EDITOR'S NOTE: Veteran soccer writer Scott French has covered the LA Galaxy as a contributor to MLSsoccer.com, including both of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's two seasons with the club.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic exited Major League Soccer pretty much as he entered, expounding on his greatness, what his presence meant for the league, on how we'll all miss him now that he's gone.
“I came, I saw, I conquered,” he tweeted as word came down last week that his brief reign — er, run — in MLS was through, that he wouldn't be returning to the LA Galaxy for a third season. It wasn't an unexpected development, by any means. The Swedish superstar had been noncommittal all along, and, even at 38, he had plenty of other clubs throwing big money his way.
A huge payday in Italy probably awaits, testament to his transcendent abilities — among his generation, only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are more greatly lionized — but also to his dominance over the past 20 months or so. His post-injury resurgence in MLS brought with it a valuable spotlight on the league, just as David Beckham had done a decade earlier.
That's not to compare their legacies.
Beckham is the father of modern MLS, the man who turned the world's eyes to America's league and paved the way for Ibrahimovic's arrival, among many. He is the BC/AD moment in the league's history, the instrument that helped the league gain international relevance. Ibrahimovic will be remembered primarily as author of so many sublime goals, among his 52 in 56 games plus another in the playoffs, and as the largest personality the American game has seen.
He's brash and witty and biting and bombastic, arrogant and engaging and often brutally honest, bigger than life, and he gave Americans a good taste of that on Jimmy Kimmel's and James Corden's late-night TV shows, the latter memorably as an amusement-park, animatron fortune-teller:
He's magnetic, and fans love him or hate him, think him a genius or a buffoon, depending on one's loyalties. And he so often backs up his proclamations of greatness with great deeds.
And then he tells you all about them.
“I have a vision, I have my confidence, and I believe in myself,” Ibrahimovic told media after his hat trick torched LAFC in mid-July. “People call it arrogance. I call it confidence. Ignorant people call it arrogance. Intelligent people call it confidence. ...
“Since I started to play football, I believe so much in myself, and I have a bullet-proof mind. And when I go out there, I know what I'm able to do, and I do it good. ... I do it perfect.”
“I think I'm the best-ever player in MLS,” he said. “And that without joking.”
He could be right and certainly deserves a voice in the conversation, but it's the "how" more so than the "what" that made Ibrahimovic so vital to the league. You couldn't take your eyes off him for fear he'd do something unthinkable. When he pulled that off, the world saw it — and then listened to him brag about it. He was a circus unto himself, and in the process brought invaluable exposure to MLS around the globe. Whether there will be a greater “Ibra Effect” following the conclusion of his MLS adventure is less certain, in part because of the long shadow Beckham casts.
Zlatan vs. Beckham
Comparisons with Beckham are easy, but on target in only a few areas.
Both are immensely talented players with strong work ethics — blue-collar boys in rich man's garb — possessing World Cup experience and much top-flight European club success. Both are iconic figures with detailed public personas and massive fan bases. And both played key roles as the Galaxy climbed from their lowest points in club history.
In the bigger picture, Beckham's global celebrity made him a unique phenomenon, the likes of which MLS will never see again. Ibrahimovic is a smart, witty guy with a strong sense of self and a magnetism that draws others in, and the Galaxy capitalized on it, especially with those late-night TV appearances. He was never “Hollywood”: You didn't see catch him shopping on Robertson or Rodeo, he didn't hit the clubs or movie premieres and TMZ wasn't chasing him around. He spent his time with his family, mostly, in relaxed Beverly Hills.
Rollin' in Venice Beach pic.twitter.com/jCsmv6dAtM— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) July 10, 2018
Beckham was an all-out masterpiece of public relations, a hugely orchestrated campaign to sell the English superstar to America while utilizing his celebrity to broaden soccer's appeal in the US, draw the world's attention to MLS, and turn the league into a thriving commercial and cultural success. It all came to pass.
Beckham wasn't much like his public persona. He's somewhat quiet, a decent and genuine working-class guy, quite likable, bright, often funny. Just don't question his effort: There were questions he did not like, and his temper would boil on occasion, on the field, too. He was charismatic, for sure, but he was never going to be the biggest personality at a club run by Bruce Arena. Nobody could. Except maybe Ibrahimovic.
