Having been asked what he would change about North American athletes, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is working himself up to high dudgeon.
It’s a state he seems to exist in permanently, though in a broadly amused way.
“They exaggerate with everything they do,” Ibrahimovic says, waving a very large hand around dangerously. “They should stick with what they’re doing good. If you’re a basketball player, play basketball. Don’t do politics.”
He goes on like this for a while, muttering about entourages, image curation and perfection (“No one is perfect. Not even me”), before wrapping it up in the most Zlatan way possible.
“They’re only lucky I didn’t enter their sports because I would take over that also.”
Before you meet him, you have a very specific idea of what Ibrahimovic, 36, will be like – a man of cartoonish confidence levels. Not so long ago, he was close to the best soccer player alive. The good news is he remains the most fascinating.
He was brought to Major League Soccer and the L.A. Galaxy to inject some personality into the right-thinking, right-speaking blandness of the current landscape. Plus, he can play a bit.
Coming to America isn’t a career move. It’s the next stop on Ibrahimovic’s two-decade-long global (anti-)charm offensive.
Upon arrival in California, Ibrahimovic took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times.
It read, in its entirety: “Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome.”
In his first game in North America, he scored a goal of gobsmacking brilliance – a functional field goal taken on the hop from the middle of the park – tore off his shirt and ran around like a wildman daring the audience not to fall for him. They could not resist.
This sort of cheek is Ibrahimovic’s other superpower. In a sub-culture brimming with self-promoters, he is simultaneously the loudest, as well as the one most in on the joke.
Perhaps this exchange with a reporter during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup captures it best:
Ibrahimovic: “Only God knows who will go through.”
Reporter: “It’s hard to ask him.”
Ibrahimovic: “You’re talking to him.”
He’s in Toronto ahead of a game on Saturday against TFC, and is going to do a little media after his meal at the team hotel. Check that. The meal is no good (“You need to do the right program. Not like this,” he says to an ashen club assistant. “You decided? With who did you decide? Not me.”).
He’ll do the interview right now. How about this room, where a TV crew has everything set up just so for an interview to follow?
“In here,” Ibrahimovic says, invading their set.
The TV crew and I look at each other desperately.
“You do not like this. I see that immediately,” Ibrahimovic says. “Come. Another place.”
Once he has commandeered a suitable room, he settles himself into a posture of extreme dominance – leaned back with his legs spread so wide he is functionally in a yoga pose. After the exaggerated Slavic formalities – “How are you, my friend? You are okay? Really?” – he launches right into it.
One of the kindest things a sportswriter can say about a player is that he/she is a “good quote.” They could be telling you the guy turned out to be an axe murderer and add: “… but still, great quote.”
Ibrahimovic is a galactically phenomenal quote. Alongside Muhammad Ali, he may be the greatest quote of all times.
On North American athletes generally:
“I am the real deal. Not like the other ones – thinking they are something they are not.”
On being popular:
“Everybody loves me. It’s difficult. I would like them to hate me more so that they trigger me more. That is when I get my adrenaline up.”
On the pressure of MLS:
“[In Europe], you lose, you’re out. Here you lose, is okay. When you lose there? They buy another striker.”
On the soccer IQ of the average MLS fan:
“I am the first one to say I am very bad. … Here it is a little bit tricky because they don’t know when you play good and when you play bad. So when I play bad I can say it was ‘tactical’. You understand? In Europe, it was more, ‘No, no, he was not good today’. And then I cannot go for that trick.”
It is hard to imagine anyone else saying this and it not sounding like a profound insult. But somehow, Ibrahimovic manages to deliver it gently. Though it may pain him, he just wants to tell you the truth.
It also hard to conjure any other pro uttering a sentence like this, which comes at the end of a long discussion on his professional wanderlust: “When you take your bag and go abroad, like Indiana Jones, to collect your treasures, is different.”
Even Ibrahimovic can’t help himself but grin at his own cleverness after that one.
And perhaps the most shocking of all: “I am just as normal as you.”
As he says it, Ibrahimovic runs his eyes up and down me a couple of times and comes very close to adding, “Well, you know what I mean” but contains himself.
Having suffered through many years of “our backs are against the wall” and “give it 100 per cent,” interviewing Ibrahimovic is like hearing a band you have to come to love for the first time. This is how this works? People who manipulate a ball for a living are allowed to be this interesting?
This is problematic. If everybody is allowed to rubbish the fans while making on-the-nose nostalgic pop-culture references, there won’t be any reason left to watch the games. Maybe why there’s only one of him.
Ibrahimovic has played just about everywhere you can make real money doing this job – Spain, France, England, Italy and now here. Few players of his stature have moved around more. Wherever he goes, he scores goals, wins trophies and, maybe more important, creates interest.
If he is MLS’ marketing fever dream, then so far, so good. The Galaxy is mediocre, but he is already the league’s most recognizable face.
In Europe, he would not have been expected to make himself available to the grubby members of the printed press. Most European stars despise this part of playing in North America. Not Ibrahimovic (“Thank you, my friend! Call me any time!”)
When the time’s up, he seems half-disappointed. He was only just starting to get rolling.
“All right,” Ibrahimovic says, slapping his knees as he rises and stretching out his arms. “Let me go entertain the TV [crew]) also.”