Swede of the year

The story of footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović is that of the son of immigrants who made it out of the ghetto, excelled in the world’s football stadiums, married a blond Swedish girl and was successfully integrated into Swedish society. It is a story of an outsider who was so assimilated into Swedishness that he came to symbolise something very Swedish.

By Anders Ravn Sørensen

It was absolutely incredible. On that dark and cold Stockholm evening in November 2012 Sweden beat England 4-2 in an international soccer friendly. Trouncing a star-littered English team was a remarkable accomplishment in itself. But it was more than the result. In what the sports press described as a ‘magical’ performance, Swedish team Captain Zlatan Ibrahimović had completely taken over the stage, scoring all four of Sweden’s goals – each one more beautiful than the next. The fourth goal in particular was a definite candidate for one of the best in the history of the sport. With a wondrous bicycle kick 30 yards out, from a preposterously high angle, Ibrahimović hit a volley that arched over the stranded goalkeeper Joe Hart and dropped into the goal. Swedish fans were ecstatic. Even the visiting English fans were compelled to applaud. Zlatan Ibrahimović is worthy of attention for more than just his accomplishments on the football field. He is also a potential subject for scholarly analysis because of his status as a vehicle of Swedish nationalism that, paradoxically, espouses a certain ‘otherness’ that stems from his immigrant background.

The nationwide celebration of Ibrahimović raises interesting questions on the significance of celebrated sports superstar with immigrant roots, and the roles that these athletes play in the continuous construction and potential reconstruction of nations. Is Ibrahimović capable of pushing and redefining the boundaries of the Swedish nation? I would argue that Ibrahimović has become a potent symbol of Swedishness that both reproduces existing narratives about the Swedish nation and at the same time potentially redefines the boundaries of that nation. By introducing the concept of nation work in the context of sports celebrities, I argue that such celebrities can both reinforce and potentially alter what it means to belong to a national community.

That evening in November 2012 Ibrahimović was a national hero. He was widely embraced and celebrated by pundits, mainstream politicians and the media. In December following the game against England, the Swedish Language Council even included a new verb, 'at zlatanera' (to Zlatanate) into its list of new words in 2012. The word meant to do something audacious or immensely impressive. For sure, Zlatan Ibrahimović had transcended the sphere of sports to become more than a brilliant footballer. He was a Swedish cultural phenomenon – with his own word in the national dictionary.

An ambiguous national symbol

Yet, even though Ibrahimović was celebrated as a national hero with his word in the dictionary, and even though he in 2015 was voted Swede of the Year by a major Swedish newspaper he remained a somewhat ambiguous national symbol. Not everybody agreed on his symbolic meaning. He was Swede of the year, yes. Captain of the national soccer team, yes – but there was also something inherently foreign and slightly exotic about him. Prominent members of the right-wing Swedish Democrats (a party that is strongly sceptical about immigration and that has been gaining popular support) often highlighted his ‘otherness’ and stated that they did not consider him to be really Swedish. In a radio broadcast on national radio, Swedish Democrat board member Mattias Karlsson explained that he did not regard Ibrahimović as ‘Swedish in the way he thinks, acts and talks. He displays an attitude that in many ways does not feel typically Swedish… He displays a body language and a language in general that I do not really comprehend as Swedish.’

But how can Ibrahimović be considered both Swedish and non-Swedish at the same time, and what is it about him that has made him a Swedish symbol yet at the same time somewhat different? The answer has to do with his immigrant background, and existing ideas about the Swedish nation.

Ibrahimović grew up in Rosengård a neighbourhood of concrete apartment buildings in the suburbs of Sweden’s second-largest city, Malmö. With more than 80 percent of the population being of non-ethnic Swedish decent, Rosengård is certainly vying for the label of ghetto with its comparatively high crime rate and host of social problems.

In this environment Ibrahimović, son of a Croat and a Bosnian Muslim, scored his first goals on the local asphalt pitches. Having toured with a couple of the local teams, from which he was often banned due to his short temper and lack of discipline, young Ibrahimović eventually made it to the first team of Malmö FF. From here his career was propelled into the hemisphere of European club football when he signed for clubs such as Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.

The story of Zlatan Ibrahimović, as it is often told in Swedish media, is a story of the son of immigrants who made it out of the ghetto, excelled in the world’s football stadiums, married a blond Swedish girl, Helena Seger, whom he met when he was only nineteen, and was successfully integrated into Swedish society.

It is a story of an outsider who was so assimilated into Swedishness that he came to symbolise something very Swedish. This narrative was authoritatively disseminated by Ibrahimović himself and his biographer David Largercranz in the widely published moand acclaimed autobiography 'I am Zlatan Ibrahimović' from 2012. With the aid of Lagercranz’s forceful prose the book perpetuated the narrative of Zlatan’s personal success, and his success as a different yet fully accepted Swede.

The myth of Zlatan

In a recent article on media discourses about Zlatan Ibrahimović and the story of Ibrahimović’s road to inclusion, literary scholar Christine Sarrimo (2015) described how an ‘immigrant’s path from provincial otherness to a Western literary space’ has gradually developed into a mediatised myth. This myth not only walks hand-in-hand with the commercialisation of Ibrahimović as a brand, but at the same time serves an ideological purpose. This ideology, Sarrimo writes, ‘fulfils the political vision of the immigrant being assimilated and integrated into Swedishness’. The myth not only fuelled the brand that was Ibrahimović, but the myth was also very much in consonance with prevailing political ideas about Sweden as an open and culturally diverse society, (although the recent refugee crisis in Europe challenges Sweden’s historical commitment to be a safe haven for refugees and immigrants).

