I Wanted to be Zidane

What Mothers Are For

My mother likes to tell the story about the day I was born, because she says she knew from that moment that I would become a footballer.

She was in a hospital with my father, and he was acting kind of strange. He looked distracted, which is weird, right? I mean, your son is about to be born. There aren’t many bigger things in life than that, really.

Of course, once I came into this world, he was overwhelmed with joy. But then he said, “O.K., can we find a TV now?”

My mother just rolled her eyes, because she knew what he meant. She was like, “Really? Really?”

And my father said, “I know, I know, but they’re about to start taking the penalties.”

The day was 17 July 1994. Up in Sweden, Victor Lindelöf had just been born. Down in Pasadena, Italy was playing Brazil in the World Cup final.

I guess it was my sense of timing that convinced my mother I would become a footballer. And you know what? Just a few years later, I was playing in the World Cup final. For some reason, FIFA had decided to stage it in my hometown, Västerås. The pitch was uneven. The goals were two garage doors. Some 65,000 fans were watching, or so it seemed. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes, a voice began to narrate the action.

The ball is coming to Lindelöf now. Lindelöf has it…. He goes past one, he goes past two! Still Lindelöf…. Lindelöf shoots … goooooal!!! Goal for Sweden!!! 1–0!!

I sprinted down the touchline, punching the air as my teammates ran after me. Sweden were world champions! But just as I was blowing kisses to the fans, a voice interrupted.

“Victooor? Victooor?”

I recognized that voice…. It was my mother’s. “Time for dinner!”


Victor Lindelöf

And so I’d walk back to our apartment block with my two brothers. I have three, but only two are about my age, and we’d always play football together. My father would be around too, but the one who really raised us was my mother. Now, I don’t wanna sound like a mommy’s boy here, but I’m telling you, without her, I wouldn’t have become a footballer. No chance.

You see, already when I was five years old, she fed my imagination. She bought me this goalkeeper kit — I think it was of Fabien Barthez, France’s goalkeeper. Suddenly I wanted to be Barthez. I’d be out in the yard throwing myself into the mud, making these heroic stops.

Ohhhh! What a save by Lindelöf!

Then my mother bought me a Zinédine Zidane jersey. Now I wanted to be Zizou. I’d be dancing around the pitch, doing pirouettes and playing these amazing passes.

My word! Did you see what Lindelöf just did there?!

Soon my imagination had turned into a dream. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d immediately say, “I want to be a footballer.” Nobody really took me seriously. They’d say, “Aw, that’s sweet, but that’s not really a job, is it?

Well, actually, it is. You just have to believe it’s possible. I did. And my mother did too.

She was the one who took me to training when I began playing for Västerås SK. I guess I was a bit of a natural, because I was soon playing with the senior team in the lower divisions. And man, those games were fast. The sheer physicality on that level was brutal. But I’m glad I played there, because I developed quicker than I would have with a junior team. My plan was to go to a bigger club in Sweden later on, but then my agent got a call from Benfica.

Their interest was a bit of a shock, to be honest. I was just 17. I was living at home and going to school. I didn’t know if I should take the offer, so I got together with my mother and my older brother to run through the pros and cons.

Pros: Benfica is the biggest club in Portugal. I would play with better players and work with better coaches. I might even get a crack at the first team.

Cons: I’d have to move to Lisbon. Alone. I wouldn’t know anybody. I wouldn’t even speak the language. I might end up like some of my friends, who moved abroad at my age and had lots of problems. Did I really want to risk that?

I wasn’t sure. But then my mother said, “Will you regret it if you don’t say yes?”

And I realized that yes, yes I would. One hour later, I called my agent. About two weeks later, I was on my way to Lisbon.

My mother came along too — I still wasn’t old enough to sign my own contract. We walked around Lisbon and tried to take it all in. I thought she felt pretty confident about the whole thing, but the next morning she started to cry. She was proud of me, but it was tough for her to let me go. But it was too late to regret it now. I went back to play for Västerås for six months, then in summer 2012 I took the plane back to Lisbon. This time with no return ticket.

Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images

As I looked out the window, I did at least feel confident. I had my whole life ahead of me — so what did I want from it? I imagined what it would be like running out at a packed Estádio da Luz … and I liked it. Yeah, this was what I wanted. This was my Plan A.

As for Plan B, well, I couldn’t tell you…. It didn’t really exist.

When I landed, a club representative took me to Benfica’s training center. The next morning I woke up full of anxiety. I called my mother on Skype. I had been there for less than 24 hours, and I was already regretting everything.

“Mum, I want to go home. What should I do?”

But these situations are what mothers are for, right? I don’t know how she did it, but she made me feel calmer — I’m sure she was the only person in the world who could have reassured me at that point. She said I would be fine, that things would just be tough at the start.

And man, was she right about that one. The first six months were so, so tough.

