Analysis

How the 'Zlatan Ibrahimovic' character came to overshadow the player's incredible talent

Don't let the MLS fool you – at 38, Ibrahimovic is still a remarkable footballer. But his performative arrogance rings hollow, writes Seb Stafford-Bloor

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Roughly speaking, there are two chapters in the Zlatan Ibrahimovic story. It doesn’t quite comprise a before-and-after, but there was certainly a time when Ibrahimovic was less than what he is now – more of footballer, less of a marketing embellishment.

In fact, it’s strange to think back to a time when Ibrahimovic was considered enigmatic. His career predates the YouTube age. It also began and matured before the current television era, making him – generally speaking – Serie A’s privilege alone.

The effect was some kind of mystery. In this specific instance, there was also that great lie about his abilities, inadvertently perpetuated by sporadic and patchy performances against British clubs. Ibrahimovic’s ability was compelling in that way. It was spoken of but rarely witnessed firsthand and, in England at least, that made him as alluring as it did divisive.

In time, that obviously changed. His two seasons in the Premier League with Manchester United brought him into greater focus and also involved an unspoken revenge angle. Ibrahimovic seems always to have held English football in contempt – the Gertten brothers’ 2015 documentary, Becoming Zlatan, made that clear enough. The hidden dynamic during his Premier League period, then, was his ultimate revenge: turning up in his mid-30s and scoring at a rate beyond a goal every other game.

Europe hasn’t taken that much notice of his time in the United States. The occasional highlight has fluttered across social media, but few outside of Los Angeles would know that he leaves MLS having scored 56 times in 52 appearances. That would have been a healthy ratio in the old days, when the league really was just a well-paid victory lap for ageing greats who no longer wanted to run. Now, with football in the United States at a new apex of credibility, it’s a remarkable return for someone approaching 40.

Anyone who doubts that need look no further than the recent play-offs. US soccer may remain a little rough around the edges, but it’s played in front of huge crowds and often at dizzying, back-and-forth speed.

The rest of the world has remained largely indifferent, though. Partly because MLS still doesn’t really register within the European consciousness, but more as a result of what Ibrahimovic is. Or, more precisely, what he has turned himself into.

There are two entities here. Originally, there was just one: Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a rare, uniquely talented footballer. He wasn’t without ego, but he was endowed with a self-confidence which seemed roughly commensurate with his achievements and ability.

Over time, however, his personality’s outline has been blurred into something slightly grotesque. The genesis of that mutation remains hard to identify – who really knows when it began – but the result is an unedifying spectacle of confected hubris which, unfortunately, has prompted to look away.

Ibrahimovic was always cocky. He always possessed the kind of competitive fire which some found hard to like. But, critically, it was always authentic. Unlike what it has been replaced by, which is best described as the kind of performative arrogance usually found in the chronically insecure.

Performative is the key word, because it’s never seemed real. Conceit is hardly an unusual trait at that level of the game, but It’s important to draw a distinction between that common or garden narcissism and the way Ibrahimovic has often behaved. Most footballers’ arrogance manifests in their contempt for the public. In their indifference to supporters and isolation from the surrounding world.

Ibrahimovic, by contrast, seems to adore the attention and, for the better part of a decade, has been intentionally provocative at every turn, creating an oversized caricature of himself which – unfortunately - runs the risk of swallowing his legacy.

And that’s the shame of this. There should be a tremendous appetite to see Ibrahimovic back in European football. His powers as a player are on the wane, there’s no question, but he has been such an unusual player for such a long time that the fascination should still, even now, endure. He should be easing into his 'Late Beckham' phase and enjoying respectful, benevolent applause anywhere he plays.

More than that, actually, because Ibrahimovic should be studied and gazed upon. We should be wondering how a forward of his size, who exerts such stress on his joints over 20 years, has defied all the truisms about age and performance. How is he still so dexterous and agile? How, at 38, does he still so often look athletically superior? He's been a remarkable player. Not necessarily the greatest or the best, but inarguably one of the most unusual.

So how irritating it is that the performance won’t end. That, for instance, his parting remarks to American supporters were so deliberately obnoxious and so disrespectful to the rest of the MLS. Or, in a measure of how laboured this routine has become, how predictable it was that he had that soundbite preprepared and ready for his departure.

How boring. How tedious. How unnecessary it has been for a true original to turn himself into a preposterous comedy.

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