And then there was Zlatan: Ibrahimovic has the star quality to (finally) sell soccer in the United States

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Courtesy of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Instagram page

Sex sells, as the adage goes, and there are few contemporary sporting icons sexier in marketing appeal and on-field performance than Zlatan Ibrahimovic—a man who within months of arriving in Paris, to ply his considerable talents for Paris Saint-Germain, had inspired French journalists to coin the verb Zlataner to describe his on-field feats of jaw-dropping variety. Watch him in a game for five minutes and you’ll understand the meaning of the verb, along with another of the monikers he’s accrued over his career: Ibracadabra.

The tall Swedish striker’s inimitable combination of power and skill was on full display this past weekend, when Ibrahimovic provided a stunning brace (that’s “soccer” for two goals scored) to help his new team, Los Angeles Galaxy, to a 4–3 win over local rival Los Angeles Football Club. He’d only arrived in Los Angeles that week, but one quickly learns that conditions that affect mere mortals, such as jet lag, slide off this man.

Almost lost in the furor surrounding the first goal he scored, a sensational strike from distance, was the technique he employed: not so much striking as slashing through the ball so that it moved in a parabolic arc, out then in, towards goal. What Max Bretos once gushed about a teenage Sergio Agüero’s fabled feats for Independiente applies equally to Zlatan: only a few would dare. And only one can Zlataner.

My brother said it best on Sunday, as we waxed poetic in this 36-year-old striker’s unbelievable entry into Major League Soccer. I remember first hearing about him in the 2014 World Cup, when Nike ran those ads for him. Sweden had not qualified for the tournament in Brazil, losing out to Portugal in a two-leg playoff the previous November. No matter. Never one to miss an opportunity, Nike gave Ibrahimovic a platform. A campaign grew in Brazil to have Ibrahimovic attend. He made the trip, and was frequently photographed during the tournament. Star power sells.

But can he sell soccer stateside? That is the great question that has dogged past entries of waning world superstars, perhaps most notably in the forms of Pele and David Beckham. The latter, more recent, example, is a good reminder that for all his talent and charisma, Ibra may not matter that much to the general public. After all, Beckham’s arrival in the summer of 2007 to the same LA Galaxy, was supposed to usher in a new era of soccer madness in America.

The Becks brand earned some $250 million during his five years stateside, before moving to a Paris Saint-Germain side for a brief spell as a teammate with…Ibrahimovic. Soccer remained a passing fancy, rising in popularity during the World Cup, but never a serious contender for the coveted mind’s eye fantasy occupied by football, basketball, and baseball.

But just maybe Ibrahimovic will be different. For starters, he’s a completely different kettle of fish from Beckham: take a look at the highlight below, delivered in 2008: while Beckham was sputtering, Ibra was scorpion-kicking as a mid-20’s sensation in Milan.

His arrival in America, and impact he might impart before departing the professional playing ranks, was mused upon by Gabrielle Marcotti, perhaps the best chronicler of world soccer at the moment. The timing is serendipitously coincidental, months before the start of a World Cup that will not include the United States.

Beckham did not shake mainstream sporting America from the long-held prejudice that soccer is a sport that puts us to sleep, as Stephen Colbert once mock-mocked in his pseudo-conservative-satirical phase. His was an effect along the lines of what Martin Tyler, the best commentator in football, once said of Mesut Özil, a player oft-maligned because of his style of play. It can go unnoticed, the effect Özil has on a game, Tyler noted several years ago. But ask the great players who’ve plied their trade alongside him like, say, Philip Lahm, one of the best fullbacks in world soccer history, and they’ll tell you he’s the best technical footballer they’ve played with. The same went with Beckham: he was one of the greatest technicians in football history. They even named a movie after his crossing ability.

But a penchant for sexy curling crosses, while good enough to land Beckham a starring Galactico role with Real Madrid, does not a star make in this country. If a player is going to be followed closely, he needs to pack a punch of the Steph Curry variety. This is a society that immersed us into everything Trae Young, (Curry’s heir apparent!) for the better half of this past college basketball season. You couldn’t go a week without ESPN inundating you with a slick on-air promo for Trae’s next game. That he played alongside four other teammates for a school called Oklahoma was a minor detail.

It’s a natural sensation, to zero in upon a star. It’s the front-page feature section phenomenon: put simply, it sells papers. I’m reminded of when I wrote for my college newspaper, and covered the school’s Division I basketball team. That season, a freshman had catapulted into the public consciousness thanks to some stirring performances early in the season.

His media availability quickly skyrocketed. Each time he’d come back onto the floor after a game, one of his teammates would sing his name in passing. It was totally in jest; there was no ill will involved: the players knew that this was simply part of the deal. You find quite quickly that athletes view sport in a very different fashion from the general public. Obviously so. The individual player would bashfully shake his head when asked for another interview; it wasn’t about him, obviously, but he played the game.

Team sports are hardly marketable in themselves, which is why soccer—the ultimate team sport—never seems to kick into higher gear in our sporting consciousness. We’re about the individual, here. Matchups are distilled into individual showdowns: when Real Madrid play Barcelona, we’re regaled with blockbuster-esque MESSI vs. RONALDO trailers. That’s not something you see in European coverage of the games.

Stars sell. To wit, when Trae and the Oklahomans found themselves on the NCAA tournament bubble this spring, due to a precipitous late-season slide, the thinly-veiled cynical mainstream take was that there was no chance the NCAA, or for that matter its corporate champions (their words), would ever pass up the opportunity to squeeze just a little more life from this cash cow they’d helped create.

Ibrahimovic has that same star quality. Look to when he played a single season for Barcelona as evidence. That is a team with a decided identity, drilled into its players from the moment they step into its fold. Many join in the youth ranks. Ibrahimovic, who as a young starlet once told a team he would not partake in a trial test for a roster spot, was always going to prove an exception to that rule.

The writing on the wall, as per the inevitable end of his time in Barcelona, came when Ibrahimovic disobeyed a club rule and drove his sports car—a Ferrari Enzo no less—to a training session. Later he would note that he clashed with the club’s coach, and was visibly miffed when forced to sacrifice his central striking role to allow Messi more freedom to operate from a central position.

What has always separated Ibrahimovic from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi is the imitable tenor of his goals, and overall play. Ronaldo will go down as perhaps the greatest pure goal scorer in soccer history, a predatory finisher to rival the greats; Messi is pure jazz. Whether working within the team dynamic, or rising above the collective with a work of genius, he is renowned for the coolness of his finishes.

Ibrahimovic defies definition, in large part because he resembles one of the great American icons, namely that of a gunslinger from the Wild West. His goals seem to come out of nowhere. Blink and you’ve missed him. He’s that fast.

He has come to America at the perfect time. Social media sensationalizes sport like no other; and there has never been a footballer more savvy about the positive effects of social media exposure than Ibrahimovic. He’s been a notch above since he was scoring mind-blowingly ridiculous solo goals for Ajax back in the aughts. The man fascinates, in large part because his individual prowess, coupled to an unmatchable strain of self-belief, is inimitable.

He is hater-proof: his talent denies any accusation, and he honestly looks capable of round-house-kicking any naysayer into next week. Fear and wonder: powerful combination. Add to that the fact that no one scores goals quite like Ibra, and you’ve got the perfect storm to conquer America this summer.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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