Zlatan Ibrahimovich is one of the great characters and creative players of modern football. PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan examines some of the reasons why.

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Zlatan is the best example of affordances in action. Ibrahimovic sees and plays passes that very few players can because he sees the opportunity to move in ways that most people can’t. This allows Zlatan to make passes and score goals that no one else can.

He is one of the most unpredictable, innovative and therefore creative players of his generation and the modern game. But why are Zlatan’s movements so unique? The answer… they aren’t unique, not to him anyway. They are only unique to football.

Zlatan was a taekwondo black belt at 17 and many of the unique movement patterns (passes etc.) we see him use on the football pitch originate from his background in taekwondo. While this seems obvious, it’s a great example of what motor learning research calls affordances. Crucially, affordances are at the heart of player’s perceptions and actions – they are the missing link at the centre of the relationship between the athlete and their environment.

Affordances are opportunities for action that emerge as an individual interacts with information in their environment (Travossos, Duarte, Vilar, Davids & Araújo, 2012).

On the football pitch Zlatan sees (perceives) more affordances – more opportunities for movement, more opportunities to pass and shoot – because his taekwondo background has given him access and affords him the opportunity to use more movement patterns.

The research shows that the more affordances we perceive, the more opportunities for action we have. In football these opportunities could be types of passes, dribbles, deceptive moments, shots etc. The more options we have, the more unpredictable we are, the more deceptive our movement is and the more creative our playing style.

To understand how affordances emerge is to understand the social and cultural practises humans engage in and those they avoid. For example, the social and cultural practises of samba and capoeira alongside the cultural value in malandragem have been seen to create key deceptive movement patterns in Brazilian football players: Neymar, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Pelé etc. etc. Brazilian footballers display the small quick steps and hip swing of samba; the deceptive, swaying movement pattern of capoeira, known as ginger and; the street smart, cunning and problem solving of the cultural value in malandgrem (more here in Issue 9 article Catch Me If You Can).

Rietveld & Kiverstein (2014) suggest that the socio-cultural practises humans engage in define a dominant ‘form of life’ or a way of doing things. This could be described as the regular movement (and otherwise) patterns that come about through normative behaviours and customs of our communities and cultures. In football, these dominate forms of life shape the culturally dominant playing styles. However, players’ unique movement upbringing also has a massive influence. For example, taekwondo is not a traditional part of Swedish culture but it has had a big influence on Zlatan’s style of play.

Understanding affordances is essential for creative (movement) professions because it suggests new ways of increasing our openness to available (perceptual) resources and opportunities for action.“By acquiring abilities that flourish in different socio-cultural practises than ones own, one can come to see new possibilities for action provided by the material environment” (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014, p. 327).


Rietveld, E., & Kiverstein, J. (2014). A Rich Landscape of Affordances. Ecological Psychology, 26(4), 325–352. http://doi.org/10.1080/10407413.2014.958035

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