For those who worship at the alter of the beautiful game, this was a spiritual experience befitting of Easter weekend. The first 60-odd minutes of the inaugural local derby between Major League Soccer’s two LA-based clubs, LA Galaxy and Los Angeles FC (hilariously dubbed Él Trafico) had already delivered the excitement of 5 variously sublime and ridiculous goals, but the LA Galaxy fans were getting impatient. Why? They were waiting for the Second Coming. More than 11 years after David Beckham arrived in the City of Angels as the presumptive messiah of the MLS, the Galaxy faithful at last had another footballing deity in their presence: the indomitable lion himself, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
At the 71st minute, Sigi Schmid, LA Galaxy’s reformist deacon, answered his flock. Zlatan rose from the bench and entered the fray. And less than six minutes later, less than 6 minutes into his first game of competitive football in the US, Ibra performed his first MLS miracle. A headed clearance from a Galaxy defender looped into the general vicinity of the man from Malmo, a good 40 yards from the LA FC goal. Any ordinary footballer would have taken a touch and looked for options. But Zlatan dreams a little bigger, darling. As the ball reached the zenith of its first bounce, he swept his right foot across it to devastating effect. Propelled by divine will, Ibra’s orb arced beautifully towards the goal, over the despairing non-believer between the LA FC posts and into the net. Cue rapture. As the now-shirtless Swede wheeled away in celebration, you almost expected him to ascend into the smoggy atmosphere, an LApotheosis out of the sprawl of fallen idols and false gods.
Less than 6 minutes into his first game in the US, Ibra performed an MLS miracle.
But Ibra was not done yet, as his godly strike had made the score 3-3, and lions do not settle for draws. In injury time, Zlatan rose again, meeting an Ashley Cole cross with a powerful header to give the Galaxy a 4-3 win. Galaxy fans cheered. FC fans wept. And another chapter was set down in the Gospel of Zlatan.
If the above paragraphs tend just a little towards hyperbole, this is in keeping with the narrative of Zlatan. Here is a man who routinely refers to himself in the third person, answers questions in the media as if he is literally a lion, and introduced himself to Man U fans with a faux-Renaissance painting which depicted him as a Jesus-like figure arm-wrestling with United’s red devil. Some people may think that these actions are the product of boundless arrogance and manic egotism, but I think they may be missing the point. In 2012, Ibra moved from Milan to Paris St-Germain, a change which lifted him from a league where he was one of the brightest stars (Serie A) to a league where, at that point in time, he was the centre of the universe (Ligue 1). Ever since then, the sense is, for me at least, that the “Zlatan” persona has been at least somewhat self-aware and tongue-in-cheek.
But neither has this persona yet descended into self-parody or caricature. We have not reached a point which I call Moore is less, in reference to Roger Moore’s later performances as James Bond where he was more suited to ersatz dentures than double entendres. Because, even in his late 30’s, Zlatan can still Zlatan. He left PSG as their all-time leading goal-scorer. He almost single-footedly qualified Sweden for Euro 2016. Before succumbing to a horrible knee injury, his goals for United had brought them a League Cup and fast track to the Europa League final. And now the goal that stopped Él Trafico.
And football needs characters like Zlatan. The best players in the world at the moment can often come across as po-faced graduates of relentless media training or archetypal millenial me-me-millionaires. Of the other players occupying his level of stardom, Zlatan is by far the most fun. Ronaldo is uber-polished, uber-serious and uber-vain. Messi used to be the ultimate clean-skin (figuratively and literally) but then came about a thousand tattoos, a platinum blonde haircut and rumours that he can be a bit of a Napoleon in the Barcelona dressing-room. And Neymar is the Bieber of football, for better or for worse. So although Zlatan’s proclamations may be meticulously planned by his PR team, they still hark back to the sheer personality of a Cantona press conference or a George Best press clipping.
It remains to be seen whether Zlatan can perform more miracles with the Galaxy, and it can often happen that a veteran superstar enters a non-European league with a bang and departs with a whimper (or a dodgy hammy). Tim Cahill made his bow in the A-League with a similarly spectacular half-volley, but is now back at Millwall in the Championship after a difficult second season with injury and selection issues. But I think it’s just as likely, given the sheer gravity of the man, that in 15 years time, there will be a statute of Ibra looking down in munificence from the Hollywood Hills: Zlatan the Redeemer, of lost souls and incredible goals. Amen to that.