Nov. 21, 2018

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Four Facts About Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Soccer's greatest showman nears his final act. 

1. Zlatan Ibrahimovic Has a Black Belt in Taekwondo

In most other professions, this tidbit would amount to little more than personal esoterica, a snazzy footnote on a resume. Jeff in I.T. does not code better because of the extension on his roundhouse kick.
But Zlatan Ibrahimovic is where he is in the world—specifically, Los Angeles, but more broadly, the twilight of one of soccer’s most distinctive and productive careers—in no small part due to his other athletic pursuit. It informs moments like the forty-third minute of his Galaxy’s September 15th match against Toronto FC, when Ibrahimovic scored his five-hundredth career goal.
It began as a nondescript run toward the goal ahead of a lob from his midfielder. Ibrahimovic was one of three Los Angeles players in pursuit of the pass, but the ball’s lingering trajectory seemed likely to float onward, harmlessly toward the opposing keeper.
And it probably would have, had it arrived to the immediate left of virtually any player besides Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But it didn’t. So, Ibrahimovic, still on the move, pirouetted clockwise, raised his right leg just below his pectoral and whisked the ball into the net with the outside of his foot. It was one rung short of a backspin kick, a bedrock taekwondo maneuver he has likely executed thousands of times. Translated onto the soccer pitch, it was so extraordinary that even the opposing fans stood to applaud.
He has scored like this before, not in this exact way but in a similar enough vein for a small oeuvre of videos to pop-up on YouTube celebrating Zlatan’s taekwondo goals. (Or his karate goals, or his kung fu goals; YouTubers, it seems, are also more about the spirit of a thing than the particulars.) Some, like his famous scorpion kick—where, faced with a poor cross, he turned his back to the net, reached his leg back and around a defender like a swimmer in breast-stroke, and kicked his foot behind him, redirecting the waist-high ball past the goalkeeper—are entirely unique to him; the six-foot-five man with a midfielder’s touch and a winger’s trickery. Others are more conventional movements elevated to otherworldly. This is the core of the Zlatan experience, twisting what you’ve seen before into some alien cousin whose component parts would be impossible to replicate. His uniqueness is endemic to his brilliance.

2.Zlatan Ibrahimovic, upon Occasion, Refers to Himself as God

Such as the time when he announced his return to Manchester United by tweeting a picture of him, dressed as Jesus Christ in a white robe, wrestling the devil. Or when he piggy-backed on LeBron James’s signing with the Lakers by proclaiming that “Now LA has a God and a King!” And the exchange that started it all, during the 2014 world cup qualifying playoffs, when Ibrahimovic told an interviewer that only God could say which team would make it through.
“It’s hard to ask him,” the reporter said.
“You’re looking at him,” Ibrahimovic replied.
In the interest of fairness, his repertoire extends well beyond self-deification. Ibrahimovic has compared himself to a Ferrari, bragged of having the financial largesse to purchase an entire hotel, suggested he’d renew his contract with Paris Saint-Germain if the city replaced the Eiffel Tower with a statue of him, and has made liberal use of the third person, most notably when he recounted the story of him turning down a trial with Arsenal as a teenager because “Zlatan doesn’t do auditions.”
It wasn’t always this way. Zlatan was an athletic curiosity long before he was a social one—the son of immigrant parents who came of age in a Swedish ghetto and who nearly threw his talent away at fifteen to become a dockworker. The first act of his career was two tales running parallel: one of outgrowing his surroundings, the other growing into his body. From the great hope of Sweden’s top league, to the top goal scoring threat at a star-making club in Ajax, to a key cog at Juventus, to quite probably the third-best player in the world at Inter Milan, all in a decade’s time and before his twenty-eighth birthday.
You can see, then, why he gave himself license to talk. These are large utterances from a large man who has achieved very large things, and the first layer of mystique concerns why he remains so utterly unafraid to say them in a time when interviews are ground down to soundbites, which in turn get chopped up and distributed as bite-sized content nuggets. Say them enough times, in enough ways, and it becomes increasingly difficult to be known as anything beyond the outlandish caricature. He’s not the only athlete to run that risk; Jalen Ramsey and Richard Sherman have recently pulled a similar trick in the NFL, for instance, which was culled from Deion Sanders a generation earlier. But there always seems to be an element of skullduggery to their braggadocio, an on-field edge to be gained with every sliver of self-mythology. It’s zero-sum, a piece of you for a piece of me. It functions best with a direct object.

