No public figure in Sweden has a greater ability to steer the domestic and international news agenda than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so when the country’s record goalscorer released an 11-second video clip on Tuesday in which his name was unveiled on the back of a Hammarby shirt, the shockwaves were instant.
In Sweden, journalists and fans alike scrambled to try and figure out the meaning: Was Ibrahimovic, the best paid player in Major League Soccer, really coming to humble Hammarby?
International onlookers had a more straightforward question: Who are Hammarby?
Less than a day later it was revealed that Ibrahimovic had not joined the Stockholm side as a player – he insists that he will never return to the Allsvenskan – but had instead purchased a quarter of their shares.
To an outsider it may not seem like an obvious choice. In reality, Ibrahimovic’s move looks incredibly savvy and suggests he or whoever is advising him has been paying attention.
When the 38-year-old told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet on Wednesday that Hammarby are the club with “the greatest potential to become the biggest in Scandinavia” he wasn’t exaggerating.
Who are Hammarby?
While Gothenburg and Malmo have an international reputation with the silverware to back it up, Hammarby have only won one league title in their history, and a lack of European credentials mean they have received little exposure outside of Sweden.
Potential is exactly what Ibrahimovic is buying, and he has moved in at a perfect moment. Last season, Hammarby were only one point away from winning the Swedish title on the last day of the campaign, their consolation prize of a European place for the first time since 2007 still of huge significance.
Of equal importance is the way they pulled this upswing off, playing thrilling, relentlessly attacking football that saw them finish top scorers in Sweden by a 19-goal margin in 2019.
Key to that is an analytics department that is revolutionary by Allsvenskan standards, and a coaching staff with an international flavour that includes Valencia hero Joachim Bjorklund as assistant. Hammarby have a philosophy that is ahead of the curve in Sweden.
Then there is the fanbase, their greatest asset of all. There are many claims to the title “club of the people” but in Stockholm, Hammarby’s claim is strongest.
Despite their sparse trophy cabinet, and despite enduring tough years down in the second division as recently as 2014, the green and whites have a diehard support that always turns up, through thick and thin.
In the second tier, selling out their 30,000 capacity stadium became a point of pride, and that loyalty has only gone from strength to strength since.
Hammarby regularly top Sweden’s attendance table and 2019 was no different. Hearing the sold-out crowd sing their pre-match anthem Just idag ar jag stark (Today I’m strong) is a goosebumps-raising experience for anyone lucky enough to witness it.
What’s in it for Ibrahimovic?
As for what Hammarby gain from their new backer, direct financial input is likely to be limited but you only needed to look at the club’s homepage to see the instant international exposure he brings, a rare English language post on Wednesday explaining the deal.
His profile and ability to open doors to potential new sponsors should create a chance for Hammarby to increase revenue, while his worldwide reputation could also help them to attract more talent who would otherwise have been unaware of the club.
Take an enviable connection between fans and club, plus a style of football that is easy on the eye and designed to be effective in Europe, then combine it with brand Zlatan’s international reach, and something big could be about to happen in the Swedish capital.
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Hammarby are on the crest of a wave and Ibrahimovic can help them ride it, so there is palpable excitement in Stockholm.
In southern Sweden on the other hand, there is a palpable sense of betrayal.
Malmo supporters had hoped that when Ibrahimovic returned to Sweden it would be with the club that raised him. Instead, Malmo are left looking at a giant statue of their former hero outside their ground, while he prepares for life off the pitch by investing in one of their rivals.
Ibrahimovic’s playing days aren’t quite over yet, and he is still expected to play his last couple of seasons in Serie A, but the door has now definitively been closed on his boyhood club, while a new one opens for a post-playing future further north.
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