When Zlatan Ibrahimović signed for Los Angeles Galaxy, his words were exactly what you would expect from a player moving closer to his retirement:
“I am ready to go now… First of all, I’m there to play football. I’m not there for something else. My first objective is to play football and do what I’m good at.”
Ibrahimović, a 36-year old former Manchester United player who last played for United on December 26 before he aggravated a knee injury in a game against Burnley, had been in top form for a number of years and played in highly respected stadiums in the football world, including Camp Nou and Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Milan.
But what is the idea behind this signing? How competitive is Major League Soccer (MLS), and why do some pundits still see this league as a retirement league?
When MLS welcomed David Beckham, it made sense for both parties. The idea was to promote football and raise its profile among North American youth, without forgetting the most important part — selling jerseys and boosting ticket sales.
The plan worked: people bought tickets to go and see Beckham play, and kids cried when denied the chance to go and watch the superstar play in the stadium. The whole of North America started getting the idea. They knew that there was a soccer player in the U.S. for whom it was worth buying tickets to go and sit in the stadium for 90 minutes. Some started following soccer closely; some bought season tickets.
In general, the move for Beckham was brilliant for the League and soccer in the U.S. When David Villa, Kaká, and Steven Gerrard landed, it still made sense, but that is when the MLS started fighting against the image that it had inadvertently created for itself — a retirement home for faded European stars.
The fight bore some fruit and changes came. When you see the number of people who buy tickets to go see Atlanta United, you know progress has been made. More than 70,000 tickets were sold for a soccer match last year at Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta. These are very good numbers even for European giants like Madrid and Barcelona. So are we now going back to an era that has already passed? What can a star like Ibrahimović, who has his best days behind him, bring to the league?
There is no doubt that Ibrahimović will become the face of LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer. With his strong personality, he is marketable, and from a financial perspective, he fits the bill.
Let’s not forget that Zlatan is one of the most skilled players of this era, with an amazing ability to hold the ball, pass, and most importantly, finish. His statistics speak for themselves. He is a player who likes to play long balls, and he is the guy you can trust any time to put the ball at the back of the net. This is why coaches like Pep Guardiola and Mourinho admired Ibra. He is a fighter on the pitch.
We don’t know which version of Zlatan we will see in the States — the one who was struggling last season at Manchester United, or a new Ibra who can lift the league with his ability to score goals.
Will Ibrahimović be committed to the league? We all know that his peak years are behind him, so how many more years of playing at the top level can we expect from him? Many still question the commitment of European stars moving to the MLS, like Steven Gerrard, who frequently flew back to England to work as a TV pundit.
Major League Soccer should continue producing stars and create a different image of its own — an image which shows that this is a competitive and respected league that is improving. Investment in scouting and youth academies has worked across the globe, but this signing for LA Galaxy raises many questions about whether there is a clear strategy in place in Los Angeles.