Out of the many footballers that have sailed the European seas for fortune and fame, Zlatan Ibrahimović has specialised in the art of ruthlessly jumping ship when he felt that it was needed. But what happens when a national and cultural icon decides to undermine his legacy with a whole nation?

Sweden are going to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, and the national excitement is almost palpable. You do have to go back all the way to 1994 to see the Swedes leave a notable mark in a World Cup, but amongst the dull senior national team memories for the last 20 years, there has been one man that has volleyed, bicycle kicked, and back-heeled his way into the blue and yellow hearts of Sweden.

I mean, Zlatan Ibrahimović could get away with murder in Sweden. A man that sent the whole rival country of Denmark into retirement and holds the record for most national team goals of all time will have an easy time being pardoned for whatever mischief he stirs up. Off the pitch, he’s unified a culturally diverse population, and many immigrants in Sweden have expressed how Zlatan has been a role model – if he can succeed, so can they. He truly has put Sweden on the map, and unified a society to reach a consensus in pride during his 15 years in the national team.

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Inescapably, his reign with the Swedish national team had to come to an end. Just after the disappointing group exit in the 2016 Euros, an unplanned press conference hit Sweden like a kung-fu kick in the face: Zlatan had decided to retire from the national team. At this point, Sweden treated him with a healthy dose of forbearance. He did drag Sweden to that tournament, after all. He was always too good to be true anyways.

Zlatan hardly mentioned the national team after his official retirement. He was busy proving Brits wrong by banging in 28 goals and winning two (or three) trophies in his first season with Manchester United. Meanwhile, the Swedish national team got closer and closer to World Cup qualification. The whole country started to wonder if maybe our golden boy would return to the national team if we qualified.

When Sweden later miraculously beat Italy in the play-offs to secure a place in Russia, Ibrahimović decided to use the national anticipation in his favour and activated full businessman mode. Just after the final whistle, he uploaded a picture online with the caption ‘’We are Zweden!’’, even though he hadn’t played a minute of national team football since the Euros two years earlier. He then started to answer questions about the World Cup and the national team via his (many) businesses. And when he did answer them, he shared vague and ambiguous statements about an eventual comeback.

It started in March this year when he opened a padel centre in Stockholm, and invited journalists from all over the world to come and see his new racquet hall. After boasting about his incredibly well run padel business, he stated that he missed the national team and that ‘’the door was not closed’’ for a comeback. The quote spread like wildfire through Swedish press and social media (just like the padel center, accordingly).

Later that month, he signed for LA Galaxy to put a halt to his 18-year long European adventure. In the opening interview with his new club, when asked about the forthcoming World Cup, he said:

‘’They [the Swedish national team staff] are calling me everyday, asking me ‘How do you feel? What do you want? How are you thinking?’ […] the door will always be open, it has nothing to do with the other side, it’s from this side, its from me’’

The Swedish coach Janne Andersson was quick to kill the speculation, and said that no one that was working with the squad had had any continuous contact with Ibrahimović. And this is where things got embarrassing. Out of the many commercial tweets, social media posts and American talk show appearances where Ibrahimović would speak ambiguously about the World Cup, one stood out from the lot.

In a collaboration with Samsung, Zlatan can be seen relaxing in a pool when his smartwatch suddenly starts ringing. The camera pans over to the watch dial, and it reads ‘’incoming call from Janne’’. Zlatan looks at the watch, sighs, shakes his head, and swims away. It is as if the national team is below him, and that he is the one pulling the strings. Scarily enough, in his delusional and money driven logic, that is the case.

When Zlatan decided to get involved in a Swedish betting company, the marketing strategies hit a new low. The tweet below is a mixture of English and Swedish, and the word ‘’skyhöga’’ can be translated to ‘’very high’’.

Swedish press and social media were sent into a frenzy. Yet, it was all a pseudo event again. He released a video with his new betting partner that explained what he really meant. The odds of him playing in the World Cup were ‘very high’ – the opposite to what everyone had wished and hoped.

Shortly after, Andersson released his squad for the World Cup, and Ibrahimović was nowhere to be seen in that roster. It was evident that Zlatan never intended to play in the World Cup, and Andersson was never interested in picking him.

One thing is for certain, Zlatan has played with the emotions of a whole nation for publicity and money. The team that actually fought its way to a World Cup spot deserves all the praise possible. They should never have been outshone by a single ex-player’s money grabbing antics.

It just hurts. A lot.

Zlatan Ibrahimović is a magnificent footballer laden with sentimental value, winning mentality, and absolutely incredible goals. And money! It’s a shame that such a great love affair with his nation has ended this way.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is laughing to the bank right now. I just wish his laughter wasn’t at Sweden’s expense.

Illustration by Victor Hagström (IG @hagstrom.art)