in Adrenaline is Ibrahimovic’s psychological dependence on excitement, along with his fear of not being able to access this once his playing career concludes. It is certainly tempting to read this book as a high-wire act designed to thrill its author, teetering over terminal opprobrium, just as much as its reader. There is little piety in the book, and very little self-pity: none of its cast is a saint or a monster, just a good laugh or a prick, usually some combination of the two. At one point, there’s a recollection of when Zlatan’s father Šefik ‘lift[ed] me in the air over his head and [threw] me onto the floor from six feet up’, but this is framed as paternal slapstick, like Homer wringing Bart’s neck, rather than the abuse it clearly constitutes. Elsewhere Šefik is presented as an ambiguously adorable chancer who, like very many dads from Petropavlovsk to Patagonia, could have been a footballing contender himself but for a disastrous injury which, as far as their children are concerned, was offscreen and dubious.
Best exemplifying Ibrahimovic’s pragmatic, true-neutral worldview is his late agent and amico Mino Raiola, who died in the period between the book’s completion and its publication. Many would claim that Raiola’s impact on world football in the 21st century has been detrimental, as his attritional positioning around transfers has played a hefty role in the massive inflation of players’ wages, the burden of which has been passed on in almost every case to supporters in the form of increased ticket prices and television subscriptions. Such costs, as everyone knows these days, transform the spectating constituencies of all the big clubs and many of the smaller ones, so Raiola has more than played his part in the embourgeoisement of the so-called ‘terraces’. It’s Ibrahimović’s tendency to speak as he finds, though, so we get Mino-the-prick who disrupts family holidays with his incessant phone calls and Mino-the-pal who spirits Zlatan off in the middle of the night to the States for probably career-saving cruciate surgery. One wonders if, and maybe hopes that, there’ll be a second edition of the book to commemorate Raiola’s passing.
Without doubt, we could object to lots of this: superficially, there are a legion of reasons to do so. Maybe we might insist upon a narrator who offers a more trenchant critique of the Darwinian masculinity Ibrahimović seems to have grown up within, or of the hyper-commercialisation of sport in the time of super-agents like Raiola and Jorge Mendes, or of the eco-menace of fast cars, or of the supposedly socially opiatory function of football in general. Given the likely youth of much of Adrenaline’s readership, some might hope for a little hand-holding didacticism, for moral obviousness even, and it’s true that many less Zlatanic footballers such as Marcus Rashford are laudably choosing to emphasise their social consciousness in their autobiographies and confront the game’s various bigotries.
One might also point out, however, that an archly non-judgmental portrayal of a milieu can offer a moral seriousness which works harder than uncategorical verdict-making. Indeed, this is a tradition established in the satirical fictions which seem to reverberate at second- or third-hand through the literary construction of ‘Zlatan’. A slightly manic, artificial tone of insouciance characterises many of Adrenaline’s ‘untold stories’: there are times when the reader doesn’t believe that the author believes he’s as blameless or as unburdened by conscience as he professes to be. Struggling to make the opening ceremony of the Sanremo Music Festival, which the newly multifaceted Zlatan has been asked to help officiate, his car becomes stuck in traffic and he more or less demands a lift to the Ligurian resort from a man with a scooter who happens to be passing by, and also happens to be a Milan fan. After a crazy journey, which allows Zlatan to make it to Sanremo in time for curtain-up, he learns that his kindly driver has never ridden on the motorway before. Zlatan: ‘I was ready to eat him alive.’
In this passage and in very many others, Ibrahimović could pass for Martin Amis’ John Self, whose impenitent rudeness and egotism are supposed to be read as the coded mea culpa of the 1980s. Money, the novel which serves as Self’s arena, twists on the irony that its narrator’s absolutist individualism is merely the correlate of his era, that the more solipsistic he is the more the non-Self, what we might grandly call ‘the transpersonal’, is working through and upon him. Towards the end of Money Self has been so ideologically compressed by Hayekian individualism that the tiniest glance outside of it instantiates pitiable panic (in Amis’ most memorable allegorical riff, he has become so addicted to his own ‘handjobs’ he can’t fuck). Bizarre as it might sound, the overdriven tone of many of Adrenaline’s set-pieces betrays a comparable anxiety in the face of one of the book’s key motifs, specifically the end of a footballing career. Zlatan is an insider catching sight of the world outside football, but also at times of the world outside hard-man masculinity and commercial excess, and experiencing these cocoons crumble. The question I think the book subliminally pitches is: what is left when structures — even bad structures — are removed?
