Zlatan Ibrahimovic: How a Cartoon Villain Turned into Captain America

Love him or hate him, Zlatan is never going to stop showing off how great Zlatan is. If you're wondering how to make yourself look immortal, look to the MLS. Part of the B/R POWER 50 Boss Up list.
photo of Hanif AbdurraqibHanif Abdurraqib@NifMuhammadContributor IJuly 23, 2018

The delightful absurdity of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is best captured in the memory of a game from the fall of 2012. Zlatan's Sweden team was playing against England in a friendly. After he scored once early in the match, England took a 2-1 lead into the 76th minute. From there, it was all Zlatan, and no one else. He scored in the 77th to tie the game, and then again in the 84th to give Sweden the lead.

This alone would be enough to cement the day as one of the greatest of Zlatan's career. But with stoppage time draining away, he saw another opportunity to add some flair to the occasion. England goalkeeper Joe Hart darted out of his area and cleared the ball about 30 yards out with a clumsy header. Zlatan casually tracked the ball with his eyes and, from distance, executed a perfect bicycle kick to guide the ball on a long path to the corner of the net before a rapidly retreating Hart could get to it.

This defines the ability and presence of Zlatan: He sees a huge moment and dares to stretch it out beyond what might seem reasonable. Yes, he is massive—towering over most defenders at 6'5". But he is also brash to the point of being comical, like how he refers to himself in the third person, almost like a cartoon villain.

Zlatan embodies what is both loathed and loved in an athlete: someone who knows they're good and is unafraid to attempt the impossible in the name of repeatedly showing the world how good they are. Greatness is best served when an audience continually makes a player earn the right to call themselves great. Zlatan has given himself over to the excitable imagination of the sports fan, and in exchange, he has provided a constellation of sparkling moments, ones that seamlessly blend Zlatan the player with Zlatan the human being, like when he scored a goal in 2015 and stripped off his shirt to unveil a removable tattoo which included the names of 50 people suffering from famine around the world, or when he went to the Swedish Patent and Registration office in 2003 to trademark his own name.

It is fitting that Zlatan is having his swan song in Los Angeles, in MLS with the L.A. Galaxy. His career will likely end here—he turns 37 in October—but his new home seems suited to accommodate the legend he's built for himself. Los Angeles is a city with a deep enough mythology to hold an icon of Zlatan's stature.

He hasn't always looked comfortable in MLS, but perhaps here is all that matters: In his first game with L.A., Zlatan trotted on the pitch in the 70th minute with his team down 3-1 to LAFC. By the 76th minute, the Galaxy were down 3-2, when Zlatan took a bouncing ball from about 35 yards out and rocketed a curving missile past the goalkeeper. In the waning moments of stoppage time with the game tied at 3, Zlatan saw a cross coming into the box, raised his tall frame above three defenders and headed the ball into the net, giving the Galaxy their winning goal.

Greatness is many things, but part of it is the ability to look at the time you have left and imagine what magic you can create—magic that, possibly, could slow that time down for anyone watching. To look for new ways to make yourself immortal, every time out. Zlatan has done that at every level imaginable. How I'll miss him when he's no longer sprinting free after goals, shirt off, arms extended, carried by the waves of adoration.


Hanif Abdurraqib, a contributor to B/R Mag, is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. His essays and criticism have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, the New Yorker and the New York Times. He is the author of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us and a forthcoming biography of A Tribe Called Quest. He last wrote for Bleacher Report about Mo Salah. Follow him on Twitter: @NifMuhammad.  

Check out more ballers on the B/R POWER 50 Boss Up list:

1. Jimmy Garoppolo 
2. Becky Hammon
3. Virgil Abloh
4. Supreme
5. Martellus Bennett
6. Sean Wotherspoon
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
8. Chiney Ogwumike
9. Filayyyy
10. LaVar Ball

Explore the B/R POWER 50, a list of the most influential people in sports culture right now >>