I missed my family, I missed my friends… I missed everything in Västerås. And besides, I mean, what can you do in a place where you don’t speak the language and have no friends? Not much, right? So I mainly stayed in my room in the training center. I’d either be in the gym, the restaurant or my room. Literally. Even today I can picture that room as if I was still living there. I can see the small flat-screen TV … the beige desk … the red curtains … the concrete balcony where you could see the training pitches … the bed with red sheets … and a mattress so hard that you might as well sleep on the floor.

All I did in there, really, was call my mother on Skype and watch Entourage. I’m not joking. For six months, my best friend wasn’t anyone in Lisbon. It was Vincent Chase.

Luckily, I’m strong mentally. I matured quickly. Gradually I began to pick up a few words and make a few friends. Some even became good friends. (Sorry, Vince.) Then one day we had this training session — it was a sunny day, we were playing a small game — and I dominated. Completely. You know those days where your body just seems to be on autopilot? Where everything you do comes off? It was one of those days. I was so comfortable, I felt as if I was back on the street in Västerås.

And that’s when I began to believe that I could make this move work out. I thought, You can do this, Victor. Just believe in yourself, enjoy it and the rest will follow.

Soon I was playing well in matches for Benfica B, which plays in the Portuguese second division. Then in October 2013, when I was 19, I got my first-team debut in the cup. Incredible. And then came my home debut, at the Estádio da Luz….

Man … I get goosebumps just talking about it.

When I ran out of the tunnel and onto the pitch, I heard the roar of 65,000 people screaming and singing. And you know what the funny thing was? I felt I had experienced it before. Then I realized, Yes, of course I have! I played in the World Cup final in Västerås!

Only this time nobody was calling me in for dinner. This time it was real.

Steven Governo/AP Photo

Soon another dream seemed about to come true. In 2015, Sweden would play at the U-21 Euros in the Czech Republic. I was so excited to play for my country in a tournament. But when the squad was announced, I was shocked — I wasn’t in it!

The disappointment. I mean, I find it hard to even describe. I guess the coaches didn’t really know how strong the Portuguese second division was; they were mainly picking players based in Sweden. I respected the decision, but I was angry and frustrated. I went on a holiday to try to get over it. Then, out of nowhere, I got a call from Håkan Ericson, the coach.

He said, “Listen, Victor, we have decided to call you up after all. Do you fancy it?”

I said, ”Um … yes!”

I didn’t start our first game, against Italy — and I mean, how could I, when I had barely made the squad? But then our defender Alexander Milošević got sent off, and I was put on to shore up the defense. We won the game, and from there on I played every minute. Believe it or not, we actually made the final. And who did we meet there?

Portugal, of course.

As you can imagine, it was a special game for me, but this was huge for Sweden too. It’s not often our national team gets to fight for a title — at any level. We knew we weren’t favorites, but we did have one advantage: We were willing to run until we dropped. And that’s how we managed to take the game to a penalty shootout.

When I looked at the faces of my teammates, I felt we had already won. We were all so calm. We scored our first. Then they score. We score. They miss. Eventually it’s my turn to take our fifth penalty. So I go into my own bubble. I’m so engrossed, my eyes are glazed. As I walk up to the spot, I hear a Portuguese player say, “He’s gonna miss it.” That fires me up even more. I smash the ball down the middle — goal!

Then Portugal misses, and we go mad … Sweden is the European under-21 champions!

It was … well, it was unforgettable.

About six months later, I became a regular on the Benfica first team. In the next 18 months we won the league twice and two domestic cups as well. What more could I ask for? Well, as it happened, a few things. Like, say, establishing myself on the senior national team.

When I first got the call that I’d be in the Sweden squad, in early 2016, I felt as if my childhood was being replayed in front of my eyes. This time I wouldn’t just pretend to play for Sweden — I would actually play for Sweden.

I called my mother with the news. She began to cry.

In my debut, which was a friendly against Turkey in Antalya, the feeling was indescribable. Standing there in the yellow shirt, singing the national anthem … it’s so powerful. I just thought, Wow. And when I thought I couldn’t feel any prouder, we qualified for Euro 2016. Suddenly I was standing there again, singing the anthem, but now in a major tournament. I swear, I could feel the tingles go from my toes to my neck.

And deep down, I knew only one thing could beat this feeling … to do it at a World Cup.

Now, I knew perfectly well that Sweden hadn’t been to one since 2006. And when we drew Italy in the qualifying playoffs, few expected us to win. But we welcomed the challenge. We were confident, we were united. You see, if we do anything well, it’s that we fight for each other like brothers. We’d almost die for each other on the pitch, that’s how strong our bond is.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask the Italians. Because trust me, it wasn’t our talent that made us beat them 1–0. It was our spirit.

By then I had moved from Benfica to Manchester United. It’s incredible really, how the highlights have just kept coming. I’m 23 and yet I’m playing for the biggest club in the world, you know? I’m working with José Mourinho. I’m playing for Sweden, and now I’m competing in a World Cup.

It’s actually funny, because some say I act as if I’m 30. I guess they’re right, because I’ve had to mature quickly to overcome so many challenges and get so far. If I had told people 10 years ago that I’d become a footballer, I’m sure nobody would have believed it. Well, except my mother of course. She knew it all along.