Let’s just get one thing straight from the beginning—this is about Sweden, not Switzerland. Sweden is the country with elk, meatballs, and cinnamon buns. It is (supposedly) one of the best countries in the world when it comes to gender equality. It is also the birthplace of Zlatan Ibrahimović, one of the best footballers over the past two decades and a big personality in the average Swedish household. He has won just about everything—11 league titles with five different clubs in four different countries, he’s played for seven different clubs in the Champions League (although he never got to raise that particular trophy), and he has won countless awards and broken numerous records. Now, Sweden is finally going to a World Cup, their first one since Germany 2006, where they played 0-0 against Trinidad and Tobago, and Zlatan showed a mere shadow of his true form. After just about beating Italy to one of the last spots, Sweden have once again been let in to partake in the biggest football tournament in the world, but Zlatan is not coming along. Why? A winner and a prolific goalscorer like him would surely be welcome in any team. But some people say that the Swedish national team is actually better off without the big star. To understand that reasoning better, it’s important to understand the mentality of this Nordic people.
The Sweden men’s national team came in second in a World Cup tournament once. That was in 1958, the one that they hosted themselves, but they were beat by Brazil in the final in Stockholm. Since then the best achievement they’ve had was third place in USA ‘94, and after that they’ve qualified for as many tournaments (three) as they’ve missed (three). But the view has long been that it is the trying that counts, so each time they’ve even qualified to the tournament it’s seen as a big achievement. The Swedish mentality is to not think that you are bigger or better than anyone else. This mindset, which values the collective, the work of the team, over individual achievement, is called the Law of Jante. To think too highly of oneself is an ugly thing that Swedes scowl at. This becomes particularly evident in a sporting context.
Enter Zlatan Ibrahimović. He did not fit in from the beginning, with his dark hair, big nose, frank attitude and amazing football skills. The tall and talented young man was cocky and outspoken, which went against all the Swedish values, so it took quite some time for Zlatan to win over the hearts of the population. At first, he was portrayed in the media as a troublemaker and childish, with his pending mood swings and refusal to play, but despite all his talk he proved himself a valued player. Then he seemed to grow up—without losing his essence, of course, which allowed the general public to take him more to heart. The football wizard known as Ibra Kadabra became even more idolized than before. Whatever he said— and still says—was turned into quotes and uploaded on the internet within minutes, shared around on all sorts of social media and appreciated by the general public. If he made snarky comments or behaved mischievously, people just laughed along. And if he says something that could be perceived as offensive, it is often not even picked up on. People don’t want to stir up trouble, so they gloss over what he says and dismiss it as a joke.
For example, at the Swedish football gala in 2013 Anders Svensson was being awarded a car for having set a new record for number of games played. In itself, this was nothing to fuss about. But in that same room sat another player who, at the time, had played even more games for the national team—an amazing 187 games to Svensson’s 148. But Therese Sjögran was not given a car, or even an acknowledgement.Her achievements were, thankfully, brought to light and in the media as well as on the streets, people started acknowledge and discuss the value of women footballers.. For years the Sweden women’s national team have been fighting for more recognition and funding of their game, organizing fundraising campaigns highlighting inequality and calling attention to the fact that the winners of the Damallsvenskan, the highest women’s football league in Sweden, don’t get a single penny in prize money. Of course Zlatan was asked about his take on the Svensson situation:
How the hell can you compare a female achievement with a male achievement individually? It’s impossible. Should we compare the economy of the men compared to the women? We bring in what they use. Please, you can’t compare it.
Praise him [Anders Svensson] for this record, because he’s one of the few players we have to reach that level. It’s better to take that stance than to lower all of his worth in order to compare him with the women’s individual achievements. They can get a bike with my autograph and it’ll be fine.
What is shocking is that the reactions to comments like these from such a prominent figure in the football world were not as strong as one might think (or hope) . Upon trying to introduce his words into the conversation, more often than not the matter was quickly dismissed—“but come on, he didn’t mean it like that!” and “It was just a joke!” It is hard to criticize the best player that Sweden had ever had; people rarely want to hear negative things about Ibra. In a country supposedly known for its gender equality, we shouldn’t consider the development of women’s football, and the achievements of its players, funny and we certainly shouldn’t allow the captain for the men’s team, and an idol to young girls and boys, get away with saying something like this without more people calling it out.
Zlatan is also known for being quite tough not only on his opponents, but also on his teammates; he’s not one to back down, as he makes clear in his autobiography I am Zlatan. Amongst others there’s the famous fight with Oguchi Onyewu where he broke a rib, or that time he threatened to break both of Rafael Van der Vaart’s legs after a heated argument. One time he threw a ball in the face of the Faroe Islands’ goalkeeper, a prank that could’ve earned him a yellow card, which would have resulted in a suspension. But because the referee did not react, there were no consequences, and the talk in the Swedish studio afterwards was all laughter and lightheartedness (one journalist tried to call him out, but it was quickly brushed aside with a laugh from a colleague).
Some think these are all things that must be accepted when you deal with a huge star with a big personality and ego. Some even think that the personality is half of the appeal, that it gives the player that extra pull and makes following them even more interesting. Just take Paul Gascoigne for example. Gazza was a fantastic player in his day, but many remember him for being a real prankster and “funny” guy as much as for those amazing goals.
Yet the Swedish men’s national team consists mainly of players who conform to the Law of Jante. The idea that it is the collective that counts has been indoctrinated in them since they first kicked a ball. It is more important to acknowledge the teamwork than the individual, and more importantly—it’s okay to applaud other individual’s efforts, but you cannot, under any circumstance, acknowledge your work and your own significance. You have to be modest about your own achievements.
That’s where Zlatan does not really fit in. But then again, he doesn’t have to. He’s been one of the best players in the world for quite some time, and that talent was evident in the Swedish team. He scored a number of vital (and elegant) goals, and was a leader on the pitch. While some Swedes may not find it problematic to be vocal about one’s own efforts and importance, the way that Ibra ruled in the national team made him virtually untouchable—neither his teammates nor the media could criticize him, which affected the performance of the team as a whole.
It was Zlatan’s own choice to not play in this upcoming World Cup (although the media has speculated, and people have gossiped, about whether he would have made the team under the new management, news which was met with a mixed reception from the Swedish population). The fickle media have vänt kappan efter vinden (“turned their coats after the wind”; i.e., changed their mind)s and now suddenly everyone feels that it’s best to leave the star striker out of it. It will undoubtedly be interesting to see what this Swedish team can do, playing to each other’s strengths and focusing on what they all can achieve together. This is, in large part, the players that emerged from the Group of Death in the 2015 European Under-21 Championship and ended up winning the trophy. If there is one thing to take away from that team, is that they knew how to play together and for each other. Now, without Zlatan and on a much bigger stage, the Law of Jante will be put to the test. It remains to see whether this inexperienced squad can take on the bigger nations and come away with their collective pride intact.