America at Large: LA a fitting stage for the travelling Ibrahimovic show
Sweden’s outspoken veteran embracing one last spin on the celebrity merry-go-round
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal against the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. Photograph: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
For the first seven minutes of his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week, Zlatan Ibrahimovic performed exactly the type of showbiz schtick he was brought on to deliver.
Gurning and sounding like some poorly-written pastiche of Sacha Baron Cohen hamming it up as an über-arrogant European for an American audience, he variously described himself as an earthquake hitting Los Angeles, a gift to the city, and a lion.
The studio lapped up his every utterance. And then the host pressed him on whether or not he’d be playing for Sweden in Russia this summer. After a couple of deliberately cryptic responses failed to deflect the question, he tried another tack.
“A World Cup without me wouldn’t be a World Cup, would it?” he asked.
The audience cheered on cue, relishing one more cameo of this curiously-accented braggadocio.
But, of course, that answer exposed their ignorance and marked the moment his attempted comic turn degenerated into rather pathetic farce. Ibrahimovic went to two finals with Sweden, played one full game over the course of both tournaments, scarcely impacted and never scored a single goal.
Even if he was a tyro first time out in 2002 and battling injury four years later, the record shows that both this summer’s edition and his home country should do fine without the presence of the 36-year-old.
As long as people like Kimmel continue to make great play of goals like Ibrahimovic’s long range strike on his Los Angeles Galaxy debut, however, speculation about his World Cup prospects will continue and grow increasingly tiresome. It was a wonderful effort, especially for a team mounting a comeback against their newly-minted cross-town rivals Los Angeles FC, and he followed up with a headed winner too.
It was also pointed out afterwards that the opposition goalkeeper Tyler Miller is one of the lowest paid players in the league and the defence in front of him isn’t exactly top of the range either.
The type of proper context those in and around Major League Soccer would prefer went unreported as they bask in the afterglow of the Swede’s arrival.
From the moment he took out the newspaper ad saying, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome!” Ibrahimovic has received the most relentlessly fawning media coverage of any import since the superannuated Andres Pirlo embarked on his extended tour of Manhattan’s fine dining opportunities and art galleries while doing the odd turn for New York City FC.
At times, the exaggeration and hyperbole has been so giddy and misguided as to be almost a throwback to the ridiculousness of the Beckham era.
At just $3 million for two seasons, the suits in MLS will be happy enough with the heightened profile and the skyrocketing sales of shirts with his name on it. Which is good and bad.
The league now boasts 23 teams and appears a truly national affair but, nearly half a century after Pele’s New York Cosmos’ debut, they still haven’t quite figured out another marketing strategy beyond the old NASL staple: “import glitzy foreigner and hope sparkle attracts fleeting attention”.
Ibrahimovic, being mischievously pitched to the less discerning American fan as somebody right up there with Messi and Ronaldo, has certainly succeeded on that score. And quickly.
Aside from hitting the late night chat show circuit, he turned up at an NHL game where he played keepy-uppies with the Los Angeles Kings (many European-born hockey players kick a ball around when warming up).
Then he sat courtside at a Los Angeles Lakers game where he got snapped with retired 7ft 1in behemoth Shaquille O’Neal (XL vs XXXL tweeted Zlatan of that encounter). Throw in an interview with TMZ in which he professed the almost obligatory acting ambitions and he’s hit the Hollywood trifecta. In less than a month.
For all the viral mania surrounding his brace against Los Angeles FC, and his subsequent winner against Chicago Fire (Ashley Cole supplying the cross to remind the world he’s still out there), his first full 90 minutes last weekend was a sobering affair. He looked like somebody coming off a long lay-off, struggling to get on the same wavelength as new team-mates.
That sort of nuanced take wasn’t evident in the LA Times’ coverage, their bizarre headline read, “Zlatan Ibrahimovic doesn’t score, so the Los Angeles Galaxy are shut-out by Atlanta United 2-0.”
In just their second season in existence, Atlanta, less reliant on gimmicks than the Galaxy and managed by Tata Martino (ex-Barcelona and Argentina), are a genuine MLS success story, averaging more than 45,000 at home games, sometimes pulling 70,000. Yet, they have garnered a fraction of the national media coverage as Ibrahimovic’s various antics on and off the field.
Even their thoroughly professional victory in Los Angeles was overshadowed by the fact Zlatan kung fu-kicked a ball over a defender’s head in one of his few meaningful touches.
Then again, maybe Atlanta merely has to up its quote game. When Ibrahimovic was asked on radio last week how he might assist the future development of soccer in this country, he reached into his reservoir of sub-Cantona-esque quips and replied: “I have my wife. I got two kids. If I was single I would spread some investments here in the US and you would have future legends in the soccer. But sorry I’m already occupied by my wife and two kids.”
For better, for worse, still Zlatan.