The Ego Has Landed: What Hollywood Can Expect from Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportMarch 23, 2018

B/R

“Nothing. She already has Zlatan.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic when asked what he was getting his wife for her birthday.


Hollywood is the land of big egos, but it has never seen anything quite like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

When he boarded his flight from Manchester to Los Angeles, he might well have needed extra luggage to carry his confidence.

This is the man with so many tricks, he calls himself Ibracadabra. The man who, when offered a trial at Arsenal as a teenager, told Arsene Wenger that he does not do auditions. The man who made a speedy recovery from a potentially career-ending knee injury last year and then said it was because "lions don't recover like humans."

L.A. Galaxy are not just signing a footballer, they are perhaps signing the greatest showman the sport has ever seen.

Ibrahimovic, 36, spent the past 20 months with Premier League side Manchester United. He joined them at a time when they were falling short of the high expectations placed on them, a time when they needed a leader and belief. He sorted that.

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 20:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the Carabao Cup Quarter-Final match between Bristol City and Manchester United at Ashton Gate on December 20, 2017 in Bristol, En
Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, he has made a habit of being the headline-grabber. More than 400 goals in 19 years across European football made sure of it.

At United he scored 29 goals in 53 appearances. Every one was followed by a celebration with his arms outstretched. The message: "I'm the man."

His confidence is such that it's difficult to know which side of arrogant he sits on. He often speaks of himself in the third person and, at times, appears to believe he is the only man on the pitch who matters. The way he introduced himself to the Los Angeles market was pure Zlatan too.

"I can't help but laugh at how perfect I am," he once said. A joke? No one can be sure.

English journalist Steve Bates has covered the Man United beat for over 30 years for tabloid newspaper the Sunday People and recalls club legend Eric Cantona as the only other man with such aura.

"I have interviewed Zlatan a number of times and he is as charismatic and confident as people say he is, but I do think he has a sense of humour with it all," Bates said. "I don't think he is [arrogant] in the sense of believing all the hype around him.

"I would put him at same level as Cantona when he was at United; people certainly take notice of him. His size helps, though, he is a very intimidating guy!"

Ibrahimovic stands at 6'5", and his imposing physique has certainly been a powerful tool in a career that has seen him play at Malmo, Ajax, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain as well as United. It's a collection of clubs that underlines just how elite a player he is.

During that time he has won two Dutch league titles, four in Italy, one in Spain and four in France. He also collected 19 other cup winner's medals, including the UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and UEFA Europa League. His biggest regret in European football is that he never won the Champions League—perhaps because, without this title, he seems like just another footballer.  

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - MAY 24: Zlatan Ibrahimovi of Manchester United takes a selfie with the trophy during the UEFA Europa League Final between Ajax and Manchester United  at Friends Arena on May 24, 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden.  (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson
Nils Petter Nilsson/Getty Images

In his homeland, people have been very unsure of him throughout his career, despite the fact he is their most famous sportsman of all time.

"There are very mixed feelings about Zlatan in Sweden," explains Expressen newspaper journalist Sebastian Mattsson. "For some he is an icon, but he also has his critics…a lot of them.

"It tends to be a generational thing. Older people do not like him so much, whereas the younger ones love him.  A main issue is that his personality goes against the Swedish ideal, the classic outlook of an athlete. In Sweden they are humble and quiet—like the great tennis player Bjorn Borg. But Zlatan goes against all that."

Ibrahimovic has not played for Sweden's national team since June 2016, but sources told me he could yet return for this summer's World Cup in Russia—if he chooses to do so. That's the power he has.

"We are Zweden," he tweeted when the team qualified for the competition, despite not playing any part in the feat.

It is fair to say that one of his critics is 57-year-old Gunnar Persson, a Swedish football expert who has been writing about the game for almost 40 years.

"Zlatan is not really a natural-born when it comes to humility," he points out.

"For the national team he became too big, too important. The team spirit has been rebuilt since he left, something that the Swedish side always was famous for."

Montag 13.06.2016, Europameisterschaft in Frankreich, Saint-Denis, Irland - Schweden,Montag 13.06.2016, Europameisterschaft in Frankreich, Saint-Denis, Irland - Schweden, 1:1, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE #10) (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

When a player has such self-assurance, he treads a fine line between being a major catalyst for his team or a serious weakness.

Ibrahimovic's international career certainly felt that way. Between 2001-2009 he was held in place by older and more experienced team-mates such as Henrik Larsson, Freddie Ljungberg and Olof Mellberg. The role changed between 2010–2016; he was allowed to run the show.

