A Chicago Fire season ticket holder, Jeff Church expected the razzing he received at Toyota Park for wearing a white Galaxy jersey with No. 9 "IBRAHIMOVIC" on the back to Saturday's game.
"It isn't every day you get a chance to see a living legend, so this was in his honor," said Church, a youth soccer coach from Dyer, Ind., who brought his teenage daughter, Jiana. "This was different."
This was the highlight of the Fire home season despite a 1-0 loss, a sellout due largely to the presence of otherworldly striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Galaxy's 36-year-old superstar and – for one blustery, 38-degree afternoon in April – soccer's gift to Chicago. This was a glimpse at greatness, a rare chance to see one of the few players a sport knows by a singular name such as Messi and Ronaldo, an opportunity to see a soccer magician work his Ibracadabra.
In a city where the NHL and NBA playoffs took the year off, the Cubs keep flirting with .500 and the White Sox remain at the mercy of Mother Nature, Ibrahimovic's first MLS start offered the weekend's most intrigue. And the difference in the outcome was what everybody came to see: an Ibrahimovic goal in first-half stoppage time when he headed in a diagonal cross from teammate Ashley Cole. In the Univision booth, the announcer bellowed: "There is the lion, there is God, there is Zlatan!"
There was the intimidating 6-foot-5-inch, 209-pounder with his trademark orange Nike soccer boots and familiar man bun, distinguishing himself the way he knows best.
"I feel I should have scored another two goals because I missed chances I normally don't miss, but we won the game," Ibrahimovic said. "It was not an easy game, especially with the weather. We come with the sun. They come with the wind. The sun was the stronger today. So we're happy."
Ibrahimovic stayed all smiles taking postgame selfies in the hallway with Blackhawks legend Marian Hossa. Fire star Bastian Schweinsteiger waved some buddies into the Galaxy locker room to meet Ibrahimovic, his former Manchester United teammate. Sports celebrities appeared just as giddy around Ibrahimovic as fans such as Darren Goodwin, who drove up from St. Louis to experience the spectacle with 21,915 others – the largest announced attendance ever at the stadium.
"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 in terms of stature."
The comparison Zlatan fan Jake Daar made was Connor McGregor, the unpredictable UFC fighter with a similarly large, loyal following. Daar, wearing one of the hundreds of the easy-to-spot No. 9 jerseys, booked his flight from Raleigh, N.C., once the Galaxy signed Ibrahimovic last month.
"I had been wanting to visit a friend here and when I saw this on the schedule, it was must-see," Daar said. "Zlatan says, 'I know how good I am, now watch me.' "
So the soccer world stares, from Sweden to the southwest suburbs, where Ibrahimovic's fellow countrymen Jimmie Kotilainen and Jacob Ryd drove several hours each to support their favorite player. Their long trips proved worth it for both Swedes who came to America to play college hockey, Ryd at Marian University in Fond-du-lac, Wis., and Kotilainen at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"We had to be here," Ryd said.
Added Kotilainen, in Ibrahimovic's yellow Swedish national team jersey: "It's his confidence. He doesn't just talk, he backs it up."
A day after Ibrahimovic signed with the Galaxy, for example, he took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times that read, "Los Angeles, you're welcome" over a huge picture of him. Then Ibrahimovic went out in his Galaxy debut March 31 and scored two goals in 19 minutes, one a highlight-reel dandy from 40 yards and the other a game-winning header.
"The fans wanted Zlatan," he said after that game. "And I gave them Zlatan."
Those expectations explain why, when Ibrahimovic fails to convert opportunities into goals, the crowd acts so surprised, such as when Fire goalie Richard Sanchez rejected close shots at the 33rd and 74th minutes. One day, Sanchez will tell his grandkids about the day he stopped Zlatan, which sounds like a comic book title.
"That was a great feeling," Sanchez said. "I wished we could have won but I loved going against a player like that."
It's not every day you play against a guy with 31.4 million Instagram followers who has written the autobiography "I Am Zlatan." With due respect to Kris Bryant and Patrick Kane, and possibly Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, Chicago doesn't have an athlete who approaches Ibrahimovic's international superstardom. On Tuesday, the guy perfect for Hollywood will appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and Ibrahimovic already met Shaquille O'Neal at a Lakers game. Since Ibrahimovic signed a two-year, $3 million contract last month – turning down what one report said was a $100 million offer from a Chinese team – Galaxy spokesman Brendan Hannan estimates he has received 400 interview requests.
Based on the rock-star reception Ibrahimovic received in Bridgeview, that seems low.
"It was cool," Ibrahimovic said of the local response. "I heard they never fill the stadium, so I should come often."
Not speaking for the Fire or their goalies, but Zlatan is welcome here anytime.