A Homecoming: Malmo FF

Contributing writer: Kyle Clemens

November 25th, 2015. Champions league group stage. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, adorned in a special black Paris Saint Germain kit, captains his side. The scene: the Swedbank Stadion, Malmo, Sweden. 24,000 fans, most of them chanting and bouncing in their seats. Sky blue smoke bombs; flares; flags churning in the air.

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It was more than David and Goliath; more than European powerhouse meets minnows from the north. To Zlatan, it was a homecoming, back in the city that started it all. Although the Swedbank was a relatively new addition, the fan base, MFF Support, still remembered the young Swedish striker. For those too young to remember they will have surely heard his name, watched him on the television in the famous blue and gold of Sweden. If all else fails, they will remember him as the man who organized a gigantic TV in the Stortorget, or town square, for this game “because everyone {in Malmo} will hear the game and now I want to make sure that everyone can watch the game.”

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A young Ibrahimovic representing Malmo FF

Stunning goals, tattoos, off-field controversies aside, it is that type of humility that defines the tall striker from Sweden. A trait that originates from growing up in Malmo; playing through the ranks of their youth academy.

That humbleness is also something that lives and breathes in the city itself. Located in south Sweden, in a region called Scania, Malmo is the third largest city in Sweden. The football club has been around since 1910. In the years after the formation the Sky Blues, nicknamed because of their light blue home jerseys, teetered between the top three divisions in Sweden. Comprised mostly of homegrown talent, players with day-jobs who played primarily on weekends, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the club became a professional one and put itself on the footballing map.

Not many people outside Sweden realize that Malmo FF was the first Nordic side to contest a European cup final. That monumental accomplishment, one that saw the club win the award for “most significant Swedish sporting event of the year” paved the way for Malmo to become the most successful club in Sweden (21 Allsvenskan titles; 14 cup titles).

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Malmo would ultimately lose their 1979 European cup final debut.

Their most recent Allsvenskan title saw them return to the UEFA Champions League group stage for the second year in a row in 2015-16, paired in a group with the likes of Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain.

PSG cruised to an easy 5-nil win that night. Through a breakdown between the keeper and the right fullback, Zlatan netted a quintessential poacher’s goal. He smashed the ball into the top corner despite an acute angle and the flapping arms of Malmo keeper Johan Wiland. His teammates rushed to congratulate him but Zlatan was all business. He cracked a small smile and ran back to halfway line, eager for kickoff. Anyone watching that match knew there was more to the story.

“I am from Malmo. Wherever I go I always represent Malmo. The one I am today is thanks to Malmo. It is where I grew up.” He said before his homecoming. He goes on to say how “he feels like a real boy from Malmo. I move in a Malmo-way. I think I speak in a Malmo way.”

Strong words from a world class striker, one who has plied his trade in the most elite leagues in Europe. Evidently the city and club has done much for the 36 year old Manchester United striker. However, he has done equally as much for the club of his youth.

The route can be traced back to the late 1990’s. Born to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, emigrants to Sweden, Zlatan Ibrahimovic embraced the city, the culture, and embraced his football. He turned down a move to Arsenal when he was 17. By that time he was already making appearances for the Sweden u18 squad as well as the Malmo first team.

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He scored 16 goals in 40 appearances over a two year span with his hometown club before being sold for a record transfer fee (at least in Sweden) to Ajax of the Netherlands the summer of 2001.

His professional career with his boyhood club was short-lived. However, it was what his talent proved and what the transfer fee implied that makes the difference. Successful clubs in countries like Sweden are a lot different than successful clubs in England, Germany or Spain.

In the modern footballing era of sponsorship, foreign investment and record-breaking transfer fees, small time clubs like Malmo must compete another way. During their title winning 2014-15 season Malmo fielded one of the youngest sides in Europe, average age 23.8 years old. They fielded the same lineup in the Champions League and although they finished bottom of the group they managed to knick a home win against Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar Donetsk. No easy task.

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Markus Rosenberg’s goal in the 17th minute would be enough for the 3 points

Success before and after Zlatan’s departure as well as three consecutive top three finishes in a row saw Malmo become the richest club in Sweden. More success brought in more cash flow and it was at that moment that Malmo, a team and a city that has always been loyal to their own, made the decision that indirectly led them to the night of November 15th.

As proof, there are many players after Zlatan that have made an impact on the game outside of the Nordic country. Markus Rosenberg has 33 appearances and six goals for his country as well as a decorated career spanning from the Netherlands to Spain to Germany to most recently England. Agon Mehmeti had 23 goals in 88 appearances for Malmo. He is now a vital component to Stabaek Football club in Norway as well as the Albanian national team. Magnus Wolff Eikrem spent some time in Malmo before signing a youth contract with Manchester United.

World class athletes, famous celebrities, benevolent humanitarians come from all over the world; sometimes the most obscure of places. Sweden may never produce another footballer as prolific or deadly as Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, the way Malmo doggedly fought to a 2-nil defeat in a group stage match against Juventus (the eventual runners up), the way fans seem to imbibe an almost spiritual atmosphere during home matches, the pride of playing for the crest on the front of their jerseys, might just inspire the next world class footballer to step onto the pitch.

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