Three years ago, John Guidetti took off on a run immediately after Sweden U21 team’s euphoric win over Denmark in European championship.
To meet an old woman in the stands. He cupped her crinkly 92-year old face and an utter bliss emanated from both. She was Stella Tjajkowski, who as a 21-year old Polish girl was sent to Auschwitz at the end of the second World War. She would stand under gas showers waiting for her death to descend but that day the showers didn’t work.
Her father was already murdered, and her mother died in another concentration camp but Stella would not only survive but move to Sweden in a ship that was bombed at the Baltic sea and become a concert pianist. Stella’s son is the godfather of Guidetti’s sister and she made that trip to Czech Republic for the U-21 final.
Why does an incredible woman like that love Guidetti so much? It’s the story of his life. Everywhere he has gone, the man who is called Sweden’s team joker has won hearts.
He is also one of the main reasons that Kenyans are rooting for Sweden against England. As a kid, when his father moved to Kibera in Kenya, to the largest urban slum in East Africa, to teach in a school, Guidetti’s life opened up. He saw poverty, crime, and how politics affects kids. It’s the reason he has already started a foundation to help impoverished children to play football in Nairobi’s vulnerable areas.
In Kenya, with his club Impala Brommapojkarna, Guidetti was not just the team’s clown with his attempts to speak the local language Kikuyu but a favourite as he had the ability to bridge the class divides. He would use the pit latrines at the Kibera stadium, and played barefoot when the rest of the team did so. The Kenyan life has moulded his character.
There was a French woman who ran a football team, the biggest competitors to Guidetti’s club. But the team split up when she moved to France, and half the team just withered away into a troubled life. “I remember a guy who was the best in their team, “Papi”, a fantastic talent but he died after a shootout with the police,” he told a Swedish newspaper Aftenbladet.
Guidetti would run around barefoot in the slum playing football on dirt pitches, occasionally on grass. “Then you get to Manchester City and the pitch is like a green carpet; and you are getting inch-perfect passes from the best in the world.”
Tiras Waiyaki, his old Kenyan coach of the club Impala Brommapojkarna, has talked about it in the past. “John naturally and most amazingly mingled with the boys from poorer backgrounds, leaving many in awe of the young lad.”
It’s not just vicarious experience of life that has made him. When he was 19, he was loaned out by Manchester City after his development contract ended to Feyenoord that the teenager just known for his ‘big mouth’ ended up in a rap song made for him by fans. A small legend had built around him after he waded in 20 goals from 23 games and 50,000 fans yelling, ‘Super Guidetti’ and bowing to him. “They made a rap song and put me in it: ‘Look Messi, we have Guidetti’. It was amazing, the best year of my life.” But a year later, the lights went out of his starry life.
On his 20th birthday party, in 2012, he felt sick and returned home but kept vomiting through the night. Out with a stomach virus next 10 days and when he returned to training, his right leg gave way – he couldn’t stand. He would try to put his pants on but fall over. Doctors traced the freakish problem to a piece of infected chicken that attacked his nervous system, paralysing his right leg. He had to wait for the toxic to flush out of his body. He missed two years of football.
“I would tell myself: John, Even though your career is over now, you still have people who love you. You have already been involved so much and have experienced many good things.” The memories of Kenyan life helped him cheer up and he wasn’t, however, going to let life slide by him. He not only came back to topflight football but kickstarted a dream run with that European Championship win against Denmark.
It wasn’t just the 92-year-old war victim who was his fan; it turned out he was Sweden’s heartthrob; he found himself in a pop song. In 2015, a Swedish music group Badpojken’s singer Frida Green belted out a peppy number on him. Titled Johnny G, it escalated to top of the music charts and rung out on dance floors.
“I want it badly, oh / The boy will go and go / We’re gonna really fly / We’re heading way up high / You mean all the world to me / John Guidetti / Oh, John Guidetti (Guidetti) / ( … Will you marry me? Johnny G, will you marry me? …”
If John Guidetti does something special on against England, Saturday night dance floors in Sweden will be reverberating with Johnny G again.