Malmo, Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barca, Milan, PSG, United, now the Galaxy. The career arc of Zlatan Ibrahimovic seemed to follow that of any European footballer from a non-powerhouse nation making a name for himself. Breaking into the senior team with a club from his home country, he famously turned down Arsenal at the peak of their powers in the early 2000s. “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions,” he told Arsene Wenger, and off to Holland he went.
In Amsterdam, he led the Dutch blue-bloods to two consecutive Eredivisie titles and scored an absolute wonder goal just before leaving the club. He moved to Italian giants Juventus, completing his rise to stardom, and injuries to French striker David Trezeguet saw him quickly into the starting lineup for a European powerhouse. The Old Lady won back-to-back Scudetti with Ibrahimovic in the fold, but were promptly relegated to Serie B for their part in the Calciopoli scandal, and while top players like goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and striker Alessandro Del Piero stayed with the club, Zlatan jumped ship, joining Inter for three years and securing another two consecutive Scudetti. A lack of Champions League glory, however, saw him leave to Spain, where Barcelona had just won the treble.
Despite teaming up with Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi, Zlatan couldn’t get past his old Inter team, with former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o as his replacement. After public strife with manager Pep Guardiola, the Swede headed back to Italy, this time to AC Milan. He spent two years there before the PSG’s new wave of transfer money kicked in and convinced Zlatan to head for France.
It was in his four seasons with the French side that he truly became the star he is today, leading his team to domestic dominance after years of parity in France, with Eden Hazard leading Lille to the double in 2010-11 and Olivier Giroud spearheading Montpellier’s Ligue 1 triumph in 2011-12. He turned in a four-goal performance against England in December 2012, concluding the match with a ridiculous bicycle kick. He then proved doubters wrong by dominating the Premier League after four years of lower-level competition in France, only stopped by a knee injury in April that kept him sidelined until mid-November. However, with Romelu Lukaku also signing for Manchester United in that time, Zlatan found himself out of Jose Mourinho’s squad and terminated his contract on March 22.
When the LA Galaxy announced the signing of Ibrahimovic, it seemed like a publicity stunt to move Los Angeles’ soccer focal point away from downtown and back down the 110 freeway to the South Bay. MLS competition still isn’t equivalent to the level in Europe, and Zlatan’s competitiveness would surely lead to production, but outside of making a splash, it seemed like many of the Galaxy’s recent signings: old stars who have maybe a year to a year and a half of good play left in them but do nothing to truly help the team progress in its post-Donovan era.
Where LAFC seems to have a vision, taking a gamble of youth with goalkeeper Tyler Miller, forwards Latif Blessing and Diego Rossi, and left back Joao Moutinho, the Galaxy still seems to hang onto the old strategy of bringing in established European veterans. If they didn’t notice, these players are no longer guarantees to dominate the league. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, and Andrea Pirlo didn’t have anywhere near the type of impact their clubs hoped for. It seemed unlikely that a Zlatan hampered by a recent knee injury could truly provide a spark for the Galaxy.
Yet somehow he already fit right in, he knew exactly how to write a Hollywood script within a week of moving to Los Angeles. Coming on as a sub with 20 minutes to play in the first ever El Tráfico, as the LAFC-Galaxy rivalry has been named, Ibrahimovic dragged the Galaxy from down 3-1 to score a brace and grabbed the winner in stoppage time. Oh, and the first goal was a forty-yard first time volley. Granted, LAFC threw that game away. A veteran like Benny Feilhaber should never be so loose on the ball when up 3-0. Miller should have been sprinting back to his line as soon as he sees the ball bounce in front of Ibrahimovic because he will shoot from anywhere (see the bicycle kick above). And Miller absolutely cannot come for a cross in stoppage time if he’s not going to get there because there’s nothing easier for Zlatan than to put the ball in an empty net.
But that’s Zlatan. He has an aura about him, only compounded by his arrogance, that makes it all the more satisfying to beat him yet simultaneously so difficult. Only Lionel Messi can make more magic on a football pitch. He may have only played twenty minutes as a Galaxy player, but the Galaxy have gone from potentially challenging for a playoff place to an MLS Cup contender.
Christmas has come early for the MLS, and number nine may just lead the Galaxy to the pinnacle of MLS once more.