Zlatan has something to tell you: 'I don't need to dream. I am the dream.'
LOS ANGELES -- Early June, morning. Zlatan has just finished wind-sprinting, vomiting and showering (in that order). The hurling -- it's standard. "I need to suffer today," he tells the LA Galaxy's physical trainer upon arriving at the team's facility. Which the trainer took to mean: again.
"I need to work," Zlatan explains. "When I suffer, I feel good." It's a theatrical and self-regarding thing to say. He clearly knows it, and knows that I know it, too. Which is why, being Zlatan, he then issues a pirate's grin and doubles down. "You just missed it! Five minutes ago, I could not breathe, I was throwing up so hard. You see? This is the way I work: very hard. I always say, 'Let's drag out the maximum from my body.'"
It's working -- and how. Thirty-seven years old, this guy! To behold Zlatan is to pose a series of rhetorical questions. Do you know how old that is for a professional athlete of any stripe? But especially for a soccer player and for a center forward at that? By all rights, Zlatan ought to be a past-tense figure by now, remembered for being the John McEnroe of soccer: touched, insolent, dazzling, infuriating, balletic, mouthy, inventive, clownish, immortal. He blew out his right knee playing for Manchester United in the spring of 2017, for crying out loud. Should have been game over, right?
But you know Zlatan. And you know what came next. If you don't on either count, first: You've been off planet. Second: The surname is Ibrahimovic; he's known in the soccer world as "Ibra" or, simply, Zlatan.
Also, a reminder: On March 29, 2018, Zlatan and his English bulldog flew from his home country of Sweden to California. On the 30th, after being introduced to his new LA Galaxy coaches and teammates and practicing for 20 minutes, he submitted to an examination by a team doctor, who strapped him to a machine, scanned the readout and told him what he already knew. "You're very tired. You shouldn't play tomorrow." On the 31st, in the first-ever El Trafico game against LAFC, Ibra sat on the bench while the home crowd chanted his name. Thunderously. Ceaselessly. Until coach Sigi Schmid couldn't take it anymore and, 26 minutes into the second half, sent his new No. 9 onto the pitch. Six minutes later, LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller cleared the ball about 70 meters, from the right side of his box. A Galaxy defender headed the ball back over the center circle in a slow, bloopy arc. It took one high bounce, then anoth... no, actually, it didn't.
Before we go any further, you need to know that what happened next was, is, uniquely Zlatan. Now, in statistical and analytical terms, he's probably the third-greatest player of this era after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. All three are not only great finishers but great creators who elevate the play of their teammates. Messi's genius is low to the ground, squirrelly, a quick accretion of darts and scurries dictated by his bat-gene echolocation. Ronaldo's genius is all about aerial beauty -- that perfectly balanced matador's chassis of his -- and his dribbling and, once upon a time, blinding pace. Zlatan's is a pirate's genius, full of drunken daring and sword-through-the-Gordian-knot solutions. He possesses an inventiveness, a gleeful and childlike (haters would say childish) willingness to envision superheroic possibilities for himself that is unique in this era, and maybe in the history of the game. Goals that can be described as artful and transcendent, yes, but also as silly, preposterous, wacky, arrogant, jejune and just straight-up stupid.
Know this, then, about that El Trafico ball that didn't take a second bounce because it can be said of countless goals Zlatan has scored since his professional debut with Malmo in 1999: Ninety-nine out of 100 wouldn't have dared it. Wouldn't even have thought it. They'd have let that ball settle, controlled it and looked for options. But Ibra took the ball at chest level and volleyed a 41-freaking-meter line drive over Miller's head and into the back of the net. Six minutes in. Virtually his first touch as a Major League Soccer player after being sidelined for nearly a year.
With that one touch, along with a stoppage-time header that helped the Galaxy overcome a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3, Ibra instantly became what he remains today, on the eve of another El Trafico: one of the greatest players in MLS history. And to be clear, we're not talking "greatest" in the Pele-NASL sense -- as in a football deity who was great a long, long time ago on a pitch far, far away in Europe or South America, then came to America to capitalize on his name recognition. Zlatan's is a present-tense "greatest."
