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The Power of Zlatan Compels You (to Pay Attention to MLS)

Who cares whether he’s washed? Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a living legend, the Galaxy’s two-year investment is well worth it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s best we start somewhere near the middle, with this Instagram post from Zlatan Ibrahimovic announcing that he’s leaving Northern England for sunnier climes. “Sunnier climes” meaning Los Angeles, where the Galaxy play and where I live. And we’ll get to that. But first, this post. Let’s talk about it, yes?

It’s styled as an oil painting, and in this oil painting Zlatan is arm wrestling with the devil and wearing a white tunic, because to Zlatan, if to no one else, he is God. Yes, the above is the same photo he posted when he signed another one-year deal with Manchester United last August; you must have God confused with someone who shops elaborate, hilariously self-aggrandizing fan art of himself more than once. You’ll just have to go along with him on this “God” thing, if only because he insists on it. Although, he has won trophies in five different countries and reduced NAC Breda—a whole Dutch club, with history—to “that yellow team that died the horrible, lingering death by 1,000 kick feints.”

Now, #Iamcoming was the e-leaflet dropped during the initial westward advance of the Zlatan in 2016, and like most things Zlatan, it was funny but not really a joke. Come to think of it, the only thing that could have made his exit from Manchester more Zlatan is squeezing a “#Iamgoing” somewhere into the caption. But alas.

It doesn’t feel right to say that Zlatan “made his name” doing anything because as far as I or anyone else knows, he has never not been Zlatan, the man, the myth, the mononym. Early in his career, when he was just a 20-year-old knobby-kneed braggart, there was the possibility of a move to Arsenal from his hometown club of Malmö FF. He told Sky Sport Italia in December that Arsène Wenger wanted him to undergo a trial before signing him onto the squad, to which Zlatan said he responded, “I will not do a trial: Either you take me or not, I’m not here to waste time.” See? Funny, but not really a joke.

This is what he said after returning from a serious knee injury two months ahead of schedule in a November 2017 game against Newcastle, in which his first attempt on goal was a scissor kick: “Lions don’t recover like humans.” Again: funny, but not really a joke.

This is how he began an apology to France in 2015 after calling it a “shit” country while expressing contempt for its really poor referees. “I also think the people of France are intelligent enough to understand the situation.” Hilarious, but not really a joke.

It has been a footballing life for Zlatan. He left Malmö for Ajax and then Ajax for Juventus, then Juventus for Inter, and then Inter for Barcelona, then to Milan, then to PSG and finally United, bagging goals and occasionally fighting (or injuring) teammates who didn’t immediately accept their new overlord along the way. Comparisons to any other striker in world football feels inappropriate; the only good analog—and I’m fully aware of how hyperbolic I’m being here, but he openly invites hyperbole—is Alexander the Great. In fact, there may have been fewer than a dozen instances total throughout his 20-year career where he hasn’t been the best player on the pitch. One of those instances, of course, is of every time he’s faced or played with either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. And even then it was often electrifying, confounding, dismaying. When was the last time you watched Zlatan die on his feet against Portugal during that 2014 World Cup qualifying playoff?

Unfortunately for the Galaxy, that is not what they’ll be getting for a two-year contract worth about $3 million. They may not even be getting 2016-17 vintage Zlatan who, at the big age of 35, banged in 28 goals for Manchester United, just to spite everyone who derided his poor record against English teams in the Champions League.

He weighed and measured the Prem, and he found it wanting.

Zlatan flared brightly then landed awkwardly against Anderlecht in the Europa League last April, incurring significant knee ligament damage. His time at United was effectively over. But fear not for now, according to a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times and a predictably extra announcement video, he has seen fit to grace us—nay, to honor us—with his presence. The MLS is slowly—slowly—but surely shifting its stigma of being a retirement league, snapping up designated players too spent for meaningful first-team football in Europe and elsewhere. But there is absolutely no need to complicate this with concern-trolling over what the American domestic league is, isn’t, or wants to be. This is a man that does things like play Call Of Duty in satin pajamas embroidered with “#TheOne.” He’s buddies with Anthony Joshua. He hunts moose in Macedonia in the offseason. There’s virtually nothing for the casual fan not to be interested in and, for a franchise that may lose a chunk of its following to the city’s shiny new expansion team LAFC, signing a player with 30.8 million followers on Instagram is better than … not signing a player with 30.8 million followers on Instagram. Especially one who thinks overhead kicks from 30-plus yards out are not only possible, but totally a normal and viable course of action.

Kneel before your new king.