The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
When David Beckham first arrived in the U.S. in 2007 at the start of his four-year stint in Major League Soccer with LA Galaxy, he was met with obvious fanfare. At that moment, Becks was arguably the biggest star to grace the American branch of the beautiful game since Brazilian demigod Pele landed at New York Cosmos in 1975 — the year that Beckham was born.
Like many aging titans of the game before him, Golden Balls arrived with the purported mission of dispelling American apathy towards soccer. The excitement of having such a globally-renowned Brand Name playing in the MLS was clear and palatable, yet it was nothing compared to the sheer hysteria that greeted Zlatan Ibrahimović when he touched down in LA for his own pre-retirement payday with the Galaxy.
A mob gathered in the dead of night at LAX airport to welcome their new Swedish-born talisman. Cameras flashed. Women shrieked. Men chanted indecipherable football songs in unconvincing British accents. Zlatan stood there in a black tracksuit, hands on his waist, feet apart, like a Bosnian Superman in athleisure.
Ibrahimović isn’t the only elite European footballer to have graced the MLS in the last decade. David Villa is over there right now. Frank Lampard ended his career with New York City FC in 2016. Bastian Schweinsteiger currently plies his trade at Chicago Fire. Didier Drogba is at Phoenix Rising. These men are no small fish. Indeed, some have arguably achieved more than Zlatan in their careers: Lampard is one of the top midfielders of the new millennium. Villa was the star striker of a glory-hogging Spanish team that claimed two European Championships and one World Cup between 2008 and 2012.
However, save for among hardcore U.S. soccer fans, there was little hype surrounding the arrival of any of these players. They weren't greeted by shrieking Californians and a yobbish chanting choir. They didn't prompt Fox to put their debuts on its main network. And they certainly weren't charming a Jimmy Kimmel Live audience with jokes and outrageous bravado.
The message is clear, the noisy minority have spoken: America cares not for World Cup wins or continental legacies – they want Zlatan.
This should come as little surprise: Ibra might be a Swedish national of Bosnian descent whose mother is of Croatian origin, but in many respects he is the quintessential American footballer. His Texas-sized ego is far more at home in the land of freedom fries than it is in modest, socialist Sweden, where ambition is regarded as antithetical to the national character.
Zlatan has referred to himself as God before. He doesn’t sprint after a ball, he swaggers towards it. Like the U.S., he doesn’t hide his self-adoration: “I don't think that you can score as spectacular a goal as those of Zlatan in a video game — even though these games are very realistic these days,” he once said of FIFA 16. It’s easy to imagine flags with Zlatan’s face on them hanging on the porch of the Ibrahimović residence. It’s even easier to imagine him reflexively saluting those flags every morning when he gets out of bed and looks out the window, as a single, solitary tear wells up in the corner of his eye.
Ibrahimović’s towering bravado simply feels a more natural fit for a country like America. Sure, there are plenty of cocky dicks in the European game, with Cristiano Ronaldo being the most obvious example. But Ronaldo’s bravado is confined to his showboating on the football pitch. He may blurt out nauseatingly arrogant lines like, "I am handsome, rich and a great player and people are jealous of me,” but anyone can do arrogance. Zlatan self-tributes are witty, charismatic and perfectly timed like a Steven McQueen line.
This stands in stark contrast to Ronaldo’s shallow self-adoration. CR7 celebrates his own talent and sporting achievements. He is a footballer player and nothing else; a perfectly-tuned machine optimized to dominate the game at the expense of everything else. Cristiano has traded his humanity for trophies.
Zlatan, on the other hand, puts on a show. He entertains not only through his skill but via the force of his personality too. He’s like a pro-wrestler; Ibra is the heel of the European game. He creates a spectacle that whips audiences into fits of self-satisfying delirium before even stepping foot in the ring.
Sport is only one aspect of the wider performance that is Zlatan Ibrahimović. He offers show business, which is something that Americans crave but most European athletes don’t quite understand. Americans want a foul-mouthed Conor McGregor, not a bland Lionel Messi.
David Beckham, who has the demeanor of a golden retriever, was welcomed here because he’s a winner with a heightened understanding of self-branding — and America loves winners who can turn themselves into a money printing machine. But he was never adored. You have to be more than a winner to be adored in the U.S., and Zlatan Ibrahimović is so much more than a winner.
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