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MLS, welcome to Zlatan

in Sports by

In the span of nine days, the former Barcelona, Juventus, and AC Milan striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic terminated his contract with Manchester United, signed a new one with LA Galaxy, made his debut, and-oh yeah, scored two goals in 20 minutes after coming off the bench, including a 40 yard volley which helped push the Galaxy over local rivals and MLS newcomers, LAFC.

The 36-year-old player is known as one of the biggest personalities in football. From his outlandish personality to his on-field acrobatics, Ibrahimovic throughout his career has proven to be an outspoken, fearless player and a true goal scorer. These traits propelled his success as he went through Europe’s top clubs. According to him, as well as the statistics, Ibrahimovic has indeed conquered many countries, and undeniably knows how to win.

The 6’ 5’ ex-Swedish captain moved to Manchester United after 4 years at the top French club, PSG, where he broke the club record for scoring by netting 156 goals in 180 games. In Ibrahimovic’s four years at the club, PSG won 4 league titles, 2 French cups, and 3 French Supercups and League cups. Prior to his debut season with Manchester United, many critics said he was too old and slow to play at the highest level. However, Ibrahimovic proved them wrong,  scoring 28 goals in total, including two in a league cup final. His winning mentality helped Manchester United claim both the EFL cup and the Europa league title, which gave United a berth to the Champions League. However, a serious knee injury towards the end of the season cut his time short with United, and even though he recovered faster than most thought possible, Zlatan was unable to make it back into the squad’s regular lineup during his second season. This likely was the primary reason behind his departure.

Given his track record and caliber, it is somewhat of a surprise Ibrahimovic decided to come to the MLS. This, however, is not uncommon over the past 10 years, England’s former captain David Beckham, Italy’s maestro Andrea Pirlo, and Spain’s leading goal scorer in the world cup David Villa, have all cashed in and made their way to the states. Sources have claimed Ibrahimovic turned down a 100 million dollar contract with a Chinese club to come play in the MLS. Despite the significant pay cut, the MLS is a perfect destination for him, especially considering his desire to win and conquer, not to mention the growing fan base of the MLS and relatively easy competition in comparison to the top European leagues he has played in.

From the perspective of the MLS, Ibrahimovic is a perfect catch. His big personality in addition to his ability to produce truly brilliant goals will attract many new fans to the game, something the MLS desperately needs. He will also help raise the quality of the team and the league. The absence of quality greatly contributes to the lack of popularity for MLS teams. Although Ibrahimovic’s transfer does confirm that the league is still a retirement destination for aging stars, his desire to win will raise the overall quality of everyone he plays with.

Of course Ibrahimovic won’t make the MLS instantly better. While the league is likely to expand beyond its current 23-team format, many believe the league suffers due to its non-regulation league format, meaning there is no punishment for those at the bottom, unlike the format of most major soccer leagues. This arrangement is said to contribute to a lack of competition and in turn hinders the overall popularity of the league. Furthermore, the MLS is not the primary league in the country; this is unlike every other league Ibrahimovic has played in. The MLS is currently significantly less popular than the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB. Although this is unlikely to change soon, Ibrahimovic’s arrival will certainly attract fans from all around the globe.

There was already much excitement for Ibrahimovic’s arrival prior to his spectacular debut, and even before the confirmation. In a recent ESPN confidential poll for current MLS players (taken while Ibrahimovic was still at Manchester United), Ibrahimovic got 18% of the vote for the question, “Which big-named designated player do you want in the MLS,” behind Cristiano Ronaldo (21%) and, Lionel Messi (24%). One anonymous player was quoted for saying, “Ibrahimovic would provide intensity and spark interest in terms of marketing. He would probably play more like [Didier] Drogba: dominate some games, sit others out.” Didier Drogba, a former Montreal Impact player, was a star striker like Ibrahimovic who played for Europe’s biggest clubs and was known for scoring big goals in big games.

However, no one could have predicted the coverage and press Ibrahimovic would have after his debut. Since scoring twice in LA Galaxy’s 4-3 over LAFC, there have been over 300 requests by media for interviews with the Swede, and over 25,000 articles written about the game and or him.

The LA Galaxy is the perfect destination for Zlatan, not only because of how ideal it is to finish a career in southern California, but also because of the club’s penchant to go after big names like David Beckham and Landon Donovan. In addition, considering their extremely poor season last year finishing with eight draws, eight wins, and 18 losses for a league worst of 32 points, the Galaxy need a leader who will demand the best from everybody. In terms of where the team is in the standings, Zlatan’s arrival could not have come at a better time; the Galaxy are 5 games in and currently sitting in third in the Western Conference with 7 points.

Ibrahimovic’s second game did not go as well as his first, as the Galaxy dropped all 3 points against Sporting Kansas City. Coming off the bench again, he still managed to influence the game, generating offensive and recording three shots, two of which from over 30 yards; both forcing saves. The Galaxy’s play in the absence of Ibrahimovic was dull and predictable, very reminiscent of last season’s performances. With Ibrahimovic on the field their game plan was as follows: give him the ball and see what happens. This game plan accentuates Galaxy’s lack of overall quality and the need for other players to step up and play well.

