Zlatan Ibrahimovic always knows what he’s doing.
Whether he’s trying some flamboyant shot or crafty pass, the Swedish superstar regularly pulls off magic that almost look like they happen by accident, only it’s usually just Ibrahimovic being equal parts creative and daring.
The same applies to his less savory actions on the field, His well-positioned elbows that tend to inflict damage on opponents who are almost always shorter and therefore in position to be hurt even though Ibrahimovic’s arms may not be that high. The same goes for the times he goes in on the occasional challenge, fighting for the ball but also occasionally landing a stud on a foot or leg.
So when Ibrahimovic responded to New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson bumping him and walk up on him, The 6-foot-5 Ibrahimovic responded by putting his hand around the neck of the 6-foot-3 goalkeeper shortly before the two men went to the ground and Johnson reached for his neck like someone who had just been choked violently.
Multiple replay angles show two things. One is Johnson reacting theatrically to being grabbed, the other is Ibrahimovic putting his hand on the throat of Johnson. What camera angles don’t show is just what Ibrahimovic did with that hand, whether he just placed it gently with the intention of a mild push, or he squeezed it hard, which is what you are led to believe based on Johnson’s reaction. That is unless you’re in the camp that believes Johnson seriously embellished the contact.
MLS is no stranger to being stuck in a situation where it has to discipline a superstar. David Beckham and Thierry Henry were both suspended for on-field transgressions during their stints in MLS, so it shouldn’t be considered too shocking if league officials look at the Ibrahimovic choke/handshake/love tap and decide now is a time to show the rest of the league that nobody is above the law. Not even the player who recently said he “is” MLS.
Why a suspension? There’s no way around the fact that Ibrahimovic is just two weeks removed from the incident at Real Salt Lake where he talked trash to RSL defender Nedum Onuoha, then entered the RSL locker room after the match. He may have gone there to presumably make piece with Onuoha, but the English defender wasn’t having it, rejected the olive branch and proceeded to bash Ibrahimovic in post-game interviews, calling him a thug and intimating that the former Manchester United, FC Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain star was given preferential treatment by MLS.
Onuoha’s complaints sounded a lot like whining — at least the complaints about trash talking that included physical threats — but Ibrahimovic’s impromptu locker room visit left a clear impression that he was somehow able to do whatever he wants.
Ibrahimovic didn’t face any punishment for the incidents at RSL — in part because there was no established policy expressly forbidding Ibrahimovic from visiting the RSL locker room — but the whole series of incidents — the trash talking and the locker room non-apology — became an international story, and not the kind MLS could be too happy about.
Here we are, two weeks later, and Ibrahimovic is at the center of controversy again, only this time MLS has a rule in place that could lead to some punishment. Coincidentally enough, it was Henry who was known to get too handsy with opponents, delivering not-so-playful head pats (more like slaps) that eventually led to league policy forbidding it. Now, with clear video evidence of Ibrahimovic placing his hand on the throat of an opponent, even if it wasn’t the Bruce Lee death grip Johnson made it out to be, MLS has recourse for delivering some punishment.
A one-game suspension would send just enough of a message to Ibrahimovic that he needs to start behaving better, and also letting the rest of the league know that no player is immune from justice. That being said, it probably doesn’t hurt that the Galaxy’s next match is a home game against the league’s worst team, the winless Colorado Rapids. After three games in eight days, all Galaxy losses, Ibrahimovic could probably use a game off anyway, so as far as suspensions go, a one-game suspension against the worst team in MLS is pretty light, more hard slap on the wrist than squeeze of the throat.
Anything more than that would be a bit excessive, though probably not to those who feel like he has already gotten away with plenty. The reality is his “choke” of Johnson wasn’t exactly Patrick Swayze’s killer throat grab in Road House, even if Johnson did everything but tear open some blood packets to sell the damage. As theatrical as Johnson’s reaction was, it didn’t change the fact that Ibrahimovic shouldn’t be grabbing an opponent by the throat, not gently or forcefully.
It was the type of incident MLS needs to punish in order to send a message to Ibrahimovic that, while he may be the league’s biggest star, he isn’t too big a star to escape punishment.