There is a nice irony about the title of the work which ought to be the runaway winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, announced tomorrow. After all those football autobiographies which profess through their titles to penetrate the meaning of how it is to be in the game – Managing my Life, Off the Record, Strikingly Different – the one which breaks the mould makes an extremely minimalist claim. I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it says on the cover, a simple statement of fact.
The discussion of its merits has been relatively sparse and certainly pales compared with the acres of space allocated to Sir Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp and Sven Goran Eriksson’s autobiographies in recent months. The English version has not even been serialised in the UK. The spellbinding opening chapter’s annihilation of Pep Guardiola, characterised as a creepy control freak, claimed some British headlines but the book’s supreme beauty as an immigrant’s tale – the best of that kind since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth writes the author and journalist Simon Kuper – has been largely overlooked. The encapsulation of the immigrant experience is rarely heard beyond the realms of fiction, though this book’s early sections – the best of the work – provide a vivid sense of that dislocation: Ibrahimovic watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films with his father because “Swedish TV didn’t exist for us. We lived in a very different world from the Swedes.”
Perhaps it is because Ibrahimovic’s ghostwriter, the Swedish author David Lagercrantz, visits his subject from outside of the football bubble that he provides what you might describe as the “five to three moment”: the tunnel, bench and pitch-level sense of what it is to be in there, right in the midst of the fray on a football field. “I saw a gap, a chance,“ Ibrahimovic tells of how he prepared to seize and change a Malmo training game immutably, with Ajax’s coaches on hand to observe. “It was one of those images that just pop into my head, one of those flashbulb moments. Football isn’t something you plan in advance…”
This kind of small, precise detail can be so difficult to procure from footballers – who don’t understand why you’re asking for it when you go looking. There are exceptions to the rule. Gary Neville’s Red and Jamie Carragher’s Carra, for example. But fine detail is so hard to come by. Writer Duncan Hamilton, whose new George Best biography Genius is another of the best, tells me that he warns interviewees beforehand that he’ll be asking them about the colour of the wallpaper or the sky, to prevent the slant of an interview suddenly throwing them. I still recall the fairly dismal consequences of once trying to discover the story of Paul Konchesky’s Polish surname when interviewing him at Leicester City. I had heard that his grandfather had been Polish and looked for more. He took this to be me imputing a lack of commitment from him to England and a very brief interview was terminated a few minutes later.
You might contend that Ibrahimovic’s story – whose chaos is rooted in the years of being passed between divorced parents, his father a Bosnian Muslim, his mother a Croatian Catholic – is an open goal. And the stories certainly do keep crashing in. Zlatan masquerading as a cop with his mates, armed with an empty shampoo bottle to order a kerb-crawler to put his hands in the air. Zlatan and his mates taking a bus around the Malmo training run so they can sprint nonchalantly past the girls towards the end. But that should not disguise the extraordinary compact between player and ghost. Lagercrantz writes entirely in character, making the experience of reading this book akin to pulling up a chair with a player. (“I promise you...” “How can I put it… As I like to say…”) And the player dispenses with all the usual self-serving and self-justification which footballers and managers seem to think no one notices, in today’s battery of football output. “A bunch of blah, blah, blah,” as he calls it in the book.
It takes a remarkable player to lay bare the bombast of his younger self – telling how, in the mid-1990s he “felt, or wanted to feel” like the hero of Gladiator, unmasking himself to declare: “‘My name is Maximus Decimus Meridus… And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.’ This was how I felt, or wanted to feel. I wanted to stand up to the whole world and show everyone who doubted me who I was and I couldn’t imagine anyone who’d be able to stop me…” More crazy, wonderful detail.
The book drives like a hurricane across the modern landscape of football-speak; a place of more manufactured “content” than ever before. More rapidly than in previous seasons, we are witnessing the creeping advent of “group huddle”, PR interviews, offered with so many multiple strings attached – demand for copy approval, sponsor’s plug and pre-agreed photograph – that the whole enterprise is suffocating. More and more words, frequently signifying nothing.
The William Hill shortlist’s sublime examples of investigative journalism take us a long way from that barren land. David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the favourite for the £25,000 prize, is a work of huge significance, just like those shortlisted titles by Ed Hawkins and Jamie Reid, who expose cricket’s illegal gambling underworld and horse-doping respectively. But Zlatan, the most compelling autobiography football has known, offers something more than the rewards of a journalist’s eye. It has a quality to make the heart soar. Not all football writing is in possession of that.
Time for Bob Paisley legend to be honoured at Anfield
The response to the discussion in this space about Bob Paisley a few weeks ago has revealed just how loved the man was. I said it was a surprise to have learnt that Paisley’s biography, penned in 1999 by the journalist, broadcaster and author John Keith, was out of print. There has been a deluge of responses, with so very many agreeing that history has committed Paisley to the shadow of Bill Shankly for far too long. Consequently, I understand that the biography is now to be reissued, which will make 2014 a year when the famous son of Hetton-le-Hole, Co Durham, is remembered.
Keith’s hugely popular The Bill Shankly Show, which premiered in 2006 and played in four countries, is to be replicated, next September, in a show for Paisley, with Jimmy Case, Phil Neal, Ian Callaghan and Alan Kennedy joining Keith on stage at New Brighton’s Floral Pavilion to provide their own insights into the man, accompanied by audio and video clips. Of course, there is also genuine hope that next year will finally deliver strides towards expanding Anfield – an opportunity for Paisley’s part to be marked there in the way that Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson have been at the stadiums which made them legends.