If you believe in God, you believe in Zlatan: Behind Ibrahimovic's debut season in MLS
The LA Galaxy have an important tradition. When a new player joins the club, he must run through a gauntlet of his teammates, then tell a joke. To wear the Major League Soccer team's storied white, navy blue and gold uniforms, a player has to partake in the ritual. There are no exceptions.
Not even for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Soon after signing in March, the international superstar took his turn. Ibrahimovic, the scorer of hundreds of goals and winner of trophies everywhere he's gone, began with a simple question. He asked his new mates if they believed in God. Most of them raised their hands. He paused a beat before smiling and saying, "Then you believe in me."
The collected Galaxy burst out laughing. Zlatan had arrived in MLS.
"That broke the ice right away and put us all at ease," Galaxy midfielder Baggio Husidic said. "You see that he's a normal person."
Normal, perhaps. But also massively talented with an outsized personality and bravado to match. Ibrahimovic finished the season with a remarkable 22 goals and 10 assists in 26 games, while producing a handful of jaw-dropping, Twitter-breaking moments. The team's up-and-down year ultimately ended in failure, but Zlatan is Zlatan, and there's always a story to tell. This is that tale.
'I WILL EAT THE LION'
Before there was a God in Los Angeles, there was a lion in Manchester. After the team completed the superstar's signing, some of the Galaxy staffers flew to Manchester to shoot a short announcement video that would feature their new player alongside the king of beasts. Ibrahimovic arrived at the suburban studio by himself, driving a Volvo and wearing sweats. As he was walking into the building, a school child wandered by, did a double take and asked if he could take a photo with the global icon. In classic fashion, Ibrahimovic responded, "Boy, come," then mugged for the camera.
Moments later on set, Galaxy technical director Jovan Kirovski asked if Zlatan was afraid that the lion was going to eat him. Again, Ibrahimovic didn't miss a beat: "I will eat the lion." The shoot went off without incident, and the resulting video earned more than 2 million plays on Twitter.
The Galaxy, however, didn't sign Ibrahimovic simply to pump up their social media accounts; they signed him to score goals. The team, coming off their worst season in history, needed a spark. He provided it less than 48 hours after getting off the plane from Europe. Ibrahimovic had a single training session with his new squad under his belt when he entered a match against LAFC in the 71st minute, the Galaxy down 3-1 to their uptown rivals. Six minutes later: magic. The attacker ran onto a bouncing ball and hit a one-time half volley from 40 yards that cleared LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller and flew into the back of the net.
Brendan Hannan, the Galaxy's vice president of marketing, communications and digital, was on the field, standing behind his team's bench. He had a perfect view of the audacious effort.
"You saw the ball bounce, and saw him glance at goal, and it was like, 'Holy s---, I think this guy is going to take this,'" he said. "When he did, there was a collective understanding and silence throughout the whole stadium. When he hit it, you knew it was going in, no ifs ands or buts about it."
"Since an MLS Cup, I haven't felt that much energy," Andrew Alesana, a capo for Galaxy supporter group the Riot Squad, said of the goal. "It was different in the stands." On Twitter, the flurry of conversation outpaced Tiger Woods' victory at the Tour Championship and the NCAA Final Four. Ibrahimovic didn't stop there, scoring the game-winner in stoppage time.
A week later, the Galaxy played a match against Sporting Kansas City. Ibrahimovic wasn't fully fit, so he started on the bench. Still, the gravitational force in Los Angeles revolved around the seated star.
"The entire game we were just waiting for him to come on the field," SKC defender Matt Besler said. "The fans were chanting his name. As a player, you're looking around like, 'All right, when is this dude going to come in?'"
When Ibrahimovic finally did, with just under half an hour remaining, he immediately altered the composition of the game. Besler compared playing against Ibrahimovic to playing against Cristiano Ronaldo.
"It's incredible to experience when you're on the field with a player like that," he said. "You can feel the attention that's on a player with everybody in the stadium watching what he is going to do next. Those 30 minutes felt like 60."
Ibrahimovic's teammates saw that enormous presence and ability day in, day out. They also saw his desire to win, the drive that transformed a boy from the wrong side of the tracks in a small town in Sweden into one of the most talented players of his generation. Off the field, Ibrahimovic was approachable, fun, always quick with a joke or a smile. On it, however, he'd yell and scream and will his teammates to be better, to improve, to try harder.
"At times, you're like, 'This guy is so hard at me in training.' You want to hate him," Husidic said. "But then training is over and he's the complete opposite person. He's joking around, shooting the s---. He's a normal person. I've never seen anything like it. Nothing on the field carries over."
When Husidic made a mistake in training ("every day"), Ibrahimovic would swear at him in Bosnian -- the two sharing a cultural history and a language -- then the pair would laugh about it in the locker room. "In the tunnel, he's great," the midfielder said. "But when the whistle blows, be ready."
'THERE'S ONLY ONE ZLATAN'
Sean Bell tried to be ready. As the Galaxy's head of merchandise, he was the man responsible for ensuring fans at StubHub Center had jerseys to buy. He's a guy used to working big events. His first day at his previous job as a Staples Center manager was the night Kobe Bryant dropped 81 points. Bell later sold jerseys during the retirement ceremony for the Los Angeles Lakers star and when David Beckham played for the Galaxy in 2011. Ibrahimovic, however, was different.
"The most special thing about Zlatan is that his fans wanted the authentic jersey only. That was it," he said. "Beckham's fanbase would get kids' shirts and women's shirts. With Zlatan it's the authentic jersey only. Everything else is like subpar. People will walk away without buying anything."
