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Football Film: Becoming Zlatan

Before watching Becoming Zlatan (2016) I knew precisely three things about Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He's Swedish, he plays for Manchester United, and he's good. I'd also heard he was kind of an egotistical prima donna but so are a lot of great athletes and who can blame them? It takes a thick skin, a big ego, and a superhuman amount of confidence (not to mention actual talent) to be successful in professional sport.

After having watched Becoming Zlatan, I feel inclined to forgive Zlatan for any sins of excessive egotism. The film details his transition from schoolboy footballer, to his first professional football club in Sweden, Malmo FF, to his formative years as a pro, under the gun at Ajax FC in Amsterdam, where he flourishes under the intense pressure and competition for the number one striker spot, until he is scooped up by Juventus FC in the Italian Serie A.

It is a really bizarre thing to see Zlatan, the gargantuan talent that he is today, before he was "Zlatan" and when he was a gangly, vulnerable, yet still somehow supremely confident teenager. And what you end up admiring is that he earned the right, through tenacity, determination, toughness and grit, to be as full of himself as he is and, in fact, that may be why he succeeded in the first place: his absolute, rock-solid confidence in himself and knowledge that he's the best player on the face of the earth.

This is particularly evident during his tenure at Ajax. While not his first professional gig, it was certainly his introduction to "real" European football, with extremely judgmental, temperamental fans, and someone ready to take his position away from him at a any moment. This comes to a head in his battle for the No. 9 spot on Ajax's first team, against Mido, a battle which tested his resilience and resolve and which undoubtedly shaped his career.

The film is not a PR puff-piece about Zlatan's career, however. It treats his dark side -- his often impetuous, rash, even violent behavior on the pitch -- with equal time and with the same neutral lens as it treats his success. With no "voice-over" narration, the interviews and action sequences are able to speak for themselves.

One of the highlights of the film is the interview with Leo Beenhakker, the outspoken former Ajax manager and technical director who insisted on purchasing Zlatan from Malmo and who does not mince words, dropping repeated F-bombs. Just another great character of European football.


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