When Zlatan talks the world listens; at least that’s what he wants you to believe.
The Swede has been a polarising character throughout his career. His time in Europe saw him collect league titles in four different countries as well as an army of fans that hang on his every word. There were also those that found the character of ‘Zlatan’ to be obnoxious and bombastic, fuelled by self-praise.
The third-person references either raise a smile or a groan, but either way, Ibrahimovic generates discussion. Whether it was Paris, Milan or Manchester, there were cameras ready to hit record and hear what he had to say and that, on top of the undeniable talent, has always made him appealing to clubs
That blend of skill and marketability made him desirable to Major League Soccer. When the 37-year-old moved to MLS to join the LA Galaxy, it seemed a match made in heaven. The club needed a new star name, and his new home, Dignity Health Sports Park, in Carson, California, was a little under 22 miles from Hollywood.
It meant one of the greatest self-promoting athletes of the modern age could schmooze with late night talk-show hosts one minute, and then produce on-field brilliance the next (such as his game-winning brace in the first ever derby match against LAFC).
Zlatan scored 22 goals in 27 games during his debut campaign in MLS. His success was cast alongside a difficult season for the team during which they narrowly missed out on the playoffs. The fragile defence that stifled the team last year was worked on during the off-season, and as a consequence, it has seen the club rise to second in the Western Conference, one point behind rivals LAFC.
Unsurprisingly, Ibrahimovic is once again thriving with eight goals in seven games. He found the net once again at the weekend during a 2-1 win against Real Salt Lake. His goal, a well-taken finish from close range, was, however, the last thing on the minds of those that saw the game.
Instead, fans and pundits alike dissected the Swede’s targeted abuse towards Nedum Onuoha, as he once again divided opinion. It started when Ibrahimovic pulled Onuoha to the ground off the ball in the 60th minute — for which he received a yellow card. His rage then manifested in verbal abuse and continued right up until the final whistle. He later attempted to enter RSL’s locker room where things again became heated between himself and Onuoha.
“He came in to apologise after the game because from 60 minutes in, he’s saying to me he’s going to do me, he’s going to hurt me for that game,” Onuoha told reporters. “And this is the guy who’s the face of MLS, as he calls himself, but this is the way he plays on the field. So I don’t care. Someone comes in and tries to do that to me – you don’t say that on the field. I don’t care. I’m not going to accept his apology. It’s unacceptable.”
Zlatan has not attempted to dilute his persona in America. He announced his arrival at the Galaxy with a full-page ad in the LA Times that read, ‘Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome.’ He told Jimmy Kimmel that while he was not a typical Swede, he put the country on the map. He also shared a touching moment with a nervous ball boy recently which did not go unnoticed. He has claimed in the past that his “arrogance” is a defence mechanism, but it was difficult to defend his latest actions.
The incident split people into two camps; those that saw it as a byproduct of competitive sports, and those who felt Ibrahimovic crossed a line.
The league does enforce a very public campaign of that same name. The ‘Don’t Cross the Line’ campaign, in its own words, claims it is ‘providing an environment in which staff, club, players, partners, and supporters are treated with dignity and respect.’
That aim is at odds with a star player harassing an opponent. This was not a heat of the moment exchange. It was one man repeatedly berating an opponent, seemingly without provocation. He also seemed low on remorse when discussing things after the game.
“I like to feel alive,” Ibrahimovic said. “I like when it becomes duels and that, because sometimes – not that I fall asleep, but I don’t feel alive if they don’t actually activate me. When I get angry, I feel good.”
MLS opted not to sanction the player after the game; another instance in which the 37-year-old divided opinion.
Moreover, although many see it as acceptable, the league must show consistency. Zlatan brings a lot to MLS. His talent and talk can be entertaining, but their presence in the league must not come at the cost of enforcing the rules. All players that cross the white line are to be considered and treat equal, despite what they may think themselves.