Ibrahimović is no stranger to the potential complexity of inside/outside relationships, as readers of his first autobiography will remember. I Am Zlatan was a chastening read for anyone, Swedish or otherwise, given to celebrating the collectivist social democracy of Sweden and the Nordic countries more broadly. It told of being the child of a Bosnian Muslim father and a Croat mother, both of whom had arrived in Sweden during the late seventies, a period in which many from the Balkans made a similar journey in order to take up manufacturing jobs in cities like Malmö and Gothenburg. For Zlatan, this meant being subjected to passive-aggressive discrimination where immigrants were shunned for their failure to correctly interpret jantelagen, the Swedish — and more widely Scandinavian — cultural ethic which subtly warns against individualistic indulgence in favour of commitment to collective purpose. He neatly demonstrated how this value-system, often praised by Scandophiles for its usefulness in ideologically justifying the economic sort-of egalitarianism found in Northern Europe, could easily be purposed to provide a benign-looking excuse for excluding those allegedly not willing to fit in. One of the things which seems to have drawn Ibrahimović to Raiola, who emigrated from southern Italy to the Netherlands as a child, is a mutual awareness of how easily jantelagen or Dutch maaiveldcultuur can be ethnically weaponised, an awareness which in the case of both men offered a fuck-you individualism as the best solution.
Individualism has had a peculiar recent past. On one hand, it has flourished on the libertarian right. However, libertarianism has (for electoral reasons, amongst others) been forced into compacts with the politics of a reactionary collectivism, visible from Russia to Hungary to the United States, and of course in western Europe itself, which insists that the expressive rights of individuals have gone much too far and led to a fatal narcissism. Much of the modern European and American left seems to share these suspicions, but economises them in order to offer a supposedly materialist critique of ‘neoliberal subjectivity’, i.e. of individuals so locked, rather like John Self, into capitalist realist selfhood they have forgotten such a thing as ‘society’ and their responsibilities within and to it. Both on the right and on the left, despite the latter’s more sympathetic narrative about how ideology has cruelly seduced us into solipsism, the critique of individualism — whether the abandonment of moral, aesthetic and religious tradition or cut-throat market rationalism is blamed — tends to take the form of finger-wagging or scolding. Even on the supposedly enlightened left, ‘individualism’ is almost always spoken of as though it’s something other people are guilty of: the failure of solidarity is always the failure of the other. Nobody other than individualism’s most aggressive card carriers ever seem to want to own up to what they might like about it, or how they might at times benefit from aspects of it.
Am I stumbling towards a suggestion that Adrenaline offers an immanent critique of individualism, using its immersive irony to obviate the problem of pedestalised commentary? A little, perhaps. We’ve had ten or more years of slim, ranty volumes — and my own books are certainly not wholly innocent of this — which yell cloudwards about John Selfishness and its legacies, as though the polemical approach alone can manifest collectivist utopia. It can appear, even, as though some of the polemicists themselves are jockeying for position within the intellectual marketplace! In such circumstances, it’s actually quite refreshing to see an individualist as committed as Zlatan begin to express doubt, even if it’s only occasionally, and then usually connected to the essentially self-centered reason of his fading career, about a value system in which they’re aware they’re unequivocally implicated.
On the other hand, maybe this is just weltanschauung collapsing into weltschmerz, to paraphrase a very early Auden poem I can’t otherwise remember anything about — a worldview dissipating into melancholy. If that’s the case I’m looking forward to an even more Knausgårdian third volume about post-playing Zlatan, sitting in his unelectrified hunting shack in Northern Sweden (this is a real thing, by the way; he seems very proud of it) tapping away at an old typewriter.