The Zlatan hype machine lands in Los Angeles

April 5, 2018
Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Los Angeles Galaxy on March 31, 2018 in Carson, California. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

Whoever said print is dead forgot to tell Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Announcing his arrival at Major League Soccer franchise Los Angeles Galaxy in late March, the iconic, brooding superstar took out a full-page ad in the LA Times. It said, on a plain background, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome.”

The ad burnished Zlatan’s legend, built over an itinerant, nearly 20-year career that’s taken him from his native Sweden to LA via the European soccer capitals of Milan, Manchester, Paris, and Barcelona. He has attracted intense media interest everywhere he’s played, for his consistently quotable arrogance as much as his gravity-defying, on-field exploits. In 2013, he told a reporter he was God. When another journalist asked him what he was getting his wife for her birthday, he replied, “Nothing. She already has Zlatan.”

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Zlatan is a prodigious hype artist. He’s shrewd about monetizing his ego (exhibit A: his showy “Dare to Zlatan” campaign for Nike), and is doubtless courting US media attention to expand his brand into the North American market. But MLS is a brand, too—one which has struggled to break into mainstream sports media, and has largely been scorned by a niche, cult soccer press that favors better-established leagues in Europe and Latin America. It’s early to say whether Zlatan can mainstream MLS coverage in the long term—he’s a prickly character who’s hardly in the prime of his career. But so far, soccer journalists say, he’s sparked water-cooler conversations among diehards and neophytes alike.

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Since his ad landed on page D10 of the LA Times on March 23, Zlatan has been featured on A1—a rare placement for a soccer story, according to Times sports writer Kevin Baxter. In another break with precedent, the paper will send reporters to cover Zlatan’s first road game, in Chicago in mid-April. And Baxter is sharing his home turf with journalists who’ve flocked from across the world to see the ego in action. “There were well over 200 journalists at his first press conference, it was held in three different languages,” Baxter tells CJR. “The number of people in the press box at his first game Saturday was bigger than anything I’ve seen.”

That first game—which pitted Galaxy against the newly formed neighbor franchise, Los Angeles FC—further inflated the Zlatan media bubble. He started as a substitute, entering the fray with 20 minutes to play and his team down 3-1. After a teammate scored to make it 3-2, Zlatan took centerstage. He tied the game with a jaw-dropping long-distance volley, then won it with a header in time added on. “The fans were shouting ‘We want Zlatan,’” he told journalists after the game. “I gave them Zlatan.”

The prospect of Zlatan’s debut—in an inaugural Angeleno derby jokingly dubbed “El Trafico” by fans—prompted Fox to put the game on its main network, rather than just its sports channel. Zlatan’s subsequent star turn ensured rare prominence for MLS on cable review shows, too, and drove traffic from round the world to US sports sites.

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Guardian US Sports Editor Tom Lutz hailed Zlatan as the “man who needs no encouragement to make headlines” in his post-game report, and sees his presence in MLS as a boon for US soccer coverage generally—especially since the national men’s team failed to qualify for the upcoming World Cup in Russia. “The World Cup is a big blow. But in terms of MLS, that goal, and Zlatan’s arrival, I haven’t seen anything like that,” Lutz says. “More people are reading [our Zlatan stories] than any coverage we ever got for an MLS Cup final.”

If that boon is to endure, Zlatan will need to bring sporting credibility to the league, as well as publicity. “The goal he scored passed the smell test for two incredibly important constituencies for MLS. The first constituency is European football fans—hardcore connoisseurs who watch football week in, week out. [The goal] was superlative; the aesthetics of it were so breathtaking, so astonishing,” says Roger Bennett, one half of the popular soccer podcast Men in Blazers. “It also passed the smell test for the American ball sports fan who doesn’t watch soccer. When that goal is on [ESPN’s] SportsCenter you watch it and you’re blown away—just as you are by a Stephen Curry long-ranger from way, way, way downtown.”

Although accomplished European stars like Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, and David Villa have joined MLS teams in recent years, those who cover the league say only David Beckham’s signing—also with LA Galaxy, in 2007—compared with Zlatan’s in terms of attention. The hype around Beckham faded, at least in sports journalism circles. Beckham’s form was indifferent, and some soccer journalists say he was more focused on putting himself and his wife—the designer, model, and singer Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham—on the Hollywood A-list, and thus the pages of glamour and gossip mags. “At Beckham’s introductory press conference, his first game, Tom Cruise came out, Hollywood celebrities came out,” says Baxter. “You don’t see that with Zlatan.”

Zlatan is a different beast, capable of combining an outsized public persona with a genuine athletic hunger, observers say. “It’s definitely him, definitely a reflection of who he is,” says Bennett. “Only the Queen, Hitler, and Rickey Henderson refer to themselves in the third-person as much as Zlatan.” But some journalists worry his egotism will wear thin with American sports media consumers, unless he continues to back it up on the pitch. “People like entertainers, big presences,” says Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl. “But if you do that stuff and don’t back it up that is a recipe for problems.”

It’s not easy to ask Zlatan substantive questions, despite serious issues with his career. He is still recovering from a serious leg injury, casting real doubt that he’s fit enough to finish a whole season. While rumors abound that he’ll return to the Sweden national team (having previously retired from it) for this year’s World Cup, some journalists think his presence in Russia might hinder, not help, Sweden’s chances. In any case, his ties to a gambling company might breach world soccer rules, precluding his involvement.

“Only the Queen, Hitler, and Rickey Henderson refer to themselves in the third-person as much as Zlatan.”

Zlatan often lashes out at reporters who press him. In 2012, he allegedly swore—and flicked a hairband—at an Italian TV journalist. In 2015, he engaged in a protracted spat with French media, at one point walking teammates past assembled journalists with the barked instruction, “Follow me. Nobody talks….Zlatan is the boss.” Later that year, he responded to a Swedish reporter’s questions about his business interests saying, “I get an extra kick out of it if it hurts you. That’s the best feeling.” And he recently accused Swedish media of “racist” treatment due to his Eastern European roots (“I’m not [called] ‘Andersson’ or ‘Svensson.’ If I were, they would defend me, even if I were to rob a bank”).

Baxter thinks US-style sports coverage will assuage some of Zlatan’s mistrust of journalists—sticking largely to sports, and “letting Zlatan be Zlatan” in his private life. That doesn’t mean good coverage will be light, but rather that it’ll have fun with Zlatan’s ridiculous persona, as well as questioning it when necessary. “As journalists we think we should hold this guy to account, investigate him, peel back the outer layer,” says George Quraishi, editor of soccer magazine Howler. “But there is a sense of fun we lose if we don’t allow ourselves to indulge a little bit in what he brings.”

At the very least, his spectacular arrival in LA has planted the Zlatan myth firmly in the consciousness of US sports journalism, whatever he does next. “He’s grabbed the American sporting audience by the throat, and it can only be good for a league that really needs to grow its television numbers,” says Bennett from Men in Blazers. “On one level, I’d say even if he never kicked another ball, it’s mission accomplished for Zlatan. [His goal] was a remarkable human achievement. If it happened in the Roman period Virgil would be writing epic poems about it.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.