When Bell learned that Ibrahimovic would be joining the Galaxy, he went into rapid prep mode, essentially asking MLS uniform supplier Adidas for any and all blank Galaxy gear he and his team could turn into Ibrahimovic jerseys. He thought they'd have enough to make it through at least seven or eight home games before they needed a refresh. The supply lasted just four, with sales eight to 10 times stronger than the typical Galaxy gear. While Adidas sent more merchandise in July, Bell's sales staff blew through that, too. An Ibrahimovic uniform was a hot fashion trend in L.A. and beyond, topping the MLS jersey sales list.
On the field, however, the club struggled for consistent results. A six-game winless streak in August and September included lopsided defeats at Seattle (5-0) and Real Salt Lake (6-2) and cost head coach Sigi Schmid his job. Ibrahimovic brought a refreshing, and welcome, honesty to his appraisal of the situation.
"This is football. I've been through it before, and it will happen again," he told the L.A. Times about the decision. "When things don't go well and the results are not there, it's always the coach that takes that responsibility. This time it was Sigi." Of new coach, assistant Dominic Kinnear, Ibrahimovic added, "He's the one who does the tactics and goes through the opponents. He has been a head coach before, so I think everybody respects him."
Having a team's biggest star criticize its coach isn't the best look, but Galaxy brass were okay with it. "He's always been respectful of the club, so I can't argue with it," team president Chris Klein said. "We support him and what he has said. Sometimes it was the way that we were feeling as well."
Five days after Schmid's firing, Ibrahimovic scored his 500th career goal, a ridiculous spinning kick as only he could.
While the world watched in awe of Ibrahimovic's goal-scoring ability, his teammates saw something else: his passing. In training, he'd drift to the wing and then whip no-look balls across the field where they'd land at the feet of an onrushing teammate. At first, the Galaxy players thought he was getting lucky, but he demonstrated the ability so often and with such consistency that they came to realize that he simply saw the field in a different way. He was two or three plays ahead. Occasionally, this advanced vision would become frustrating.
"At training, he'll get pissed off, go play centre-back and just start pinging balls from deep because someone else wasn't good enough," Husidic said. "It's pretty funny." Then, of course, they'd laugh about it afterward in the locker room.
Off the field, Ibrahimovic invested in the Los Angeles experience. He appeared on late-night shows, eating marshmallows with James Corden and hanging with Jimmy Kimmel. He joined Pardon the Interruption for Five Good Minutes and met with the Wild Boars, the Thai junior soccer team who were trapped in a cave and rescued. He bantered with the supporters club, jokingly complaining, "You guys are going to make me an alcoholic" when they gave him the traditional growler of beer after another man-of-the-match performance, according to Alesana, the Riot Squad capo.
The fans showed up, too. The Galaxy were appointment viewing everywhere they went. All 15 away games brought sold-out crowds: 30,799 watched in Toronto; 44,213 in Seattle; and a record 52,242 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Minnesota United defender Brent Kallman had never played in front of nearly that many fans. "It was just a little bit amplified, going from 24,000 like we usually have to over 50,000. It was a little bit louder, a little bit more electric," he said.
Ibrahimovic's unique combination of size, strength and technique required a new challenge for centre-backs.
"Every time I got into an aerial challenge with him in the second half, I didn't really have a chance," Kallman said. "In the first half, I felt like I was getting the better of him early on. I'm not really sure what adjustment he made, but when the second half started, every single ball that went long he was able to either bring down off his chest, because he can hold you and create space for himself, or he just won the flick on every single time.
"His timing and his strength were something that I've never really dealt with before."
Sporting Kansas City had some success against Ibrahimovic, holding him to no goals in two matches, but it took constant focus and a collective team effort.
"Oof, it's almost a no-win situation," Besler said. "If you try and match him physically, I don't know if it's worth it. I think you're better off just letting him get to the ball first. Giving him room on goal kicks and longer balls. If you try and body up with him, I don't know if there's anybody in the league who's going to win that matchup. Maybe you are better off giving him a cushion and playing off his first touch."
Ibrahimovic finished the season with nearly a goal a game, winning Newcomer of the Year as well as Goal of the Year for his strike against LAFC. Despite all the individual success, the Galaxy fell short of the playoffs. On Decision Day, the team watched a 2-0 halftime lead against the Houston Dynamo transform into a 3-2 defeat, and they finished seventh in the Western Conference, one point behind Real Salt Lake for the final playoff place.
After the match, Ibrahimovic walked off the grass at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. His shoulders were hunched, his body language dejected. Around him, his exhausted teammates slumped on the field, exasperated. It was the first home loss for the Galaxy since May 30, and the most painful.
For Klein, the benefit of having Ibrahimovic extends beyond the season.
"He's a demanding guy," the president said. "You see the work that he puts in and the production that he has, and it lifts everyone. To engage with that, a young player maybe from this country, it motivates them and maybe lifts their level as well."
The question is whether he'll stay. While he's on the Galaxy's books through the end of the 2019 season, some of the biggest teams in Europe have expressed interest in retaining the lion's services. The Galaxy front office is in the midst of an upheaval, with vice president of soccer operations Pete Vagenas departing and more expected. There's a rumor that current Mexico director of national teams, Dennis te Kloese, will join as head of soccer operations.
The Galaxy will face issues retaining all their designated players and keeping Ibrahimovic happy. But even if he never plays another minute in MLS, the magical 2018 season was one to remember.
Perhaps Minnesota's Kallman put it best: "There's only one Zlatan."