"From the moment he arrived, his goal ratio has been ridiculous, nearly one-a-game. And these volleys and bicycles where this 6-foot-5 giant is flipping himself all over the place with the power and control of a 5-foot-5 gymnast? At the age of 37!" says the Galaxy's technical director, Jovan Kirovski, who played professionally in Europe for more than a decade. "It's getting to a place where I'm saying, and I know the coaches are saying, 'Stay high and score goals -- don't worry about chasing!' But he keeps delivering."
"I don't come here because of what I did before," Zlatan says. "I come here to demonstrate who I am. I come here to provide."
Provide? An interesting word choice. Not wrong, but not exactly right, either. The first time he uses it, I chalk up its use to the fact that Zlatan's English is very good but not great -- not yet attuned to idiom. But as he continues, not only to use it but to stress it, it becomes clear that he's fully aware of all the extra-soccer connotations the word carries. In fact, that's his point: He wants you to know that he's come to Los Angeles not to score goals, but to give and provide them.
"I believe I see things before it happens," he says.
"There are many things about you that don't make sense," I reply, nonresponsively, thinking of how odd it is for a muscle-bound guy to have some of the finest needle-threading foot skills the world has seen.
"Like the goal against England," he continues.
"I was going to ask you about that next!"
"You see? I know the future. Now tell me: How many would do that?" He answers before I can: "Only a crazy man!"
People will forever argue about which goal is the greatest ever scored. But the greatest volley goal -- this is it, right?
November of 2012, playing for the Swedish national squad in a friendly against England, Ibra departed this Earth, scoring one goal, then a second, then a third. And then there was the fourth. England goalkeeper Joe Hart ventured outside his box to clear a long ball with his head. Before he could, though, Ibra, who was chasing, did something spooky. He ... stopped. Because like all transcendent athletes, he'd seen several seconds into the future. His third eye had solved the chaos math in real time. He knew, not only that Hart would head the ball but precisely where. Which is how Zlatan wound up leaping into the air and bicycling a shot without ever eyeing the goal; without letting the ball bounce; and with his back parallel to and at least 4 feet off the ground -- into the goal from 35 meters out. It cleared the crossbar by 1 foot, about two-tenths of a second before a sliding defender could block it.
Perhaps the daftest thing about this goal was that it was not a reflex. Ibra had a lot of time -- full seconds! -- to think it over. The moment is now 7 years old, but Zlatan recalls it in the present tense: "I know he will head the ball. That's the only chance he has. If he lets the ball go down, I will steal it from him. I have two opportunities. Either I go against him and take away, or I wait for where the ball comes. So when he jumps up, I back off. I know where he will try to put it is behind me ... "
To think: Yes, this is in my arsenal, fire away. ... The delusion, the punk-ass hubris of that! This goal, which even England's captain, Steven Gerrard, called "the best I've ever seen," remains the ultimate example of Zlatan's not playing by the rules. Not in the sense that he's cheating or playing dirty, but that he's defying the rules of physics, geometry, human physiology, common sense and good taste -- and constantly getting away with it.
Even so, when Ibra talks of providing, he's talking about something larger and less manifest than "mere" goals.
"[I] Don't come to MLS because I am 'Ibrahimovic,'" Ibrahimovic says. "I come because I want to show you what football is. I come because I want to show U.S. what my game is about."
Grandiose? Given! But Zlatan put his money where his mouth is. "I said to Galaxy, we sign this deal now. If you not happy in one month, we can cancel, and I go." This would seem tall if there weren't a precedent. When he was no longer able to provide after blowing out his knee, Ibrahimovic offered to reimburse Manchester United for the games he missed.
Eventually, it dawns on me that what Zlatan wishes to provide is nothing less than "Zlatan" -- in quotes, fully meta -- and everything that entails. Not just his beautiful game but also his unbeautiful game: his long history of cards and bans for unleashing his ire, fists and feet on opponents and teammates. Only when fans see the whole Zlatan package, the lovely and the ugly, can they comprehend the passion and anger he feels for the game.
The weeks preceding our early June interview had been pure Zlatan. In May, the ugly: He served a two-game suspension for grabbing NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson by the neck. ("Ah! That clown fall down fainting and almost died, and I said, 'Let's call the ambulance because you are dying!' Then he send a picture to MLS showing a scratch on his neck! Listen, I've played 800 games. I've played against animals that almost broke my legs. But what happens in the game stays in the game. In Europe, if he send a picture of a scratch on his neck? They eat him alive.")
