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Our City: Zlatan and the History of U.S. Soccer Antiheroes

As Zlatan Ibrahimović takes center stage in America, he is playing an important role as the soccer antihero that domestic athletes can’t play.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Los Angeles Galaxy Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Our City is a weekly column dedicated to the society and culture surrounding Orlando City, Major League Soccer, and U.S. Soccer.

If you went anywhere near an American soccer media outlet last week you were undoubtedly pelted with Zlatan Ibrahimović hype. Understandably, as the Swede stepped onto the field for his debut just in time to rescue his new club, the LA Galaxy, with two glamorous goals to beat the upstarts from the other side of town, LAFC.

Zlatan has brought his larger-than-life personality to America at a time when domestic soccer needed a bit of a shot in the arm. Despite my doubts about Zlatan’s long-term success in the league, wonder goals backing up the hype are a nice way to begin his tenure stateside.

Zlatan’s personality is a blend of branding, ego, and confidence, with the proportions determined by your level of fandom for the former Manchester United and Paris-St. Germain great. However you view him, his personality peaks at a point higher than any player Major League Soccer has ever had on the books, and certainly higher than any American player.

In a country where soccer only recently became the fourth most popular sport, American players have always been polite and deferral. An American player who openly displayed any sense of ego about their game, their career, or the game in general, would upset the gentle arc of U.S. soccer’s slow build towards popularity.

Certainly, there have been American soccer antiheroes. Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones come to mind, while Clint Dempsey’s game and demeanor felt revolutionary when he arrived. I believe Dempsey’s time at Fulham, playing creative football and breaking the mold of what an American player was supposed to be, was a transformative time for U.S. soccer.

No disrespect to Brian McBride or Claudio Reyna, to Landon Donovan or Tim Howard, but these players always filled the role of mild-mannered ambassador at home and abroad. There is a myriad of complex reasons why American players have to fill this role. From the complicated nature of U.S. foreign relations to the lack of respect for American players, our players have always had to operate with a dual sense of both duty and tact. The modern rise of soccer in the United States rode, in part, a wave of anti-authoritarianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soccer’s rise began with the New York Cosmos. The most famous club in American history filled Giants Stadium while making waves in the disco and punk drenched Studio 54 party scene.

While Pele might be the most notable name to most, it was Italian ego machine Giorgio Chinaglia who led the club’s history of both appearances and goals. Chinaglia’s personality was more abrasive than Zlatan’s but their mountains of self-confidence are measurably the same. In a comment that reportedly made Pele cry, the Italian told him “I am Chinaglia. If I shoot from a place, it’s because Chinaglia can score from there.” So, it would seem Zlatan isn’t the first dynamic striker to try and take over America while referring to himself in the third person.

George Best is another massive personality that helped fuel the NASL heydays, with his play for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and San Jose Earthquakes between 1977 and 1981. The former Manchester United star brought his alcoholism and oversized ego to America just in time to buoy a league suffering from the retirement of Pele and needing another star. While the NASL had drawn a number of top players from around the world, none of them drew the attention Best did. With his party lifestyle and Beatles-esque mop-top haircut, he was the perfect soccer antihero for the late 1970s. Despite everything, he still produced moments like this:

Regrettably, MLS was never able to coax Eric Cantona to play on American soil. Arguably one of the best personalities and egos in soccer, the Frenchman retired in 1997. Just imagine what Cantona could have done in the early MLS. His personality might have hit the fast-forward button on the league's development. It was, of course, David Beckham, and his polite English charm that played that role instead, paving the way for players like Zlatan to play in the league.

While Zlatan has avoided many of the modern football pitfalls, especially the ones that drowned Best’s career, he does not arrive without controversy. Most of what I know of Zlatan’s controversial moments have centered around aggressive tactics and a bit of a temper with team officials and teammates — situations that have been placed into the right light by public relations managers as simply being overly competitive. Zlatan seems to fit the mold of this time and place, just as Chinaglia and Best fit theirs.

America is still a generation or two away from its soccer athletes being able to walk with swagger and ego as they play the sport we love so much. Until then, I’m glad we are importing a bit of attitude and entertainment. Of course, the still unknown legacy of Zlatan in America will be tied closely to his ability to win, because overconfidence or not, that still plays the biggest role in how players will be remembered. I’ll still hold by my belief that the future of MLS needs to be rooted in the development of the American player, but maybe its OK to have a sideshow every once in a while.

What did you think of Zlatan’s initial splash into MLS? Who is your favorite ego in soccer? Is there a player you wished had played in MLS? Throw it in the comments below!