“You can take the boy out of Rosengård but you cannot take Rosengård out of the boy’. These words are written at the entrance of the tunnel that leads through to the suburb of Rosengård in Malmö, Sweden, which for decades has been notorious for its crime and its poor economy; it was estimated in 2013 that over 80 percent of its population of 24,000 have immigrant backgrounds, and only 38 percent of the residents have a job.

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 major challenges to the balance of the welfare state.

However, despite its reputation as the ‘Ghetto of Sweden’, there is one individual who has managed to rise from those deprived circumstances to become a symbol of the area as well as 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’.

Having played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe in the likes of Ajax, Barcelona and AC Milan, his position as one of the best footballers in the world is unquestionable, although 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 epitomises the essence of the new, multicultural Sweden.

Born in Rosengård to Bosnian father and Croatian mother, Zlatan Ibrahimović endured a broken childhood and a tough upbringing; his parents divorced when he was only two, and growing up in the rough neighbourhood of Rosengård with his mother, who sometimes worked fourteen hours a day, meant that everything depended on his own 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 football, with the Brazilian samba style acting as his source of inspiration, playing football in the streets of Rosengård was not only about demonstrating skill; it was all about developing character – a tough, powerful, and unbreakable appearance, both mentally and physically – in order to stand up for himself and take responsibility for his own actions. Talk the talk and walk the walk – this has always been Zlatan’s unwritten motto from the very beginning.

Just like the challenges Zlatan 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. It was this experience that not only shaped his attitude to life, but also reminded him of his past and all the hardships he had to overcome to become the man he is today.

“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 gonna eat us out on the street?” Therefore, from an early age, the invaluable lesson for Zlatan 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 was never accepted nor appreciated by the parents of his teammates 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, there are people who perceive Zlatan as nothing more than an extension of the “immigrant problem” in Sweden who, despite his status as a footballing hero, is only highlighting the growing racial tensions between the natives and the immigrants.

The exceptionally generous welfare policies combined with an exceptionally generous approach to immigration only places 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, are the ones to blame.

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 that were 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 always stayed true to his roots and values. This has certainly been one of the most important factors to his success, and as he puts it:

“Those who are seen for the wrong reasons, it’s okay to be different; continue being yourself, it worked for me.” Just like the samba style of football, it represented something different to what the kids in Sweden were accustomed to, which was exactly why Zlatan came to adore it, and finally master it.  

“If you are different, or you have minimum possibilities, you can still succeed. I am a living proof of that. I didn’t have the ‘wow’ life. I was not a ‘wow’ person. Those around me were not ‘wow’ people. I didn’t live in a ‘wow’ area. So my message to those who feel different is that if you believe in yourself you will also make it. There is always a possibility. Everything depends on you.

As for Zlatan, being different is not a deficit, but an asset that, if channelled accordingly, can uplift one from being segregated to integrated. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but having a voice and an example to follow are sometimes the initial steps needed for change.

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 UEFA 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 was portrayed dressed in a football uniform with the addition of a royal red, fur-lined mantel and the Swedish regalia. Nationalism at its finest, some might argue.

However, the quick 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.

In this respect, Zlatan 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 as well as 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 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 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’ football ground foundation with Nike in the Rosengård neighbourhood forms a natural node that helps to not only integrate and unite young people from different ethnic backgrounds, but also to instil 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’. Ibrahimovic, as a result of his influence and leadership, can play a pivotal role in combating racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination by acting as a catalyst to promote more positive acknowledgement of cultural diversity as well as intergroup attitudes and interactions. This modern narrative of a multicultural Sweden is further exemplified by Volvo’s recent commercial ‘Made by Sweden’ featuring Zlatan and his family, which highlights the importance of his role in fostering multiculturalism and constructing national identity by creating a story of who we are in Sweden today.

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

His record-winning ninth Golden Ball award – eight in a row since 2005 – at Sweden’s biggest football gala last November signifies his iconic status in the Nordic nation. In addition, the connotations of Malmö to Zlatan 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 football and a symbol of unity. These are and will be his greatest contributions to the nation.

By Luyang Syvanen. Follow @lsyvanen

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