So, Zlatan Ibrahimovic showed up.
Tim Hall’s View From 101
You might not have heard about it at first, since it was announced in the typically understated way that you would expect revolving around a Scandanavian; there was only one lion in the video for the reveal. And, deflecting the spotlight as he always does, the advertisement taken out in the newspaper kept it short and to the point: “Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome.”
Ibra’s transfer to the LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer was not surprising as an idea, but surprising in its timing. Zlatan had long been in that mold of player that MLS fans thought might one day end up playing on American soil, once he had exhausted all his options in Europe.
Right now MLS is one of two options for the aging European star who doesn’t want to compete for playing time with a top flight club in the Big 5 leagues, isn’t inherently and intrinsically tied to one club (ala Lionel Messi at Barcelona), but can’t bring themselves to slum it in the middle of the table or in, say, Austria.
The other choice for such a player is the big money of the Chinese Super League, which means a player would have to weigh the relative anonymity of walking down the streets of an American city and not being recognized against the anonymity of a million “whatever happened to” articles due to playing in a league without a major media presence.
Still the timing seemed a bit off. The long-standing love affair between Ibrahimovic and Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho never really got restarted, as the striker went down to ligament damage at the end of the 2016-17 season. Ibrahimovic was slowly getting reintroduced to the United side this year as he got his fitness back, but, with all do respect, League Cup games against Burton Albion are not where Zlatan belongs.
So the next steps came quickly, the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table. There was the lion and the full page ad in the Los Angeles Times, but there as it had with many players before him, the talk stalled, any mention of when Ibra would start training or start playing or start starting with his new team was met with obfuscation and “we’ll see” and “we don’t want to rush it” and “he’s not even really in the United States yet so that’s a problem”.
But people like Zlatan live for made-for-TV moments. And when one says “people like Zlatan” we should probably point out that what is actually meant is “people like the character Zlatan is playing”, right?
Because there is a certain nod-and-a-wink to him, a sense that this is how he is expected to be. And there is a self-awareness to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that if this is what is expected of him, if this is what you want of him, then he is more than happy to keep up the kayfabe and give it to you.
He must realizes the lion and the overconfident press release and the one-liners in interviews are good for his brand. And perhaps somewhere along the way he bought in to his own hype. Like a professional wrestler, the line between the man and the character slowly dissolved and he ‘worked himself into a shoot’, he lied his way to a truth.
But, character or man or some mixture of the two, Zlatan Ibrahimovic knows how to up his game for the big moments. With the first LA Galaxy game after the Zlatan signing being against the new noisy neighbors in the expansion LAFC, Zlatan got himself to the States and got in to training with his new side, and when the Galaxy were down late, and the crowd started chanting “we want Zlatan” boy did they get him.
Ibrahimovic came on as a substitute and almost immediately scored a volley from forty yards out past a keeper off his line to pull the game back level. This alone was a worthy debut for Zlatan – or the character he plays – but he wasn’t done, because the story wasn’t ridiculous enough yet. It took a second goal, this one in stoppage time, this one a header, this one maaaaybe just slightly offside, to steal the win for the Galaxy, to put the spotlight where it belonged, and to restore a bit of order to Major League Soccer.
We do and we should laud teams around MLS for their good works building up players from their youth systems, because that is the true sign of success and growth for the league and for the game as a whole in the US long term. We should also applaud the injection of life and new blood being offered to the league by the recent additions of Atlanta United and LAFC.
But the aging foreign superstar coming here to show us Yanks how it’s done is the classic tale, the old money turning up its nose at the nouveau riche. It is the same now for Zlatan as it was for the Beckhams and the Henrys before him, and the Peles and the Beckenbauers well before them.
Some Americans will love the fact that Zlatan being Zlatan gets the papers in Europe talking, in part because they themselves so desperately want to be seen as relevant by the gatekeepers of the game. Others will say that Ibra is bad for the game because he takes away minutes that could be used for an academy kid.
The truth with Zlatan Ibrahimovic – is he real or a character, is he a blessing or a curse? – is somewhere in between. He will put eyeballs on screens and posters on walls, and that is a positive.
The rest, whether he tries to be a leader in the dressing room to younger players, if he remains the mercurial pantomime wrestling character, if he turns to a pouting misanthrope, that all remains to be seen. But Zlatan is one of a kind, and as the aging European superstar come to build or rebuild MLS he may be the last of his kind, and for that we should all be thankful and enjoy it.
Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports