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Finding God at the StubHub Center

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival in Los Angeles made waves. But what happens when even a heavenly being can’t carry a team to the MLS playoffs?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic towering over StubHub Center Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before every Los Angeles Galaxy game, an announcer calls out the first name of each starter, then leaves airspace for a fan response. Perry … KITCHEN. Michaël … CIANI. The first 10 players come and go. They are loved, but not adored. Then comes the 11th. It’s no different than how it’s been everywhere else: There is everybody, and then there is Zlatan.

When Ibrahimovic is announced, it’s to a roar that shakes the stands. Some spectators come to see the Galaxy, and others turn out because there’s not much else to do on a hot summer night in Carson, but most of the people within the stadium’s confines are here for one simple reason: They’re here to see a self-proclaimed god.

For much of the latter half of Zlatan’s career, he has done little to dispel the notion that he’s divine. In fact, he’s encouraged it, calling himself God during interviews; posting pictures of himself in white linen robes arm-wrestling the devil, not once, but twice; and frequently referring to himself as “God” in the third person. For years, the image of omnipotence stuck to Ibrahimovic, bolstered by each mind-bending volley and preposterous free kick that left his boot. But as time has passed, he’s split further and further from that image.

Zlatan has decayed with each half-life. At 37, his career is winding down, and his arrival in America suggests that fans won’t be watching him for much longer. After a practice in August, the Swede acknowledged those who doubted him, but was adamant that he had no desire to hang up his cleats.

“I feel alive now,” Ibrahimovic told me. “I had this injury, but people, they forget because after three months, I showed everybody I’m still alive. Actually, I did it after two minutes when I came here. And I feel good. I feel fresh.”

And though his showing this season was impressive, MLS is far from the top. The Galaxy are the 333rd best team in the world, according to FiveThirtyEight’s rankings, and he’s no longer the world-beater he once was. But that doesn’t seem to affect how he carries himself around the field. Zlatan has always talked a big game, and even now, against the odds, he manages to back it up with his play on the field. He says his foes “need to suffer Zlatan” and that he feels “like [an] animal.” That would elicit some sideways glances if he weren’t second in the league in goals scored despite playing five fewer games than the third-place finisher and seven fewer than the leader.

It’s the kind of talk that made him an icon abroad. Even now, reporters phrase their questions as if they were talking to a deity: “Do you think they like Zlatan?” one asked in the days before the Galaxy played LAFC in August. For now (and for at least the next year), Zlatan Ibrahimovic calls Los Angeles home. But what happens when God can’t carry a team to the MLS playoffs?

Before a mid-August game against Minnesota United, at a booth tucked under the stands near the northwest entrance to the park, a group of teenagers were selling official L.A. Galaxy T-shirts, jerseys, and even a few scarfs. But supplies were running low, and they’d been sold out of Ibrahimovic jerseys for some time. The same was true at two other kiosks in the stadium. Only the team store at the south gate, not yet picked apart by fans, still had no. 9 kits stocked.

A few steps outside of the store, a five-piece cover band rolled through some of music’s greatest hits. Three of the musicians donned Ibrahimovic jerseys. Among the sea of fans meandering around the arena, there were Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, and Giovani dos Santos jerseys, but their numbers paled in comparison with Zlatan’s.

When the StubHub Center opened in Carson in 2003, it was just the second soccer-specific venue in the MLS. The Galaxy were the first team to make a home there, miles from the cultural center of Los Angeles, where teams like the Dodgers, Lakers, Clippers, and Kings played. The stadium is almost cut off from the rest of the metropolis, sequestered by a maze of highways that separate what most people envision when they think of Los Angeles from the southern towns that stretch to the far reaches of the county. This is not a glamorous place. Dodger Stadium sits on a hill that overlooks the entire city. Across the street from the Staples Center is the Microsoft Theater, which has hosted the Emmys. The StubHub Center neighbors … California State University, Dominguez Hills, and a strip mall with a Domino’s. But still, more than a dozen times a season, supporters flock to see their favorite team play.