And then, on June 2, the beautiful: In a 2-1 upset loss to the New England Revolution, Ibra provided one of the most crazy-stupid-brilliant goals of his career. Late in the game, with his back to the goal, he settled a cross on his chest, flicked it up just so and bicycled the rock -- hard, a missile -- home.
He dissects each of these moments with the same evangelical zeal.
"I gave you the last goal, yes?" he says.
Me? You gave it to me? I think, then remember this is the guy who, upon signing with the Galaxy, took out an ad in the Los Angeles Times that read "Dear Los Angeles, You're Welcome" with a hand-signed "Zlatan" at the bottom.
"Yes," Zlatan says, answering his own question. "That was good."
Zlatan will be the first to tell you that Zlatan has never fit in. That the essence of Zlatan is outsiderness and, with it, a ceaseless and nourishing anger. The son of émigrés, a Bosnian caretaker (dad) and Croatian cleaner (mom), Ibrahimovic was born and raised in Sweden. He was, by his own admission, a gangly, dark-eyed, raven-haired, big-nosed, lisping punk. He fought, he stole (candy, bikes, cars, whatever), he footballed, he didn't get along.
"I've been at this school 33 years," his former headmistress told BBC Sport in 2013, "and Zlatan is easily in the top five of the most unruly pupils we have ever had. He was the No. 1 bad boy, a one-man show, a prototype of the kind of child that ends up in serious trouble."
"School was OK," Zlatan says. "I got free food."
"They made me feel different," he continues. "Soccer in Sweden was only Swedish players with Swedish background. And then I come -- big. Not just big nose, dark hair, brown eyes. But I was playing big style, not typical Swedish."
"What was your playing style, and what was 'wrong' with it?" I ask.
"Swedish way was 'Work hard for each other.' Where I came from, we were all challenging each other, trying to become individual type of player. Who was the best to dribble? Who was the best to shoot? Who was the best to put it on the crossbar? Who was best to put between the legs? Who was strongest? I learn to resolve my own things: Give me the ball, and I will take care of it. I will score the goal. I will make one against one. I will dribble him. I will put between his leg. I will make this crazy goal."
In other words, a purely Darwinian, me-against-the-world ethos.
"We did not think '11 against 11.' It was not that kind of game," he says. "It was more individual competition. Like I show I'm the best. I will make a fool of you now. Pop! Pop! I will dribble you, put it between your legs, then make fun of you. That is what we stood for. It was more physical, and it was technical football. But it was not the Swedish game."
Such a great malapropism there, the notion that little Zlatan would not only dribble between your legs but dribble you, kicking you in whichever direction he pleased.
"It was not 'I run here for you and you pass,'" he says. "No. It was 'I will run where the ball goes because I want the ball.' So they were on me all the time: 'You are a spoiled player. You are a diva. You cannot play like that.'"
Indeed, even after Ibra joined his hometown's professional club at 17, the parents of one of his teammates petitioned to have him booted from the league. "This was the moment I said to myself, 'Now I will destroy everyone. I will not have respect for nobody.'"
"I was not even a talent in their eyes, just a little s--- from Rosengard," he adds.
A question presents itself: Was football fun for the young Zlatan?
"It was competition, always," Zlatan says. "You were No. 1, or you were nobody."
Is it fun now?
"I look at him and ask myself that question all the time," Kirovski says. "Me, I still love it. I play all the time. I'm competitive, I want to win, too. But when I look at this guy, the intensity of his training, of his mindset, I wonder if he's ever having fun out there. And I think that if he doesn't score and win, it's not fun for him."
If you've followed Ibra's long and glorious career, his triumphant march from Malmo to Ajax to Juventus to Inter Milan to Barcelona (the only place things didn't work out, thanks to seismic clashes with manager Pep Guardiola) to AC Milan to Paris St-Germain to Manchester United, it's hard not to suspect that, as flamboyant and funny as he is off the field, he doesn't experience fun on the field. When he scores one of his crazy goals, there is joy, yes, but it's a joy born of grim, gladiatorial satisfaction. There. I've showed you. Now do you believe?
