Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Debut in Los Angeles Is a Smash

No one makes an entrance quite like Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

In two decades of professional soccer, the hulking Swedish striker has played for nine clubs and never failed to wrench the spotlight around to himself. Immediately. He scored on his debuts in the Dutch Eredivisie, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, the Champions League, and the English Premier League. On Saturday, he added Major League Soccer to the list.

The 36-year-old Ibrahimovic only landed in the U.S. from Manchester United on Thursday to join the L.A. Galaxy. He’d announced his arrival with a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times, declaring simply, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome.”

But, short of match practice, he started Saturday’s game against Los Angeles FC on the bench. And by the time his new club threw him into the fray in the 71st minute, the Galaxy was 3-1 down. Everything was set up for a debut to forget.

What happened over the next 20 minutes was every bit as improbable as any of his heroics in Europe’s top leagues. Maybe even more so.

Six minutes after coming on, with the Galaxy now trailing 3-2, Ibrahimovic spotted the LAFC goalkeeper off his line from 40 yards out. Few players not named Zlatan would even try for the goal from there. But a lack of audacity has never been Ibrahimovic’s problem. He shrugged off a defender and smashed home a half-volley.

“Oh come on!” was the call from the Fox announcer.

“My history when I come to a new team, I always score in the first game, I didn’t want to let it down this time,” Ibrahimovic said after the final whistle.

But Ibrahimovic wasn’t done after one. His new team had come back from 3-0 down to salvage a draw. Now he was going to finish the job.

In the first minute of stoppage time, he found himself on the end of a cross from the left and nodded a header over the goalkeeper to win the game.

Replays suggest that Ibrahimovic might have been slightly offside. Then again he has spent a career bending space and time to his will on the pitch. Bending the linesman’s view of his position was just one more improbability to enhance the Lore of Zlatan.

In the space of 20 minutes, the huffing-and-puffing, jet-lagged Ibrahimovic had notched his first two shots on target in MLS. Both had turned into goals.

“You take off your shirt and you just want to celebrate with the fans,” he said. “You want to feel the energy that is going through the stadium. If I would have more strength, I would have run all over the pitch, but I just managed one side of the field.”

Ibrahimovic has always been an outrageously talented, excessively outspoken player, even in a world of flamboyant stars at Ajax, at Juventus, Inter, and AC Milan, at Barcelona and at PSG.

But in the latter half of his career, he has honed his persona into something even wilder, a character he inhabits on a full-time basis. He is no longer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He is simply Zlatan.

Zlatan, scorer of goals. Zlatan, purveyor of quips. Zlatan, remover of shirts.

When he left PSG, he tweeted that he “came like a king, left like a legend.” When he left Manchester United, a club whose mascot is a red devil, he shared an illustration of himself dressed as an angel arm-wrestling with a red, horned, seemingly naked demon. (Ibrahimovic never did provide an explanation.)

So the Zlatan character demands that he be the center of attention at all times. Apparently, it also demands that he speak about himself in the third person.

“They were saying ‘We want Zlatan. We want Zlatan,’” he told Fox, referring to the fans inside the StubHub Center. “So I gave them Zlatan.”

That Ibrahimovic would be able to give any set of fans anything in 2018 was hardly a given. Last April, he was cut down by an anterior cruciate ligament tear that would have made most athletes his age consider hanging up their boots. Not Zlatan though.

He told Manchester United that he intended to make a full recovery and that the club could suspend his salary while he did it. Ibrahimovic returned in November, seven months after his injury, but never quite returned to a level where he could make an impact in the Premier League. He made only seven appearances. That’s when MLS, long rumored as his final destination, re-emerged as a possibility.

Now, even if the rest of his time in Los Angeles turns entirely forgettable, it may not matter. Ibrahimovic has already left one gigantic Zlatan signature on the league.

Write to Joshua Robinson at joshua.robinson@wsj.com

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