Two hours before first kick, the Zlatan fans had already arrived. There were tents, grills, and rows of cars backed into their spaces, all with their trunks open to provide respite from the beating sun. Under a royal-blue awning, a fan turned to his friend and asked why he bought an Ibrahimovic jersey instead of a dos Santos one, only for his friend to turn with a horrified look, as if he’d just discovered the man standing next to him was a heretic.

“He’s a god,” the friend said.

Elsewhere, Jose Luis and his wife, Geisel, were sitting out in the sun. Season-ticket holders since 2011, this was a common afternoon for them. But it almost wasn’t. Before the current campaign began, they were hesitant to renew their seats for another year. The drive from the Inland Empire can take more than an hour, and the team’s last-place finish in 2017 left them questioning whether it was worth coming. It wasn’t until the club announced Ibrahimovic’s signing that they decided to take the leap once again.

“He’s obsessed,” Geisel said of her husband.

And they weren’t alone. The Galaxy set a club record in tickets sold and in total revenue this season, selling out 11 of their 17 home games and 16 of their 17 road ones. The previous title holder? That would be 2008, when David Beckham laced up for his first full year. But Ibrahimovic’s impact goes beyond just signing up season-ticket holders. Fans with no affiliation with the club are lining up to see the Swede.

Michael Setterberg and Marcus Strom, both decked out in Swedish national team gear, made their first trip to see the Galaxy, from San Diego via Stockholm. They’re not from Los Angeles, and they don’t particularly care about MLS. They were there to see Zlatan.

There’s something almost uncomfortable about watching Ibrahimovic play for the Galaxy. He’s among the oldest men on every pitch he steps on, and it shows. He rarely accesses the explosive athleticism that made him a star in Europe, and he’ll often be yards behind the play, waltzing leisurely across the pitch. But at least once per match, Zlatan produces fleeting moments of greatness that remind spectators what he once was—the man who scored more goals than there are days in the year and won hardware wherever he went. The one who made physics-defying bicycle kicks from 30 yards and danced through defenses so cleanly you’d think it was choreographed.

After almost two decades as a focus of 60-, 70- or even 100,000 fans packed into soccer cathedrals, Ibrahimovic played for 24,891 against Minnesota—and similar numbers whenever the team was on the road. Some of his peers, like former Chelsea midfielder Oscar or PSG winger Ezequiel Lavezzi, have accepted lucrative moves to the lesser competition of the Chinese Super League. Zlatan’s move came with a pay cut, reportedly giving up as much as 95 percent of his salary on the way to California.

Forty minutes before kickoff against Minnesota, the Galaxy took the field. Zlatan’s teammates immediately began running for balls and starting their drills, but he walked slowly, surveying the ground before him. He did some light stretches—the kind you might try before going to the gym for the first time in three years—until a ball arrived at his feet. Then instinct kicked in. He turned toward the net and chipped the ball it into the top left corner from 30 yards out. When another pass appeared a few minutes later, he did it again. While his strike partner Ola Kamara finished a few practice crosses with workmanlike efficiency, Ibrahimovic took knee-high volleys, zipping balls deep into the stands as frequently as he sent them into the net, each prompting a cheer or a groan from the supporters, depending on the result.

Ibrahimovic played just five games in his final injury-marred season in Europe last year with Manchester United, but he has rebounded, notching 22 goals and 10 assists in 27 games with Los Angeles. To announce his signing, the Galaxy took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times. Whereas stars abroad use elaborate videos to reveal their new allegiances, Ibrahimovic used just five words to declare he’d changed continents.

“Dear Los Angeles,” it read. “You’re welcome.”

And when LeBron James proclaimed his intentions to join the Lakers earlier this summer, Ibrahimovic responded as only he could.

“Now LA has a God and a King!” he tweeted. “Zlatan welcomes @KingJames.”

Even now, at 37, there’s something different about him compared with everyone else on the field. It’s not just his towering stature (at 6-foot-5, he’s the tallest outfielder on the roster), but the way he moves about the pitch. He’s rarely dispossessed, and he wins almost every ball in the air. When he’s trapped, he weaves through double-teams. When he collects crosses, he’s in no danger of losing the ball, often bullying opponents with his size before toying with them with his finesse.