You can see this. Watch any of Zlatan's-greatest-goals compilations fans have put on the internet. Compare them to those of his generational peers like Messi, Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. The others inevitably seem as amazed by what they've just done as their fans. They're stricken, their joy unabashed and beyond their control; they're like birthday boys caught in the deluge of candy under a shattered piñata. Ibra, he's different. Childlike glee, though present, is secondary. It's interesting that his list of transcendent athletes -- that is, athletes who in his view don't just play their sport but embody it -- includes Mike Tyson. Because the look on Ibra's face after many of his craziest goals uncannily resembles the mask of joyless vindication Tyson used to don after flattening yet another patsy.
It's the darnedest thing because, off the field, Ibra is nothing but playful. At one point, as we're talking about his daily routine, I ask if he dreams about soccer.
"Dream? No, I don't need to dream. When I was young, I was dreaming. Now I'm in the dream. Now I am the dream."
I laugh and nod in a game "Of course you are, Zlatan" way, and he issues a grin, conceding that he has slipped seamlessly from being Zlatan into performing "Zlatan."
Interestingly, these moments where Ibra slips, perhaps unconsciously, between answering my questions in earnest and playing (toying?) with me, are never off-putting. Others around him feel this way, too. "He's always coming out and saying these ... things," says one Galaxy executive. "If these things came out of anybody else's mouth, you'd think 'What a jerk.' But when Ibra says them, it's always charming."
I've interviewed highly intelligent athletes who, like Ibra, have a meta understanding of themselves and use the interview process to test and mock the interviewer. But when Ibra plays with an interviewer, there's a startling absence of malice; there's no sulk in his toying, no insinuation that he's trying to alleviate boredom. To him, the role of "Ibra" is just good, clean fun. I can't help but wonder if he seeks out and capitalizes on this fun because fun is not part of the equation when he's on the field. There, it's all about the anger and vindication. (For opponents, refs and even teammates, yes, but mainly for himself.)
"Do you play well when you're angry?" I ask him.
"YESSSSsssss!" Ibra says, slowly, with more than a few extra S's thrown in to make the sentiment imprint. "That is when I get the best out of myself. That's the way I feel my life."
"Some athletes are eaten alive by anger."
"Not Zlatan," says Zlatan. "I need to be angry because I need to feel alive. When I relax, when I play without anger? It becomes sloppy, and it might appear I get violent." A startling possibility there -- that without anger and the focus it gives him, Zlatan succumbs to petulance and pettiness, which in turn leads to sloppy, violent play and red cards. "When I'm angry, then I'm on my toes."
"Anger creates energy?"
"Yesssss. I see the whole environment when I'm angry. Now, anger to hurt somebody? Never. That's not part of my DNA." (Nedum Onuoha of Real Salt Lake would beg to differ. After Zlatan threw him to the ground during a 2-1 Galaxy victory this spring, Onuoha dubbed him a "complete thug" and then predicted that "it will get spun into a story about how he's really competitive and this is what gets him going, this is why he's one of the best of all time. That's just the way that it works. I'm not the type of person to say that the better MLS players get preferential treatment, but from what I've seen so far, it's a lot easier to be Zlatan than it is to be the striker for Real Salt Lake.")
To Zlatan, 50% of soccer is mental. Mental toughness, that is. Which is something he thinks American soccer players lack. This lack, he believes, is institutional and largely explains why MLS has always stood in the shadow of the international game. Kirovski agrees. "In Europe, if you don't pass me the ball, I can really have a go at you and yell at you, and it's no big deal. Here that kind of thing is taken personally. Our youth players are getting better at handling pressure, but there's still a way to go."
When I asked Zlatan what it will take for MLS to achieve parity with Europe and South America, he responds with a question.
"Do they want to make it?"
"Who is 'they'?"
"They that control it. The owners. Do they want it to be big?"
"Yeah. Of course."
"Because you don't make money in soccer," he tells me. "In Europe, I can pick two clubs that make money. The rest don't; they do it out of passion. Here, with the sports, you make money. That's it. And I think with all the rules you have here, you are not boosting up the soccer."
"The budget things. The salary cap. You cannot bring in players you want. They have more rules here than I have in my home."