This loss did not move Galaxy down in the standings, but significantly increased the distance between them and conference leaders, Sporting Kansas City, from 3 points to 6 points after only 5 games. Their next game is this upcoming Saturday against the Chicago Fire. Hopefully the Galaxy coach, Sigi Schmid will listen to fans’ pleas and start Ibrahimovic for the first time this season.    

 

What’s in a fan?

in Columns/Sports by

Looking back, I realize I’ve spent all year talking about the problems inherent in the world of sports today. With all of that negativity out of the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind myself and everyone else that, in the larger scheme of things, I am a sports enthusiast down to the core, and that, in my opinion, sports still serve many valuable functions for people that go beyond simple entertainment. In particular, I want to focus on how fans develop emotional, personal connections to players and teams; the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics are a great example of this on the national scale. This is one of the ways that sports can bring people of all backgrounds and situations together in a way that few other things can. I think that the beauty of sports comes from the fact that every individual fan is entitled to their own individual connection that makes sports an enjoyable and meaningful part of their lives.

Surprisingly, though, there are always a few self-determined “real” sports fans who claim that support should be allocated based on measures that are more objective than whatever emotional attachments one may have; players should be evaluated for their skill alone, and a team’s fan base should be based either on locality and/or the team’s quality. Very few people here would make this argument, but there are plenty of sports “purists,” as they see themselves, who would and do. I’ll give a few personal anecdotes to explain what I mean.

I often scroll through the Facebook pages related to teams that I’m a fan of (although, sadly, I have fewer opportunities to do so now that I’m at Swat). On the fan page of the team Manchester United, I’ve run into a few posts that have annoyed me. Here and there, I’ll see a post degrading American fans, saying that they’re not true fans, and I even remember reading a comment about how the real fan base of the team is only in England, or even more restrictively, in Manchester. Of course, plenty of people responded negatively to these types of comments, but there were enough people supporting them to get on my nerves. Yes, I’m an American fan, and, yep, American soccer is relatively quite bad (especially compared to English soccer), but why is my support of Manchester United any less real? I visited my cousin in England when I was a little boy, saw Manchester United play, was in awe, enjoyed arguing with my cousin who was a fan of rival Chelsea, and became a lifelong fan in the process. I think that’s a fairly legitimate reason to support a team; I can’t claim to share in the element of the city’s and the country’s pride, but I have my own personal reasons that are just as important to me.

This is probably overreacting a bit, because the comments I’m responding to would almost universally be viewed as stupid. I’ll use another example that might not be as straightforward, then. In recent years, support for Manchester United among Muslim fans around the world has grown as a result of two high-profile Muslim players that they’ve kept, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj. I was a fan before they joined, and, as a Muslim, I was pleased to see them join and thus tracked their progress closely. Last year, for the Muslim holiday Eid-ul-Fitr, the Man U fan page put up a post saying, “Eid Mubarak” (may your holiday be blessed) with a picture of Januzaj in acknowledgement of this growing Muslim fan base. I thought it was a great step towards making their new fans feel welcome as well as continue to boost young Januzaj’s stock and popularity among them.

To my dismay, multiple comments immediately came up telling fans that they should keep religion out of sports (in addition to the usual derogatory comments accompanying anything that has any remote connection to Islam). This is a widespread issue evident, for example, in the debate surrounding NFL player Tim Tebow’s observance of his faith while on the field (Tebow-ing) and other instances/actions like that. I took the incident on the Man U fan page very personally, however. Why can’t I have a particular connection to Manchester United because of how I shared Januzaj’s Muslim identity? Why was it wrong for me to jump at the opportunity to hold on to a moment where the media actually allowed Muslims to be seen in a positive light? Why was it so wrong for Muslim fans around the world to take pride in the fact that they could be represented to the world through two talented soccer players instead of having to constantly apologize for the terrorists who usually get the spotlight? As I see it, support for players and a team based on an emotional reason and a connection through shared identity, religion in this case, hurts no one while having the potential to help quite a few people feel better.

This extends to other forms of emotional connection to players as well. It only adds to the diversity and strength of the fan base when someone supports a player on a team because they’re the same race, religion, sexuality, and, in general, when they find an aspect that they can associate with in some manner. Fans are people, and players are people, and shared identity is often a pretty great way for people to connect; as such, these ties should be considered a sound basis for support. Besides, if players or teams were supported for a set of objective reasons only, then fans wouldn’t be as widespread as they are currently.

Of everything I’ve written this year, this is probably the most jumbled, but it’s also the most genuine. I’ve talked before about all the ways that sports aren’t so great and need to improve, but, in the end, sports make me really happy (please excuse the cheesiness); they provide me with multiple avenues of emotional connection which, when needed, allow me to escape from all the issues of real life. So, as a closing remark, I hope everyone can realize that, to an individual, sports can mean as much as things like art, music, literature, politics, or even divestment might mean to someone else. We as sports fans have to recognize that the players, teams, and organizations we support often have problems, and we should use our power to pressure improvements in those cases. At the same time, we’re also lucky to have the pleasure and release that sports provide us and should take pride not just in the fact that we are fans of a sport, but also the reason why we’re fans. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you all that not only is the world of sports complicated and deep, but so are all the genuine fans out there. And, hopefully, they can get recognition for that, too.

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