After the 4-2 victory over England another Swedish national player, Kim Källström, praised Ibrahimović and emphatically reiterated the narrative of Zlatan as a unifying figure who incarnates a new and inclusive Swedish identity. ‘With foreignborn parents and certain problems in society’
Källström explained, ‘he can hopefully unify the country in a good way. Football builds bridges. He’s a modern Swede who stands for the new Sweden’.

As such, through Kim Källström, the mythical narratives of Ibrahimović become performative in the sense that they themselves contribute to a collective understanding of Swedishness that is reified through a range of different media: newspapers, books and not least commercials.

The myth of Zlatan was not only reproduced by the sports press. The narrative of Ibrahimović as a ‘modern Swede’ who ‘stood for the new Sweden’ was skilfully exploited when in 2015 Swedish carmakers Volvo launched a campaign to promote the new Volvo XC70. Central to the campaign was a twominute film in which we see Ibrahimović hunting a stag in the snow-covered landscape of Northern Sweden. He goes swimming in an icy lake and drives his Volvo XC70 through blizzard-stricken roads. In between these images of classic Swedish scenes, we see short glimpses of Ibrahimović’s wife Helena Seger and his children.

In the background Zlatan himself, with a distinct accent, slowly recites a slightly modified version of the Swedish national anthem. The film ends with Ibrahimović stating that he ‘will live and die in Sweden’ while a text explains that the new Volvo model (and implicitly Ibrahimović as well) are ‘Made by Sweden’.

The film was a success and it boosted Volvo’s sales. The car company managed to appropriate Ibrahimović’s national ambiguity in the context of the Volvo brand – which itself was facing a potential challenge under the influence of globalisation as the company had recently been bought by new Chinese owners.

But the film remained more than a commercial success. With its impressive images and its narrative of Ibrahimović as a new modern Swede, the commercial also spurred strong positive emotional responses. In one of the country’s largest newspapers, cultural editor Rakel Chukri, admitted that she was brought to tears by the commercial when Zlatan uttered the last sentence about living and dying in Sweden. ‘Despite my obvious reservations about Volvo’s owners being Chinese, and despite the stereotypical display of masculinity’ Chukri wrote, ‘I could not help but interpret the film as revenge on all dyspeptic critics who have refused to accept that Zlatan is in fact Swedish’.

The above descriptions of the Zlatan myth and its potential performativity invites questions about the role of famous sports figures in redefining and pushing the boundaries of nations. Are athletes such as Zlatan Ibrahimović capable of influencing the way that national communities perceive themselves and reproduce national identities? In the case of Zlatan Ibrahimović, it seems plausible that his mythical character and image as a new, modern and multicultural Swede contributes to an incremental redefinition of Swedishness.

Nation work

Within the literature on nationalism and national identity, the concept of nation work has gained prominence in recent years. The nation work approach builds on the recent ‘cognitive shift’ within nationalism studies that emphasises categorisation and classification over traits and substance.

Nation work entails the habitual and everyday maintenance and redefinition of nations at the margins. Nation work involves a process of categorisation that helps to distinguish different nations from each other, it involves a specification of members of national communities that is mediated trough other identity categories such as race, gender or ethnicity, and it acknowledges, in the words of sociologist Kristin Surak, that ‘who we are may be established not only visa- vis them, but also other members of us.

A person may be a particularly good or bad member, a typical or strange member, an exemplary or phony member, of the national community. Here contrast is made against neither an external other, nor even an internal other’.

The idea of nation work seems a promising analytical avenue when it comes to understanding what an individual such as Ibrahimović is doing to the Swedish nation. My suggestion is that he is ‘working’ it. What the mediatized myth of Zlatan does is to offer new categories of identification within the framework of the Swedish nation. Zlatan Ibrahimović (or more precisely, the narratives about him) helps distinguish the Swedish nation from other nations. But his Swedishness is configured by his immigrant background. This makes him a different kind of member of the Swedish community; one that other members are able to mirror themselves in and use as a marker of identity. In short, the myth of Ibrahimović potentially pushes the boundaries of the Swedish nation, as it offers a new category of identification as a ‘modern’ Swede that arguably is a little different, but still as Swedish as they come.

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC, … (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)
coming soon

Anders Ravn Sørensen is Assistant Professor at Copenhagen Business School in the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy. His main areas of research are nationalism studies, cultural history and organization studies. He has published articles on the uses of history in organisations and the appropriation of national history for identity and brand purposes.

Anders Ravn Sørensen; private photo

A Global Game – Episode 1

Dave Eggers: "Sport for communists"

A Global Game – Episode 2

Serhij Zhadan: "Ukraine goes into extra time"

A Global Game – Episode 4

Umberto Eco: "Sport is man, sport is society"

A Global Game – Episode 5

Beque Cufaj: "Sport is also war"

A Global Game – Episode 6

Julian Rieck: "A symbol of Spain's internal battles"

A Global Game – Episode 7

Andrei S. Markovits: "A force for emancipation and discrimination"