CARSON, Calif. — Zlatan Ibrahimovic spent much of his storied career developing an aura of invincibility. His unique combination of size, strength, speed and skill made it easy to think he should walk around with an "S" on his chest, like Superman. Throw in the supersized ego, the pile of trophies he has won, and the more than 500 goals he has scored, and you have a recipe for a superstar who often seemed unstoppable.
Ibrahimovic felt anything but unstoppable a year ago though. The striker suffered the first major injury of his career, tearing ligaments in his knee and bringing an end to a dominant first season in the Premier League with Manchester United. He went from being on top of the soccer world, to laying in a hospital bed struggling with a reality he had never experienced before.
"I felt my body, when I was laying in bed, and I could not move after the operation, I felt my body started to shake because I needed to do something," Ibrahimovic said. "Because I’d been doing this for 20 years.
"Football players are programed. They wake up, they go to training, they go back home, they rest. They repeat every day like that, and I could not do it. I did so many boring trainings every day, but mentally I became stronger."
Anybody would start believing in their own invincibility after spending two decades dominating the soccer world, and also start to take things for granted. Asked by Goal if the injury, and the process to recover, made him find a new appreciation for the game, Ibrahimovic made it clear the ordeal had changed him.
"After my injury, that was something new that happened in my career. I never had it. I played every game, every season, so let’s say 70 games a season. I trained every day, I played every day, because that’s me. I want to play, I want to be involved. When I got my injury, something new happened. I was suddenly in a new situation, from on top to bottom."
The time he spent recovering from knee surgery, and the setback he suffered after returning earlier than expected, has led him to have a whole new appreciation for the sport he loves.
He has brought that new-found appreciation with him to the LA Galaxy, which he joined on Friday for his first training session ahead of what could be his MLS debut on Saturday against crosstown rival Los Angeles FC.
"I just want to go out there, smell the grass, appreciate every time I put my shoes on, my football shoes, just to feel the ball," Ibrahimovic said. "Just to touch the ball, to kick it, to pass it, to run. It took me back where I began to play football. That is what I felt. I appreciate every time I can go out and just do those things that I’ve been doing for the past 20 years."
Ibrahimovic's comments regarding his injury ordeal were surprisingly candid, and showed a far more vulnerable side to the Swedish superstar than we're used to seeing. The words rang true though for anybody who watched him in training on Friday, when he seemed to openly revel in the most mundane practice drills, soaking in that familiar feeling of being a team's big star.
He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he didn't want to leave the practice field.
"Today, when we finished the training I just wanted to continue," Ibrahimovic said. "I even asked the coach, can I go and shoot some balls there and he gave me the OK, so I went over and I shot.
"I feel young," said the 36-year-old Swede. "I said once before I feel like Benjamin Button. I was born old, and I will die young, this is for sure."
Ibrahimovic's new coach noticed the joy with which his new player seemed to embrace training, and isn't surprised to see him so motivated after spending much of the past year on the sidelines.
"I've seen it in other players, that appreciation for the game after you've been away from it," Sigi Schmid told Goal. "A really good example was Chad Marshall when we were in Columbus together. We shut him down for the last three or four months of the season (due to concussions) and I asked him what do you think, and he said 'I really love this game.'
"Sebastian Lletget is another good example," Schmid said, referring to the Galaxy midfielder who missed almost a full year with a foot injury. "When it gets taken away, you miss it and it's something you really appreciate after going through something like that.
"If you got hurt and you didn't miss it then it's probably time to hang it up."
There's no doubting that Ibrahimovic has missed the game, and his lofty place in its stratosphere. The question since his knee surgery has been whether someone his age could recover from a major injury at such an advanced age. For Ibrahimovic, it's just another challenge he's ready to conquer.
"At 35, people said I would never make it in the Premier League," he said. "Even with players I talked to, they said don’t go there because you had like 20 years of experience in other competitions, you had all your trophies you won. You put that, everything and gamble when you go to the Premier League because if I would do one season in the Premier League that was not good they would all say all that you did before was not good enough because you didn’t make it here.
"But I took all those years and I put it on one bet. Let’s go to the Premier League and you will see what happens," Ibrahimovic said. "Same thing here [in MLS], I don’t have [anything] to prove. Where I needed to prove [somethin] was when I was at Malmo and Ajax, when I was young.
"Now I just have to perform. The player will not change if you do good or not. It’s all about what you perform, so there is nothing to prove, because I am the player I am. I know what I’m able to do, and I know I will do it."
As for the notion that he has something to prove as he embarks on his career with the Galaxy?
"That you ask to an 18-year-old that comes to a new environment," Ibrahimovic said. "I’ve been doing this for 23 years. I know in my head what the game is, but now the rest of my body has to follow, and it will follow."
Make no mistake, the man known as Ibra has not lost any of the confidence that has helped make him the player he is, but he has gained a new realization of his own physical mortality, along with a renewed appreciation for the game and for the remaining opportunities he has to play it.
No, the lion isn't invincible, but after what he has been through over the past year, it's easy to see why — as Ibrahimovic put it on Friday — "the lion is hungry."