He paused for a moment, measuring the thought that came to him, then let it go.
"I will tell you that of all the places I've been in my life as a professional, this is the most difficult."
Zlatan says the American game needs to continue to evolve.
"MLS is not the level of Europe, to be honest. Before, I played with players either on my level or close to it. Which makes the game connect easier. ... Here, I am like a Ferrari among Fiats. And it can happen that the Ferrari can become the Fiat, or the Fiat can become the Ferrari. I had the same issue with the national [Swedish] team, though not as much. I said, 'I don't accept it. I don't accept when the ball doesn't arrive, or arrives too late. I want them to come up to my level.' All of this makes me slow down a bit. The game here [in America] could be so much faster, so much more tactical, so much more rhythmic."
Then there are the regrets. It is striking that, having won everywhere he has gone, and despite his ongoing ability to score, Zlatan was unable to get the Galaxy into the playoffs last year (and that his team is not even the best in its own city). The issue rankles Ibra, not just the failure to get in but also the "playoff mentality" itself.
"Here, you can lose five games and it's still, 'Don't worry, we are in the playoffs.' So why even play first eight months of season? No, I don't accept. To be best, you have to be best every day. You know, in Euro, if you come in last, you go down to Division 2. That is pressure. ... So last year, we fight for six position to go to playoff, but came in seven. If we had made sixth position, people would have said we had a 'good season.' I say, 'Fighting for the sixth position? That means we had s--- season!" We need to fight for No. 1, not 6."
When, inevitably, we talk about his injury, Zlatan was at his sincerest and most unperformative. "It was not easy," he said in a whisper, as if speaking the sentiment aloud might make real the prospect of not being able to play. What would, what will, it do to a man like him, once his anger can no longer find purchase on the pitch?
"It was not easy," he says again.
After a beat, he mentioned that the night before, he'd been watching the NBA Finals. "When Kevin Durant got injured? I turned off the TV. Because for me he is the best. He is the game. Once he was hurt, there was nothing to see."
Or, perhaps, he couldn't bear to see an all-time great, past the 50% point of his career, felled and with a long and painful recovery ahead of him. "I feel my body has always followed what I want. I feel it's answering to me now. When it's starting to not answer, then I will know: It's time."
The passion is what makes him so good at the age of 37, but it will also make the game all but impossible for him to let go of.
"I think it will be very difficult to stop. When I got injured, I went away from my family to do my rehab. I did not want them to see me in a bed paralyzed, not moving. I am so emotional with my game. But emotional with control. You're not gonna see me jump in front of a car because I cannot play football anymore, OK?"
I sit for a moment, thinking about Zlatan and his anger and where in his life he finds fun. Then I remember a story Brendan Hannan, the Galaxy's vice president of marketing, communications and digital, told me. He was talking about how incredibly accessible Ibra has made himself in LA, both to fans who show up at training sessions looking for autographs and pictures and to those employed by the Galaxy in promotions. Shortly after he arrived at the club, Ibra agreed to film a promotion with Mickey Mouse.
"Ibra had just gotten here," Hannan recalls. "He hadn't played in months, and nobody really knew what kind of condition his knee was in. Some people doubted he'd score more than 10 goals" -- so far he has notched 35 goals in 43 appearances -- "and some even doubted if he'd even play."
Which was why the whole Galaxy staff froze when Zlatan began playing with Mickey Mouse and, according to Hannan, "doing crazy stuff." Juggling. Nutmegging the Mick. Striking the ball 30 feet in the air, then assuming a full limbo posture with his legs bent back and his chest facing the sky before trapping the ball there -- no bounce, as if the ball were a rotten grapefruit -- then flexing his chest in order to pop the ball 3 feet up. The coup de grace: bicycle-kicking the thing off into the ether. Zlatan was going full Zlatan. For the love of God, why?
"I just wanted to make Mickey Mouse happy. He was not answering me!" Zlatan protests. "Just blinking. So I kept doing tricks and asking, 'You like that, Mickey?' But I didn't get any answer. Just more blinking. So I'm like, OK, let's try this, and this, and this."
"That's not normal," I said.
"I am not normal," Zlatan agreed. Then, apropos of absolutely nothing and everything, he whispered: "It is a beautiful game, no?"