Sports

The United States of Zlatan

Will America be big enough to contain massive soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s massive ego?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, wearing a Manchester United jersey.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic in December in Manchester, England. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

The die is cast. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, once soccer’s most dangerous mercenary, is crossing the Atlantic to sign with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy for the stated purpose of conquering the United States.

Ibrahimovic is a soccer player as engineered by a fourth-grader: a 6-foot-5 Swede who looks like a cross between a pirate and a samurai, who dribbles like a pissed-off Baryshnikov, who has an (honorary) black belt in taekwondo and actually plays like a martial artist. He has won his league in all but two seasons since 2003 (that’s counting the mid-aughts titles Juventus was later stripped of), bringing home titles for six clubs in four countries while scoring goals ranging from audacious to insane. He is the biggest name MLS has landed since David Beckham came to the U.S. more than a decade ago. He’s also the league’s riskiest signing since Beckham, even on the relatively cheap contract the Galaxy has reportedly gotten him to sign.

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Had this move occurred the first time it was mooted, in the summer of 2016, Ibrahimovic would have been easily the most talented player ever to come to MLS. He had just scored 50 goals for Paris St.-Germain and was ranked seventh in the Guardian’s 2015 list of the 100 best players in the world.

Instead he signed with Manchester United, where he scored 28 goals before tearing his ACL in April. He stayed on at United for another year to rehab his injury, then stuck with them in January despite reports an MLS deal was all but inevitable. Supposedly he was reluctant to leave a team that still had a chance to win the Champions League—the one big honor that has eluded him in his multinational club career—which means Ibrahimovic was perhaps the last person on the planet to have any faith left in this year’s iteration of Manchester United. He and his teammates were knocked out in the Round of 16 by Sevilla last week.

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Ibrahimovic played in just one Champions League game this season, one of his seven total appearances after returning months ahead of the usual timetable for an ACL tear. That might not have been a good idea. He hurt his knee again in late December and hasn’t played since. If he still has it after the injury, he hasn’t yet shown it. His mobility was already declining even when he was healthy. At this point it’s possible L.A. is signing something closer to an Ibrahimovic statue, though, granted, one who is reportedly considering ending his international retirement to rejoin a Sweden team that qualified for the 2018 World Cup without him.

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Ibrahimovic’s arrival, then, may or may not be a competitive boon for a Galaxy team that finished with the worst record in MLS last season. But, as with Beckham, his on-field contributions are only a fraction of what he’ll bring to the league. MLS is getting Zlatan the man, the myth, the legend, the egomaniacal goofball. Zlatan, around whom Nike once built an advertising campaign encouraging prospective buyers to “Dare to Zlatan.” Zlatan, who had a parody Twitter account cranking out Chuck Norris jokes about him for years that everyone was somehow OK with. Zlatan, who stars in his own mobile game called Zlatan Legends, which at once looks inspired by Rollerball and Iron Man 3.

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Zlatan the ego exists on a separate plane from Ibrahimovic the player. Zlatan once lashed out after being named the second-greatest Swedish sportsman of all time (he lost to Björn Borg), saying that “to finish second is like finishing last.” Had the choice been up to him, he said he would’ve named himself Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, “with due respect to the others.” He gave his PSG teammates Zlatan-branded Xboxes in 2013 and once told an interviewer he wasn’t getting his wife anything for her birthday because “she already has Zlatan.” Last March, he posted a photo of himself with the king of Spain and captioned it “a King recognizes a King,” and if you’re wondering which king is the subject and which the object of that sentence, then you don’t know Zlatan very well. Even his knee injury has been an opportunity to burnish the Zlatan legend. In the wake of his surgery, his agent told a Swedish newspaper that his knee was so strong the doctors who performed the operation wanted him to come back so they could study his ligaments, a claim the doctors later had to deny.

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His public image is as consistent as it is improbable. The whole production is outlandish enough to make you question its authenticity: He can’t really be like this, you want to say, but if he’s always like this, then how can it be put on?

Zlatan the ego gets away with it because Ibrahimovic the player has always performed in a manner that befits it. He is the same level of audaciously entertaining on the field as he is off it, and that balance, two identities in perfect harmony, has prevented either from being punctured. As long as Ibrahimovic keeps scoring goals that are thunderous and graceful in equal measure, then Zlatan can keep on comparing himself to a liona king, or God himself.

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All of this is good for MLS, and makes a 36-year-old returning from the most significant injury of his career more valuable to this particular league than any other. MLS is far sturdier than it was when Beckham arrived. The legion of exciting, young, largely South American players—among them Atlanta United’s Miguel Almirón and Josef Martínez and Los Angeles FC’s Diego Rossi—who have arrived in the past year and a half has raised the level of play more than an aging Ibrahimovic could hope to, but MLS is still caught in something of a Catch-22 when it comes to its own popularity. The league needs better ratings and, eventually, a more lucrative television deal to jump-start its quest to become one of the world’s top competitions. In the meantime, perhaps the best way to get more people watching is to give off the impression that it already is one of the world’s top competitions. Ibrahimovic’s arrival, a public declaration that the soccer being played in America is worthy of him, could do the trick. So long as he stays happy.

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Getting Ibrahimovic means it’s only a matter of time before MLS also gets a Zlatan tantrum. He has never shied away from conflict and has a penchant for reacting violently when crossed by those he considers lesser players—that is, just about everybody. Last season, he argued that he shouldn’t be banned for elbowing Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings in the face by saying Mings “jumped into his elbow.” (Ibrahimovic was suspended for three games.) At A.C. Milan, he fought teammate and American defender Oguchi Onyewu, who’s built like a Street Fighter character and would have been near the top of just about anyone’s list of soccer people you don’t want to mess with. (Ibrahimovic reportedly suffered a broken rib in that skirmish.)

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The trouble for MLS is that his tantrums aren’t restricted to the field: Zlatan also goes after coaches, referees, and management. He once called France—all of France—a “shit country” in response to a missed call during his stint at PSG. What happens if a weakened Ibrahimovic, whom age and the injury have finally caught up to, feels backed into a corner by his own legend? The problem cannot be Zlatan. Zlatan doesn’t have problems; problems have Zlatan. Big-name imports new to the league have struggled with the travel, the field surfaces, the refereeing, and the standard of play, but Ibrahimovic’s self-mythologized infallibility makes him more likely to lash out should he struggle or grow frustrated with MLS’s lesser denizens.

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And should he do so, the league will find itself in a PR battle with one of the world’s most famous players. A particularly colorful Ibrahimovic outburst would have a reach far beyond whatever response MLS could muster, and could shape the impression of the league for huge numbers of potential fans, the ones MLS needs to win over for its growth to continue.

“I’m coming there not to be a superstar,” Beckham said after his Galaxy contract was signed. “I’m coming there to be part of the team, to work hard and to hopefully win things.”

“I’ve traveled around like Napoleon and conquered every new country where I’ve set foot,” Zlatan told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in 2016. “So perhaps I should do what Napoleon didn’t and cross the Atlantic and conquer the States as well.” Best of luck to him.
And to us. We’re all going to need it.

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