There are moments when Ibrahimovic shows his age, and others when he looks flawless, often in rapid succession. Against Minnesota, one of his first touches came just after the opening whistle, on a run up the right flank. Only, the chance was wasted when he ripped a ball across the pitch to nowhere in particular, effectively killing a counterattack. But two minutes later, he redeemed himself, orchestrating a give-and-go with Romain Alessandrini, who put the Galaxy up 1-0.

Sitting on 499 career goals for weeks and down 3-0 on the road against Toronto in September, he unveiled another masterpiece. A ball came in from near the midfield stripe, and, facing his own net, he spun clockwise, lifting his leg up and across his body to meet the ball near his face and roundhouse it past a stunned keeper. In a career defined by jaw-dropping tallies, this was among his best.

“I was just trying to hit the goal and it went in,” Zlatan told reporters after the game. “I am happy for Toronto because they will be remembered as my 500th victim.”

Part of his charm has always been that he’s in on this bit. The character of Zlatan the Mighty wasn’t foisted upon him. With each Instagram post and interview he created it and lived it, never with an explicit wink, but always with an implied one. Zlatan is a character manufactured by years of success and fame. But if people stop to sing his praises each time he takes a touch, or rips a volley, or stares skyward at the heavens after making a mistake, then who cares whether it’s all an act?

The story goes that players have always seemed to come to Los Angeles to retire. The franchise is one of the most successful in MLS history, in large part because it created the league’s stereotype of being the place where historic careers come to a close.

First there was David Beckham, whose lengthy retirement tour was the biggest stateside British invasion since the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then there was Irish international Robbie Keane. He was followed by Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and Arsenal and Chelsea stalwart Ashley Cole. Ibrahimovic’s tenure hasn’t been received with the same fanfare as Beckham’s, but he’s still far and away the most popular player on any field he steps on.

His arrival to MLS was explosive. Trailing 3-1 in the 71st minute to their new crosstown rivals, LAFC, the Galaxy brought on their big-ticket signing. Six minutes later, L.A.’s deficit now down to just one goal, Zlatan announced himself to the Southern California crowd with one of the most incredible goals you will ever see—no matter what size the stadium or what level the league.

Then, with time winding down and the teams even 3-3, Ibrahimovic caught the end of an Ashley Cole cross with his noggin. Goal, Zlatan. Game, Galaxy. “[The fans] were shouting ‘We want Zlatan.’ I gave them Zlatan,” he said after the game.

Before he joined the squad, his teammates had heard the stories of his demeanor on and off the pitch. Tales of how he bullied his way into home ownership, or called Pep Guardiola a “spineless coward,” or refused a trial at Arsenal because his ego forbade him from auditioning for a place on the team. To the rest of the Galaxy, his debut was, incredibly, a confirmation of those beliefs.

“He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” Galaxy teammate Perry Kitchen said. “I see the interviews, the stories, just what he says, how he acts … it’s just his personality. ... But he’s a good guy to have around. He’s a good guy, a quality guy, a guy you want to play with.”

Even with Ibrahimovic, the team struggled. With six games left in the season, head coach Sigi Schmid abruptly stepped down. No number of wonder goals could save the Galaxy from a disastrous season. The team took 38 points in the 27 games Zlatan saw the pitch. And when the final whistle blew Sunday, they sat on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Forty-eight points in hand, and nothing to show for it. When I spoke to Schmid in August, he said he didn’t know what to expect when Ibrahimovic’s transfer was announced.

“He’s demanding. He wants to win. On the same token, that makes people around him to be equally demanding,” Schmid said. “But he’s also not the kind of guy—he doesn’t carry things from on the field into the locker room. It’s like hey, that’s that, and this is this.”

Ibrahimovic’s current contract will take him to age 39. He’s been coy about whether it will be the last he’ll sign as a professional, and history suggests strikers—even legendary ones—don’t last into their 40s. While his soccer finale may been nearing, he doesn’t want his supporters to look too far ahead.

“I want to play football for as long as I can, because after the injury I had, the answer was that I could not play again,” Ibrahimovic said. “I want to help the people around. I want to help my teammates win. … I’m here for the moment. So all of you should enjoy while I’m here.”

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