Zlatan’s words, on the other hand, regularly float on their own, in service to nothing beyond what appears to be simple narcissism. Which may just be how he prefers things. This is his other obfuscation, the degree to which Ibrahimovic truly is the sort of megalomaniac that mushrooms out of immense success, or merely the pastiche of one. Some of it, assuredly, is an affectation; even Zlatan couldn’t keep a straight face after the “you’re looking at him” line. But it’s hard to believe all of it could be, not with the earsplitting volume of those public statements, a rap sheet of practice brawls, an incendiary autobiography, a notoriously short fuse, and a well-publicized falling out with Pep Guardiola, arguably the most revered manager in the world, during their time together at Barcelona. There is at least some dickishness in his profile and more than a little disingenuity, too. In and of itself, that doesn’t make him unique: Prior to the resurfacing of rape allegations, and perhaps even since, Cristiano Ronaldo has reigned the world’s most popular athlete while being devoid of anything relatable.
But Ronaldo has been venerated in a very different way from Ibrahimovic—more idol worship than genuine affection. Zlatan, by contrast, is celebrated as a sort of cultural touchstone, soccer’s Yogi Berra but with a postmodern sneer. He is, well, fun—not merely on the pitch, but away from it, too. It speaks to how elusive that quality can be amongst soccer’s premier stars that Ibrahimovic’s edgier moments don’t hinder that adoration, but perhaps even enhance it: Whatever else remains unclear about him, he obviously does not concern himself with how people react to his message. That alone has inspired fealty to far worse teammates and people—Kobe Bryant says “hi”—and if it doesn’t make for a classic protagonist, it at least stamps him a bona fide antihero. What’s the difference, anyhow? The applause sounds the same.


3.Zlatan Ibrahimovic Has Played for Nine Different Clubs

This isn’t unprecedented. Roberto Baggio played for seven. Eric Cantona suited up for eight. Rivaldo worked for fifteen.
Still, nine is a lot, and it’s especially high in the context of today’s game, where the money has concentrated in Europe’s upper crust, calcifying a smaller-than-ever group who can afford the services of the game’s elite players.
There was once a cabal of strikers like Ibrahimovic, hitmen who spent their prime years roaming Europe and sometimes beyond to bang in goals for whoever cut the best check. Oftentimes, those weren’t the continent’s elite so much as teams with the ambition and pockets to nip at their heels. Christian Vieri transferred to Atletico Madrid in the late '90s, as then-owner Jesus Gil played fast and loose with the club’s finances in a bid to microwave success. Ronaldo joined up with Inter Milan at the height of a trophy drought that lasted two decades. Hernan Crespo cut his teeth at the turn of the century with Parma and Lazio, upper-table sides whose fortunes plummeted as Serie A’s economic bubble burst. All three did their time at the world’s biggest clubs, too, but it was treated as a rite of passage more than an obligation. They didn’t need to play at a top club to make top dollar.
UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations changed that. Implemented in 2011, FFP was originally pitched from a place of fiduciary benevolence, a way to level the playing field between soccer’s haves and have-nots. The practical reality, however, widened the gap even further. FFP snuffed out the upper middle-class by forcing teams to spend what they made, disabling owners from supplementing their team’s incomes with their own bankrolls. Commercial giants yawned instead of quivered. Everyone below them became a selling club. The age of the nomad has been on the wane ever since, enough for the likes of Ronaldo, on his fourth club at age thirty-three, to qualify as well-traveled. There are only so many teams left who can afford the services of the world’s very best players.   
That leaves Ibrahimovic in a class unto himself, perhaps soccer’s last great mercenary. It isn’t just that he’s stayed on the move but that he’s made good on every investment: Beginning in 2001, his first year with Ajax, Ibrahimovic has won thirteen league titles in seventeen seasons (counting two on the pitch with Juventus that were later forfeited due to Calciopoli, the Italian match-fixing scandal.) The bulk of that came on an eight-season run from 2003 through 2011, which began in Amsterdam and ended in Milan, spanning five clubs and three countries. After the last of those, Ibrahimovic’s sixth Serie A championship in seven years, one columnist  described the Italian league as “a tournament in which various teams compete and then at the end Zlatan Ibrahimovic wins.” Few men have ever been more decisive in league play. Even fewer—twenty four, to be exact—are believed to have scored more goals over the course of their careers.
The setting has been incidental. He had no qualms ping-ponging between all three of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan, Italy’s traditional ruling triumvirate. Nor does he hesitate to exit a situation once a more enticing offer presents itself, like how he gladly departed AC Milan for Paris Saint-Germain when the Italian club capsized. He is loyal to himself only, in a way more athletes ought to be in amidst profit-hoarding owners and fickle fans but so few are willing to lay as bare.

