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'I Gave Them Zlatan:' Ibrahimovic Lives Up to Larger-Than-Life Reputation in Irrepressible Debut

For a man built for the spotlight, even Zlatan couldn't truly express his incredible debut for the Galaxy.

The full-page ad in Friday’s Los Angeles Times said simply, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome.”

In retrospect, it seems modest.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic refers to himself as a lion, has his own line of signature underwear and last week, he tweeted a picture of himself dressed in a white robe and arm wrestling the devil. He’s confident, to say the least. And despite his age (36) and a serious knee injury suffered in April, Ibrahimovic was certain good things were in store when he signed with the LA Galaxy last week. He’d won titles and beguiled both fans and opponents with spectacular goals at every stop in an iconic career. Soon, L.A. would be showing its gratitude.

“I know what I am able to do, and I know what I will do. I come here to win. I feel excited. The lion is hungry,” the Swede said. “I’m not arrogant. I’m confident. The people who don’t understand say I’m arrogant.”

No spotlight is too bright. No occasion is too grand. No layoff is too long, and no deficit is too large for Ibrahimovic. He’s made a habit of scoring in his first game with a new club, and he enjoyed the sort of debut Saturday with the Galaxy that would be almost impossible to script for anyone but the larger-than-life striker.

The timing was perfect. Coming off the worst season in club history, the five-time champion Galaxy now had a genuine, threatening local rival to deal with—a well-financed, well-marketed and well-coached team in Los Angeles FC that started its expansion season 2-0-0. Saturday was the first MLS meeting between the new rivals, and the Galaxy needed to make a statement at StubHub Center. Instead, the hosts face-planted out of the gate. LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Marco Ureña were unstoppable, and the upstarts were ahead, 3-0, at half.

The Galaxy pulled one back through Sebastian Lletget—who also knows something about returning from injury—and then the chants from the sellout crowd grew louder.

“I think I heard, ‘We want Zlatan! We want Zlatan!’ And I gave them Zlatan,” Ibrahimovic told Fox following the game.

He replaced Lletget in the 71st minute and saw teammate Chris Pontius bring the Galaxy to within one two minutes later. Then, the player who’s made a habit of scoring jaw-dropping goals—who has the confidence (or arrogance) to try anything—tied the game with a strike that’ll go down in MLS history.

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It didn’t win a title. Eddie Pope’s golden goal, which decided the inaugural MLS Cup final in a 1996 New England nor’easter, will live for as long as the league does. Dwayne de Rosario, Robbie Keane and Jozy Altidore also tallied late, championship-winning goals that are the stuff of MLS Cup legend. And there have been a handful of goals sprinkled throughout the league’s 22 seasons that were slightly more audacious, from Clint Mathis’s Maradona-esque run through the Dallas defense in 2001 to Eric Hassli’s two-touch volley against Seattle a decade later.

But this one was different—because it was LA-LAFC, because it was a late equalizer, because it was a long-range stunner and because it was vintage, as-promised Zlatan. One touch in the 77th, from some 45 yards away, was all it took.

“[Ola] Kamara jumped in the duel. I go behind as a striker, and I saw the goalkeeper went out and yeah, just put it over him,” Ibrahimovic told Fox. “I was thinking to save strength because I don’t know how much I would make it, so let’s shoot in one [touch], I said. And it went in.”

At that moment, he added, the knee was “Ok. I was not worried. … It’s difficult to describe the feeling after you score a goal like that.”

While everyone was trying to process what they’d just seen, Ibrahimovic already was plotting the sequel. The momentum was firmly with the Galaxy, and LAFC was trying to hold on. It was a lot to manage for a visiting team playing just its third game together. Add the aura of Zlatan, and it's almost unfair. In the 91st minute, Galaxy captain Ashley Cole hit a cross from the left and the 6-foot-5 Ibrahimovic jumped, beat LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller to the ball and headed home the game-winner.

Ibrahimovic may have been offside—all it takes is a toe or fingertip beyond the ball when Cole hits the cross. But if custom, convention and the laws of physics don’t apply to Zlatan, then on this day, the laws of the game wouldn’t either.

“My history when I come to a new team, I score always in the first game,” he said, referencing his debuts with Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. “So, I wouldn’t let it down this time. I had to score.”

His commitment to walk the walk, like just about everything else about him, is outsized. The Galaxy won the first game of the LA-LAFC rivalry, 4-3. But Zlatan surely would tell you that all of Los Angeles won as well, not to mention MLS, American soccer and anyone around the world who happens upon the last 15 minutes of Saturday’s game online.

“I choose LA Galaxy because I wanted it. I know what I can bring it and I will bring it,” he said at his introductory press conference. “This thing was supposed to happen a couple of years before but it didn’t. I am here now. The destiny was that it was supposed to happen, the question was only when.”

It all happened Saturday. You’re welcome.