It’s hard to fathom how an Irish left-back could bring the international career of a footballing great to an end but Robbie Brady’s last-gasp winner rang the death knell for Sweden’s talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimović. With a forthcoming domestic move to Manchester United reportedly on the cards, the timely release of Fredrik and Magnus Gertten’s tremendous biodoc Becoming Zlatan explores the early days of a global superstar from humble beginnings in Malmo, through a big money move to Ajax and on to Juventus where the true rise to fame and fortune took flight.
‘Grassroots’ isn’t a term that many would use to critique a film but with no contemporary testimony from the man who came to PSG like a king and left as a legend, and no real sense of hero worship, it sits well to describe the enormous amount of footage and interview from his developmental years used by Fredrik and Magnus Gertten. Keeping a lid on the supreme self confidence and fiery temperament of such a mercurial talent was a headache for coaches and agents of King Zlatan from his teenage years onwards and although the player may have never demonstrated an ounce of humility, Becoming Zlatan brings its subject down to earth, tentatively exploring a troubled upbringing and difficult relationship with his father, the loneliness and homesickness he felt living in Amsterdam. Outward bravado may project an image of invincibility, but eyes betray concern and confusion at barbed attacks from the media.
Focusing predominantly on a couple of key seasons in Malmo and Amsterdam, the film opens with his signing of a contract at Ajax at just 19 years old in 2001. From being a big (not to mention remarkably tall) fish in a small hometown pond, the move marked his release into larger European waters. The film navigates these changing dynamics very well: learning to cope with pressure from fans who expect performances on the pitch and good behaviour off it, other egos and teammates wanting a place in the starting XI, a club chairman (Leo Beenhakker) who broke Ajax’s transfer budget record to bring him to Amsterdam. The thoughts of former teammates Mido, Andy Van der Meyde and Jari Litmanen are enlightening. He could talk the talk but could he walk the walk? The point is never laboured but there is certainly the suggestion the young immigrant boy from a poor estate who perhaps always felt he had a point to prove.
There is something enchanting in seeing amateur footage of Zlatan in the sky blue shirt of Malmo, playing in all reaches of his native Sweden on rough pitches in front of a few hundred people. To every boy and girl out there who harbours ambitions of one day playing at the World Cup or in the Champions League, the hard work, self-motivation and faith exhibited by Becoming Zlatan makes the dream seem possible. A return to his home to open a football court for local youngsters is a sign that in spite of his big mouth, prodigious talent and glittering career, Ibrahimović has not forgotten where he is from. There’s a lot more to him than meets the eye and the same stands for an exceptional documentary.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens