A statue of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was vandalized and apparently set on fire outside the stadium of his boyhood club, Malmo, as fans reacted with fury at the Swedish soccer star buying a stake in one of its biggest rivals on Wednesday.
Ibrahimovic outlined his desire to make Hammarby the “best in Scandinavia” after acquiring nearly 25% of the Stockholm-based club in his first move into soccer ownership.
“There are no limits to how big Hammarby can be,” Ibrahimovic told Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet in its Wednesday edition after the deal was announced.
His decision to invest in Hammarby went down badly in Malmo — where Ibrahimovic grew up and started his illustrious and globetrotting career — just a month after a golden statue of the 38-year-old striker was unveiled at his former club’s stadium.
A toilet seat was placed around one of Ibrahimovic’s arms on the statue early Wednesday, a plastic bag put over his face, and his name was covered up, leading to the monument requiring police protection during the afternoon.
Social media videos appeared to show fans lighting fires at the base of the statue in the evening, while a racist message had reportedly been spray-painted next to it.
Malmo fans are angry not just that he wants to make another club better than his boyhood team, but that he also said he didn’t think Malmo supporters would be disappointed at his choice.
“A betrayal became a betrayal and a provocation,” Kaveh Hosseinpour, vice-chairman of Malmo’s official supporters’ group, told The Associated Press. “So he basically stuck a knife in our backs, and then he came along with a sword and chopped off our heads.”
Hosseinpour blasted Ibrahimovic for thinking he was “above criticism, that he is above Malmo FF and our feelings just because he is Zlatan.”
“The statue is completely worthless now, just a piece of junk,” Hosseinpour said. “The best way to solve that was if it was removed and put somewhere in Stockholm or something.
“Every game we go to, we are going to pass Zlatan knowing that there is a statue of an investor in Hammarby, not the statue of the football player Zlatan Ibrahimovic anymore.”
Ibrahimovic has acquired half of the 47% stake in Hammarby owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, the U.S.-based company whose portfolio of sports teams it owns or has investments in includes the Los Angeles Galaxy — the Major League Soccer team where Ibrahimovic played for the past 18 months.
By buying 50% of AEG Sweden, Ibrahimovic owns nearly a quarter of Hammarby.
Hammarby finished third in Sweden’s top league this season — behind champion Djurgarden and Malmo — and will play in the Europa League next year.
“Spontaneously, the timing feels good,” Hammarby chairman Richard von Yxkull said. “We have had a strong development in recent years and next year we play in Europe.
“To then get a person like Zlatan Ibrahimovic into the club, with the passion and winning mentality he stands for, feels right.”
Ibrahimovic, who retired from international duty in 2016 and is regarded as one of Sweden’s greatest ever players, had in recent days posted a photo of Hammarby’s green-and-white jersey on his social media accounts, sparking speculation in his native country that he may join the club as a player having recently left LA Galaxy.
However, he says he will not play in Sweden again — he started his career at Malmo, where he was born, in 1999 — and is still weighing up where to play next. Ibrahimovic, whose ponytail and moustache makes him one of the most recognizable players in the world, has also played for Ajax, Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United in a trophy-laden career.
At the Galaxy, he scored 56 goals in 52 games in MLS — and he is still not done yet.
Except maybe in Malmo.
“What I have done for Malmo will be there forever,” Ibrahimovic said, when asked if he was concerned about the reaction of Malmo fans. “This is a completely different situation. It has nothing to do with where my career began.”
For Hosseinpour, that is an “absurd, completely mad” point of view.
“Of course we would be offended and angry,” he said. “I don’t know which dimension he lives in where we wouldn’t be hurt by this.”
Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this story
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80