Bosnian Golden Boy – Zlatan Ibrahimovic

As Ireland approach their opening game of Euro 2016, endless pieces appear about the mercurial/capricious/genius/gobshite Zlatan Ibrahimović.

Some will be about his next club, Manchester United at time of writing, assaults on team-mates, even his goal-scoring record.


The more English-tainted media will continue claiming he never did it in the second “Greatest League in the World” and that he doesn’t like it up him.

Being a flat-track bully in France or knocking in goals for fun when it rarely mattered for Sweden makes for great headlines.

Yet for all he does with club and country, this is the true story about what might have been.

Zlatan should be sitting in Sweden watching the team that beat his country of choice play his country of birth.

Zlatan should be the Bosnian Golden Boy.

Emigrant love story

Those misfortunate enough to suffer the “Brooklyn” movie will know that no matter how far emigrants travel from home, there is always a dream to go home and rub noses in their success.

Colm Toibin’s hate-hate relationship with Ireland was in the tradition of rubbing a puppy’s nose in their own pee, but it does not parallel with Zlatan’s story.

He wanted to go to his spiritual home country to be part of something better.

Zlatan’s parents emigrated from ex-Yugoslavia to Sweden in the 1970’s and raised their family without religious affiliation.

His father, Šefik, is Bosnian from modern day Bosnia-Herzegovina. His Mother, Jurka, is Croatian from Zadar County, Croatia.

His father is, in the lyrical words of my Sarajevan Boss, “Muslim by tradition”.

Yet once the criminal and political opportunists grasped their chance in the late-80s, definition by religion was integral in assigning nationality.

The Ibrahimović family were raised to acknowledge both cultures and respect all. It was this upbringing which ultimately cost him his dream.


Bosnian Golden Boy – begins

My favourite apocryphal story from Croatia is of an English agent being stripped naked and made dance with a mannequin to prove his worth to a Dalmatian mafia boss.

Once he’d done his bit for Anglo-Slavic Fraternity, he was allowed to sign footballers from the Mafia-run club.

It is almost certainly a myth, though remains funny in the two dozen times I’ve heard it since 2002.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia divided many families, including many ex-pat ones.

Having to “choose” a nationality was painful for those still holding romantic visions of the Tito-led paradise and before the war had ended Sefik had a plan.

There was no hope of Zlatan going into the Croatian system as his last name alone ruled that out.

The little told tale of Dado Prso’s rejection by Hajduk Split on a supposed “irregular heartbeat” owed more to the fact that he didn’t fit with the club’s new found hardcore Croat and his being a Croatian-Serb.

The traditional Tito-backed club were late to the nationalist party but made up for it with vigour.

If it was bad for a Croatian-Serb, a Swedish-born child of a Bosnian-Muslim and Croatian-Catholic with some Albanian blood, didn’t fit in with Franjo Tudjman’s vision of a pure Croatian race.

It was Bosnian Golden Boy or bust for young Zlatan.

Bosnian Golden Boy – rejection

There are numerous versions of the story of how Zlatan was rejected by the Bosnian National Team.

One goes that he rocked up in Sarajevo in 1999 and offered to play for Bosnia. He was still a couple of years away from a Swedish cap and had just signed with Malmo FF.

The BiH FA wanted to check out his talent and offered him a trial period with the National B Team in a tournament in India.

He refused and promptly declared for Sweden.

However, this is entirely wrong. The tournament happened three years after Zlatan and his Sefik approached the BiH Federation.

This lie covers up the ineptitude, corruption and Little Bosnia attitude of those in charge. The real story is somewhat more shameful

The true story comes via BiH coach Mehmed Baždarević, who was then (as now) based in France, and two other sources who were involved in putting Zlatan and his father in touch with the BiH FA.


After his parents’ divorce Zlatan lived with his father and focused on representing Bosnia.

Through these three sources in the Bosnian diaspora, Šefik and Zlatan gained an audience with BiH National Teams Director Ahmed Pašalić.

The Ibrahimovićs were told “He has not enough talent” and sent on their way.

Zlatan returned home, declared for Sweden and a year later won his first Youth (U-18) cap.

Despite both Croatia and Bosnia vying for his services when he had already made his full Swedish debut years later, the Bosnian Golden Boy became Sweden’s Treasure.

Having grown up in a tough household, in what was generally regarded as a ghetto entrepot for foreign immigrants in Malmo, rejection is not something that Zlatan was unfamiliar with.

Yet at the same time as he was being rejected by his country of choice, he too was rejecting overtures from the mighty Arsenal.

His eyes were on bigger prizes than the English Premier League.

Happy ending?

Zlatan’s loss to the BiH National Team is not unusual in sport and especially not in ex-Yugoslavia where corruption, nationalism and shortsightedness rules.

While Ireland saw Jack Grealish go to the dark side, it was a Zlatan-type tale with John McEnroe in 1975.

John Sr. proposed to the Irish Tennis chieftains that John Jr. would play for Ireland. The reply – “he isn’t talented enough”.

Two years later, as an amateur, he won the French Open Mixed Doubles and made the Wimbledon semi-finals.

Seventeen Grand Slam titles and five Davis Cup wins later, Ireland in the 1970s was not far removed from newly independent Bosnia in the 1990s.

With Ireland’s last visit to Saint Denis being most remembered for the despicable cheating of Thierry Henry, we cannot chant “Cheating Frogs” at the French.

Let us not forget that the man leading the Swedish line would rather have lined out in Zenica and Dublin last year.

“The Best Supporters in the World” can raise the roof with “Zlatan, Zlatan, Bosnia Reject”.

Zlatan “Bosnian Golden Boy” Ibrahimović is just another poor unfortunate who failed to achieve his one great dream – play for his country of choice.

Second best Sweden will just have to do.

The Author

Alan Moore

Russian-based sports journalist, commentator, radio host & consultant. Worked with major clubs including Hajduk Split, Eintracht Frankfurt, Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow. Current host of Capital Sports 3.0, former international boxer and semi-professional footballer and FIFA World Cup commentator.

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