Debate in Malmo rages over battered Ibrahimovic statue

Debate in Malmo rages over battered Ibrahimovic statue
A black cloth used to hide the vandalized statue of Zlatan Ibrahimovic uncovers a bronze foot from the block of stone, outside the stadium of Malmo's soccer team in Malmo, Sweden, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. Two feet are all that remains of the local hero and one of Sweden's greatest ever sports stars. After a series of attacks by vandals, the statue is holed up in a secret location undergoing repairs. (AP Photo/David Keyton)

MALMO, Sweden (AP) — Two bronze feet protrude from a block of stone, a large and dusty black cloth draped down one of its sides.

That’s all that’s left of a once-proud, 500-kilogram statue of Zlatan Ibrahimovic that was unveiled to much fanfare in October outside the stadium of Malmo’s soccer team, commemorating a local hero and one of Sweden’s greatest ever sports stars.

Now, sawn off at its ankles and overturned during the latest in a series of vicious attack by vandals, the statue — minus the feet — is holed up in a secret location and undergoing repairs.

Gone, mostly, but far from forgotten and still a bone of contention.

A source of fascination, too, despite its decrepit state.

“It’s just been mayhem,” said Jan Fjordager, a 65-year-old retired local resident who was taking pictures of what remains of the Ibrahimovic statue on an overcast day in Sweden’s third-largest city.

“I’m meeting a friend,” he said, “and I said to him, ‘Let’s meet at Zlatan’s feet.’ We used to say, ‘Let’s meet at the Zlatan statue’ but, you know, we don’t know where it is now. So, we meet at his feet.”

The statue will return, in its full state, to the same location once it has been repaired.

“We don’t have any other (choice) than to put the statue back where it was,” said Malin Tykesson, who works in the sport and recreation department of Malmo’s city council.

Whether it stays there, exposed to further attacks, lies in the hands of the city’s politicians. A decision will be taken be in the spring, according to Tykesson.

For Malmo’s diehard fans, Ibrahimovic is persona non grata in the place where he was born to immigrant parents from the former Yugoslavia, grew up in a tough housing project where there were rival criminal gangs, and joined the city’s leading soccer team as a lanky 14-year-old in 1996 before leaving in 2001 and going on to enjoy a stellar career.

His decision to buy a stake in one of his boyhood club’s biggest rivals in the Swedish league, Stockholm-based Hammarby, in November left Malmo supporters stunned. Then outright angry when the former Sweden striker outlined his desire to make Hammarby the “best in Scandinavia” and predicted the people of Malmo would be happy for him.

“The train has left the station,” said Kaveh Hosseinpour, vice chairman of Malmo’s official supporters’ group, when asked if there was any way back for Ibrahimovic with the team. “He betrayed us. I think the statue just represents betrayal, hypocrisy and greed. And that still stands. The statue has fallen but his betrayal still stands.”

Such indignation led to the bronze statue of Ibrahimovic being attacked repeatedly. There was an attempt to set it on fire, graffiti written on the ground next to it, and even the statue’s nose was cut off before it was eventually toppled at the beginning of the month.

That started a debate in the southern city: What should happen to the statue now?

Hosseinpour said he thought the statue will simply be vandalized again if it “pops up again in the same place.”

“Realistically speaking,” he said, “I’m guessing it will be placed somewhere indoors, probably in Malmo.”

Others say it could be taken to Stockholm, where Ibrahimovic owns property and where the Swedish soccer association, the body which commissioned the statue, is based.

How about in Milan? Ibrahimovic recently joined AC Milan for a second stint at the Italian club, having also previously played for city rival Inter Milan.

“If someone wants to propose it, I have nothing against it,” Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala said. “Regardless of the colors he wears, he was and still is a great champion.

“Where would we put the statue? I would ask the Milan fans — maybe near their headquarters.”

As for the man himself, Ibrahimovic has kept rather quiet on the subject, except for a brief comment after the statue was overturned.

“I give this no attention, no energy,” he told Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. “There is nothing to say. One day, I will say more.”

So, Ibrahimovic and the Malmo public simply wait for the next chapter of a saga that has gripped and divided the city, and damaged the status of one of its most famous sons.

Malmo and Hammarby play each other in next season’s Swedish league on May 10 and again in August, the second match taking place in Malmo. They are already circled as “must watch” occasions in the Swedish sports calendar, and Ibrahimovic would really spice things up by attending them.

“There’s a lot of youngsters looking up to him and seeing him as a role model,” Fjordager said of Ibrahimovic. “I think he has done a lot for Malmo.”

“But,” he added, “I guess the taxpayers will have to pay a lot of money (if another statue is put up) and if people are just going to come and tear the thing down and we have to put it up again … that’s the debate. It’s a hard question.”

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80