June 24, 2022


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Zlatan Ibrahimovic needs to learn from his idol, Muhammad Ali

In one of the few private conversations I had with Zlatan Ibrahimovic during his two seasons with the Galaxy, he told me his sporting idol was Muhammad Ali. He admired the boxer’s talent, of course, but he was more drawn to his outspokenness, his braggadocio and his ability to back up even his most outlandish claims.

In many ways Ibrahimovic has modeled his own over-the-top behavior on Ali — until he threw a verbal sucker punch at LeBron James that rightly got him sent to a neutral corner.

During a recent interview with Discovery+ in Sweden, Ibrahimovic said that James, a frequent, passionate and intelligent voice on important topics such as racial injustice and voting rights, should “stick to sports” and stay out of politics.

“He is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people … go and do politics at the same time,” he said. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football. I don’t do politics.”

Oops. Wait until Zlatan finds out what Ali did.

Rather than separate himself from the wider world, Ali created the place where sports and politics intersect. When he returned home to the Jim Crow South after the 1960 Olympics, only to be refused a meal in a public restaurant, he said he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. At the height of his career he refused to join the Army and fight in Vietnam, sitting out 3½ years and forfeiting his heavyweight title and millions of dollars in potential earnings while waiting for the world to catch up.

Ali did what leaders do: he led, in words and in deed. That’s what LeBron James is doing too.

The Lakers star has built a school for underserved kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He formed a nonprofit to fight voter suppression and was instrumental in getting NBA owners to turn their arenas into polling centers.

In a summer of racial tension and protest, he was a strong and passionate voice of both reason and action. You could make an argument that James does politics better than basketball so, by Ibrahimovic’s criteria, maybe he ought to hang up that Lakers jersey.

It’s not that Ibrahimovic doesn’t have opinions. He does — and he’s only too eager to share them. During his short time in MLS, for example, he spoke out on the officiating (not good), the level of play (not good), the arduous travel (also not good) and the playoff format (you can guess what he thought about that).

He’s in favor of puppies and small children, and he’s done impressive work in Italy, where he now plays for AC Milan, to raise money and awareness in the fight against COVID-19.

LeBron James, left, says he will not stop talking about issues related to social and racial inequality after AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic criticized him for talking about subjects not directly related to sports.

(Getty / Associated Press)

So it’s not that he’s unwilling to speak out. It’s just that, in contrast to his very public bravado, he seems unwilling to speak out on controversial subjects that matter.

You know, like LeBron does. And like Ali did.

I wish he would.

Ibrahimovic was born in Malmo, Sweden, the son of Bosnian and Croatian parents. In his insightful autobiography, “I Am Zlatan: My Story On and Off the Field,” he talks at length about the poverty he endured as a child and how, as an immigrant, he was mocked for his appearance and speech.

Those slights still burn deep inside him. A statue of Ibrahimovic, erected outside the stadium where he began his professional career, has been repeatedly desecrated, with some claiming racism as a motive. And Ibrahimovic has repeatedly accused the Swedish media of “undercover racism” for failing to give him the credit he deserved as the country’s all-time leading scorer.

My name is not Svensson or Andersson,” he once said. “If I were blond, they would still defend me if I’d robbed a bank.

I tried repeatedly to get Ibrahimovic to engage on that subject while he was with the Galaxy. His time in MLS corresponded with a rise in anti-immigrant hysteria worldwide and cruel attacks on immigrants in the U.S. In a majority-minority community like Southern California, I told him, there were many children going through the same things he did as a boy.

The media hung on his every word. He could inspire them; his platform could bring change.

On two occasions he came close to engaging on his experience as the son of poor immigrants before stopping and briskly moving on to a more comfortable topic. Clearly he had sponsorships to protect.

“This is who we are and this is how it is,” he said.

Ibrahimovic is no less a soccer player because he declines to speak out. His gets paid handsomely to play a game and, as he said in the Discovery + interview, he’s really good at it. We have no right to demand anything else.

Has Tiger Woods spoken out on social issues? Lionel Messi? Mike Trout? Are they any less great for their silence?

Their talents have provided them with a platform to go beyond the game, to champion causes, to influence change. You know, like Muhammad Ali and LeBron James have done.

If Ibrahimovic, like the others, chooses not to use that platform, fine. But if the best he can do is criticize those with the courage to do so, maybe he should just shut up and dribble.