LOS ANGELES – A pack of more than two dozen reporters from almost as many countries stood outside the Galaxy locker room Saturday, shivering each time a cold blast of air shot up the narrow, concrete corridor.
It wasn’t long ago that Major League Soccer wouldn’t have garnered this kind of attention had it staged a game on a beach in Hawaii. Now media members were risking frostbite to cover a relatively meaningless game played at a stadium located in the middle of a prairie.
For that the league can thank Zlatan Ibrahimović, the Swedish superstar all those reporters had come to see.
After stops in Holland, Italy, Spain, France and England, Ibrahimović’s world tour has come to the U.S., with the man who has compared himself to a god, a king and Julius Caesar taking on the part of a young Mick Jagger, preening and prancing his way across the continent.
Ibrahimović has appeared on ESPN, FS1 and Univision. He’s warmed up with the Kings hockey team and stood courtside with Shaquille O’Neal. The Galaxy have fielded more than 400 interview requests on his behalf and sold more jerseys than any other MLS team since he arrived last month.
Ibramania is so big that when he took the show on the road last week, wide-eyed fans crowding around the luggage carousel at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport forced Ibrahimović and his beefy bodyguard to seek refuge outside. Other people endured frigid temperatures to stand vigil outside the historic Blackstone Hotel but caught only a glimpse of the player as he dashed across the sidewalk and into the team bus.
A stadium-record crowd of nearly 22,000 filled Toyota Park in suburban Bridgeview for Saturday’s performance, braving howling winds and a wind chill of 27 degrees to see Ibrahimović take the stage. And the showman didn’t disappoint, making the first start of his MLS career and delivering the only goal in the Galaxy’s 1-0 win over the Fire.
Apr 14, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Los Angeles Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (9) takes the field before the game against the Chicago Fire at Bridgeview Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
“It isn’t every day you get to see a living legend,” said Jeff Church, a Fire season-ticket holder who wore a white Galaxy jersey with Ibrahimović’s name and number on the back.
Another fan, Jake Daar, flew in from North Carolina. Another, Darren Goodwin, drove up from St. Louis.
“I never thought I’d be breathing the same air as Zlatan,” Goodwin said. “He’s a mythological figure. In American sports, he’s probably somewhere between Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan.”
Which is why Marian Hossa, a five-time NHL All-Star who shared the ice with Gretzky and shares the city of Chicago with Jordan, waited a half-hour after the game before asking Ibrahimović to pose with him for a selfie.
The Galaxy, more than any other team in MLS, know how to handle the attention that comes with a player like Ibrahimovic, having gone through it with David Beckham and Steven Gerrard.
“You just kind of get conditioned that it’s normal at the Galaxy now,” defender Dave Romney said.
But Gerrard was an aging crooner appearing at small clubs on a good-bye tour compared to Ibrahimovic, who played before sold-out houses in his first three shows. Accordingly, he was given star treatment on his first trip.
MLS teams don’t fly charter so Ibrahimović hid in an American Airlines club lounge at LAX until his bodyguard, a thick-muscled British military veteran, rushed him to the front of the boarding line. At the top of the jet bridge, Ibrahimovic agreed to an airline worker’s polite request for a photo before settling into a window seat in the last row of the first-class section next to teammate Rolf Feltscher.
For the mid-morning trip back to Los Angeles, Zack Murshedi, the team administrator in charge of travel, had TSA workers open a separate security line for the Galaxy. Ibrahimović, wearing a white Galaxy warmup jacket, went through first and after negotiating a metal detector, a pat-down search and a wanding, posed for a picture with a team of screeners.
In the terminal, he followed his teammates to the food court, where he stood in line at Starbucks, then to the gate area where he slumped wearily into a seat as his bodyguard shooed away anyone pointing a cellphone camera.
For all his ego, Ibrahimović does his best to blend in around his teammates – not easy when you’re 6 feet 5 and look like D’Artagnan from “The Three Musketeers.”
The day before, after the game, Ibrahimović had been a proper diva, keeping the media waiting until the locker room emptied before emerging with Bastian Schweinsteiger, a Fire midfielder and former Manchester United teammate. Schweinsteiger has won both a World Cup and a Champions League crown – Ibrahimović has won neither – but was now reduced to being a bit player in Ibramania.
The show was over but the encore was about to begin.
“Are they here for you or are they here for me? You tell me,” Ibrahimović said, smiling broadly and pointing to the waiting reporters. “Come, Basti. I’ll make you big in your own town.”