 “I decide my future,” he said in 2015. “I decide what I want to do. Nobody else.”

4. Zlatan Ibrahimovic Turned 37 Years Old on October 3rd

He is gradually approaching the most important decision of all.
Even now, Ibrahimovic’s size and dexterity are enough to seduce anyone watching to imagine he can do this forever, mooring himself in the box and contorting his body to whatever angle the latest pass needs him to meet. His production tells the same story. Twenty-one goals in twenty-five appearances for Los Angeles does not suggest any sort of diminishment, nor any need for a farewell.
But he can only outrun time for so long. This being Ibrahimovic, it begs the question of where in the world is left to try and do exactly that. Los Angeles missed the playoffs for the second straight season, foiling—at least for now—his plan to capture a trophy at a ninth club. Consequently, there are murmurs that the self-proclaimed God of Los Angeles might pack his bags less than a year after arriving, ones Ibrahimovic hasn’t gone very far out of his way to deny. Doing so would position him as a fitting mile marker for Major League Soccer during a league-wide time of transition, at once the sort of aging megastar the league has courted for years as well as a chance to turn a tidy profit now that MLS is transitioning into a selling league.
The most heavily-rumored destination would also be the most interesting: AC Milan. It would be the first time Ibrahimovic has returned to a club, retreating to familiar terrain instead of forging further into the unknown. The money needs to add up, of course, but it’s hard not to wonder whether Zlatan might at last succumb to sentiment before his run is up.
Because, if he doesn’t, what would be left to keep playing for? The Champions League, perhaps, but Ibrahimovic never would have absconded to California in the first place were that a primary motivator. Otherwise, there’d be nothing more than the agnostic achievements—the next name on the goal scoring charts, the latest trophy du jour—that accompany a career that simultaneously belongs to so many places and nowhere at all.
Maybe that’s all he wants, to keep doing what he’s doing until he can do no more. The sport’s infrastructure has changed enough to make that itinerant life matter in a way it never used to. But soccer is a romantic game and it’s hard to imagine a more poetic ending than soccer’s foremost wanderer finally planting roots before it’s too late. It would be a stretch to call it the one he’d most deserve, or even one that fits. But Zlatan Ibrahimovic made a career out of defying convention. There’s no reason for the finale to be any different.

Mike Piellucci is a Dallas-based writer, formerly of Vice Sports. His work has appeared in the Ringer, Sports Illustrated, and Los Angeles Magazine

Kyle Scott is a Vancouver-based illustrator

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