"In the long run, his team-mates—or, rather, the other players—became wary of him," Persson recalls. "It didn't take them long to realise they were now only a supporting cast to him. The team had no tactics, just the intimidating presence of Zlatan. Every attack should go through him.

"It didn't matter if he was up for the occasion or not. When he was on, maybe it worked. When he wasn't? Absolute disaster."

Ibrahimovic's last tournament, Euro 2016, was not one to remember. The side failed to collect a win in a group alongside Italy, Belgium and Ireland, and Ibrahimovic did not score a goal.

Time will tell whether he returns to the international fold; much will likely depend on how he fares in the coming months of MLS action.

He has only played 187 minutes of football since April. A cruciate knee ligament injury suffered at the back end of last season, during a Europa League match against Anderlecht, led to a spell of rehabilitation that would test his special powers to the limit.

Dave Thompson/Associated Press

There were certainly doubts over whether he would even play again, but when he returned against Newcastle United four months ago, the Swedish icon appeared to be disproving anyone who said the countdown towards retirement had begun.

"I told you, lions don't recover like humans," he said on MUTV. "That I have now proved, rather than just saying it."

Appearances against Basel, Brighton & Hove Albion, Watford and Manchester City followed before he scored in an EFL Cup start against Bristol City. All appeared well, and his soft approach to the comeback had seemingly paid dividends. But it all came to a grinding halt as Ibra was taken off at half-time in United's Premier League match against Burnley on Boxing Day with the team trailing 2-0 at home. He was never seen in a red shirt again.

"I think it was his decision to initially step back," Bates said. "If he is not at his absolute best he feels like he is letting himself down."

He realised his career at Old Trafford was over. Sources at United believe he had only been hanging around in hope the team would win the Champions League. Once they had been knocked out, he pushed ahead with the proposed switch Stateside.

Galaxy have unsuccessfully tried to recruit Ibrahimovic on at least two previous occasions, according to Kevin Baxter of the L.A. Times. Now they seemingly have him—Grant Wahl of SI.com reported he is signing a two-year deal worth $3 million—some sources around the California-based club fear he could actually upset the team ethic they have been trying to build ahead of this new season.

Yes, he will provide highlight-reel moments. Yes, he will bring fans through the gates. And, yes, his presence will add an intriguing factor to a rivalry with new franchise LAFC.

But how will he deal with mundane matches? A lack of atmosphere at StubHub Center? Teammates clearly not fit to lace his boots?

Zlatan is swapping Manchester United for LA Galaxy
Zlatan is swapping Manchester United for LA GalaxyMatthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

Maybe he is rocking up in America for more emotive reasons. Perhaps Hollywood is exactly where Ibrahimovic should be. Maybe this is the ending that suits his story.

"He certainly fits America better than Sweden," Mattsson admitted. "He is larger than life, more an American athlete than a Swedish athlete.

"I'm still not sure why he has chosen America, for football reasons. I don't think he could name 10 MLS players even if you gave him a year to think about it! But there are new marketing opportunities and rumours of a movie at the end of it all."

Bates agrees: "I couldn't think of a more fitting place to end his career."

But there will always be doubts about how this pans out.

Ibrahimovic loves being the centre of attention. He craves recognition both in his sport and in the public eye. He loves the glamor his career has provided. It's unlikely he wants to hide away in LA.

James Robertson works as a journalist, editor and producer in New York but previously worked in London and Los Angeles as a showbiz reporter for British newspaper the Daily Mirror. He is also a keen football fan so has seen all sides of the territory Ibrahimovic is going to contend with.

"For celebrities coming to L.A. who are famous outside of the Hollywood bubble, it hurts," he told me.

"I could have painted the Mona Lisa, but an Instagram model with a picture next to the Mona Lisa will get better treatment and be more loved. It's a fragile place.

"I think [Steven] Gerrard found it boring [when he joined L.A. Galaxy from Liverpool]. He drank with Robbie Keane at an Irish bar and went to Disney World. But that's it. Los Angeles is about Hollywood and entertainment—not soccer.

"Outside of the stadium, Los Angeles is a big place. It can get lonely and it'll be a wake-up call. I went to Hollywood Boulevard the day Gerrard signed for L.A. Galaxy and I showed about 40 people a photo of him. They all thought it was Michael Buble.

"I bet if I did that with Zlatan, they would half know and half not give a f--k. For an ego, it's better left alone."

But this is Zlatan. He doesn't fit into a new environment, the environment fits around him.

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