Ibrahimovic — usually “Ibra,” sometimes just “Zlatan” — generally spoke to media two days before games, usually on Thursdays. These were can't-miss sessions for those on Southern California's soccer beat. Everyone wanted to know what Ibra said about this or that — or go someplace beyond expectations — and ofttimes nothing that anyone else had to say.
When Ibra was in a good mood, which was most of the time, there was an electricity to his sessions, a good humor through most of them. He's a likable guy, of rather regal bearing but with no tint of prima donna about him, and he's, as one might expect from a player of his stature, a keen student of the game. He also could be glaringly self-critical, of himself and the Galaxy, and readily acknowledged his shortcomings.
There was a mostly easy rapport between the media and Ibra, who had a hearty laugh and was clearly touched when Larry Morgan, one of the reporters who regularly covered the team, presented him with a cane last year on his 37th birthday. He could put on a show in these sessions, no doubt, especially if he was upset about something — officiating, playoff format, opponents complaining about him to league disciplinary officials — or boasting about his talents and achievements. But there were only so many explosions. Talking to Ibra most days meant great copy, a reporter's dream, without all the hyperbole.
He was especially valuable for the media because the Galaxy had lacked what we'd call a “great quote” since Landon Donovan's retirement. And he certainly provided plenty to write, broadcast, podcast or blog about, from that audacious start — the stunning volley and headed winner in the first El Trafico — through the playoff win in Minnesota, LA's first postseason victory since 2016.
He came, he saw, he conquered. What more was to be done?
What Beckham has that Ibrahimovic never will are championship rings, for the Galaxy's MLS Cup triumphs in 2011 and 2012. Can Ibra truly be the greatest of MLS players if he never advanced beyond the Western Conference Semifinals?
Ibra barked at a reporter when asked following a game this season whether he could lay claim to being the best without a championship, asking the reporter his origin and then insulting that country. It was an ugly moment, yet none of us there spoke up in the reporter's defense, as we should have. It was, it had seemed, just Zlatan being Zlatan. When he didn't like a question, which happened on occasion, he lashed out at its source.
He was certainly a major voice in the locker room, even before taking on the captaincy this season, and his teammates praised his work ethic, how he made those around him better, and the greater standards to which he held the team. That doesn't mean they were fond of his animated frustration when things didn't work as hoped, nor that they enjoyed Ibrahimovic's “Ferrari among Fiats” quip. And several teammates, when queried whether they were hoping the Swede would return in 2020, didn't acknowledge a preference one way or another.
If Ibrahimovic was going to return, it would have been with an MLS Cup triumph in mind, and the Galaxy have a foundation of a team that could contend next season. But he's been critical of the league on occasion and spoke during the summer about feeling “like I am hunted.” He followed that, of course, by noting that “when you are the best, you're hunted.”
He got into celebrated scrapes this season with Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha, whom he claimed told him “he's going to hurt me” during an April game, and with New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who complained to the league that his neck was scraped while tangling with Swede in May.
Ibrahimovic said of the Onuoha incident that “what happens on the field stays on the field,” and that it was “no big deal.” He was sharp in his criticism of Johnson, suggesting he'd be blackballed for tattling if in Europe.
“I feel every game I play is reviewed, that I feel a little bit hunted in that way,” he said in late July. “That is not OK. Because I play my game and I need to feel free in my game and not feel after the game people will look at me and look [in] detail at everything I do. Because that is not part of the game.”
The consensus among those who cover the team most closely was that Ibrahimovic would not return. Last week's announcement did not surprise. The Galaxy will move, of course. There's talk of Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani joining the Galaxy from Paris Saint-Germain, one of Ibra's former clubs. We'll see. LA certainly will find a replacement for the big Swede, but they're never going to find another Ibra.
His stint might have been short and ultimately fruitless, but he brought a rare excitement to the Galaxy and to MLS, and his astonishing acuity in front of the net won't be forgotten. One day, one would imagine, his statue will sit next to Beckham's on the Galaxy's Legends Plaza.