“We are angry because he believes he can do whatever he likes and still be loved. He doesn’t understand how it is to be a true supporter.”
Simon Bengtsson is just one of many Malmo fans who is not ready to forgive Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It has been a rough few months for the Sweden legend in his home city.
The veteran striker has seen his legacy as a Malmo icon toppled, both figuratively and literally, as investment in rival Allsvenskan club Hammarby and the boast that he wants to make them “the biggest in Scandinavia” proved the breaking point in a relationship that stretches back 25 years to when he first joined the club as a kid.
The statue honouring Sweden’s record goalscorer was only unveiled in Malmo in October, a beaming Ibrahimovic proclaiming to the sizeable crowd in attendance that it was dedicated to “everyone out there who doesn’t feel welcome”.
The striker was referring to difficulties he faced as an extrovert growing up in then homogenous Sweden – little did he know the statue itself would soon become persona non grata.
In the early hours of 5 January, vandals sawed the sculpture at the ankles until it collapsed, the final blow in a string of attacks following his investment in Hammarby that included cutting off the nose, spray-painting, and even an attempt to set the structure on fire.
‘Zlatan put the knife in – a betrayal of Malmo’
The vandals account for the extreme end of the spectrum in the anti-Zlatan crowd, but the feeling of anger and disappointment is widespread.
“I would say a large majority of Malmo fans are disappointed with Zlatan,” Bengtsson tells the BBC. “Nobody I know defends him. Of course some think the vandalism is wrong but at the same time they understand why people have done it.”
Though he never won a trophy in Sweden and played fewer than 50 senior matches for Malmo, the club’s supporters used to see Ibrahimovic’s globetrotting success as a source of personal pride, thrilled to watch one of their own make it big. Now, they feel hoodwinked, and that sense of pride was not reciprocated.
“Before, he was something you were proud of. A global superstar brought up in our club, but now you don’t want to hear anything about him,” Bengtsson insists.
“He thinks we should be grateful for what he did for us but really he won nothing at Malmo. He was sold for a lot of money and that’s all.”
Fellow Malmo fan Alexander Ivanovski explains that there is a strong feeling of betrayal caused by Ibrahimovic’s decision to try to help Hammarby grow and not Malmo: “The reason it cuts so deep is it goes against what he always said. He has always said Malmo is his home town, he will always love Malmo and there is no club that’s bigger or can be bigger”.
The way Ibrahimovic chose to announce the business move made matters even worse, according to Ivanovski. “If he purchased the 25% and didn’t talk about it, or said something about Malmo, it would have been more accepted.
“But he bought a quarter of the club then said he wants to make them the strongest in Scandinavia. He didn’t just put in the knife, he turned it around to damage the Malmo fans even more.”
‘The statue has to be moved’
The outrage is so prevalent in the city that it has created an unwelcome dilemma for the local authority over what they should do with the statue.
Restore it, and the vandalism will likely continue unless resources are invested in tightening security, a move that isn’t likely to go down well among taxpayers in a one-club football-mad city. Move it elsewhere, and the message is that the vandals won.
What lawmakers will not be able to do is bury their heads in the sand. A petition demanding the sculpture be moved already has eight times the necessary number of signatures to ensure it is debated by the local government by the end of February.
Kaveh Houseeinpour, vice chairperson of Malmo’s official fan organisation MFF Support, is in no doubt regarding what should happen.
“We said as soon as he bought a stake in Hammarby that the statue should be moved. It was unavoidable that it would be vandalised unfortunately. For the sake of everyone it should have been moved straight away,” he said.
“After years abroad he has lost his grounding in the city and the club. The Malmo mentality of ‘us against the world’ created Zlatan, Zlatan didn’t create Malmo.”
Ibrahimovic left Malmo 19 years ago, and sold the property he once owned in the city back in 2015, so it is hardly a surprise that he isn’t on top of the zeitgeist there.
Perhaps, as the artist behind the statue suggested earlier this week, the sculpture would strike a better connection in a city where he has spent more of his adult life, and has a greater understanding of the prevailing mood: Milan.