Ibrahimovic has nothing to apologize for after Onuoha trash-talking scandal

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Katharine Lotze
The criticism aimed at Zlatan Ibrahimovic for trash-talking Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha is misguided

Zlatan Ibrahimovic needed to get going. The star striker was in the midst of a lackluster performance, and with his team locked in a 1-1 tie against Real Salt Lake, he decided it was time to talk some trash to the biggest defender on the other team. A few minutes later he scored the winning goal, turning to the big defender and screaming at his vanquished foe.

The moment would have come and gone without much attention if the defender in question, Nedum Onouha, didn't proceed to bash Ibrahimovic in post-game interviews for behavior he deemed to be thuggish. Onuoha didn't take kindly to the Swedish attacker saying he would injure Onuoha, so when Ibrahimovic showed up in the RSL locker room to shake hands after the match, the former Manchester City defender rejected the peace offering, deciding instead to rail on his opponent's behavior and the perceived star treatment he receives.

While you can certainly argue that visiting the visiting team's locker room after an emotionally-charged match wasn't the best idea, the notion that Ibrahimovic did something wrong by engaging in mental warfare with an opponent during a professional soccer match is a head scratcher. Trash talking isn't something all players are into — and is clearly not something Onuoha is a fan of — but to label Ibrahimovic a thug for talking trash to an opponent was the type of pearl-clutching you don't generally see from 6-foot-2 defenders the size of a heavyweight boxer.

The former Manchester United striker isn't everybody's cup of tea — and that reality was made clear in the wake of this latest incident, as evidenced by the waves of condemnation of Ibrahimovic's behavior, and the support for Onuoha "standing up for himself" and not taking his enemy's abuse.

Only he did take the abuse, and did give up the winning goal shortly after Ibrahimovic started jawing at him. The 37-year-old set out to motivate himself by trash-talking an opponent and it worked, so how exactly did Onuoha win? More importantly, how did Ibrahimovic do anything wrong? Onuoha mentioned some physical contact as well, but he received a yellow card for that. Should the referee have also issued a yellow card for harsh language?

Onuoha wasn't wrong in his assessment that stars like Ibrahimovic are treated differently in MLS, and the LA Galaxy ace isn't the first star player to straddle crossing the line with emotionally- charged play. Thierry Henry was notorious for trying to psyche out opponents, and was known for having his flashes of anger during his time with the New York Red Bulls. MLS even instituted a rule forbidding contact with opponents' heads after Henry not-so-playfully slapped opponents heads on multiple occasions.

That isn't to say players are allowed to say anything they want on the field. Racist slurs are clearly off-limits and it just so happens that a player in the American second division, the USL, was cut loose by his team after aiming racial slurs at an opponent the day before Ibrahimovic's incident with Onuoha. It was the kind of swift justice racist behavior deserves.

What Ibrahimovic is being accused of falls well below that same standard of bad behavior. A player trying to psyche themselves up, and psyche out an opponent, with threats of physical violence in the midst of a physical game, isn't common, but it also doesn't violate any rules. There's nothing wrong with finding that sort of behavior off-putting or repugnant, but there's also nothing wrong with seeing it as part of professional sports.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic Nedum Onouha

Was it a bad look for Ibrahimovic to taunt Onuoha after scoring? Absolutely, and if there was anything for him to be apologetic about, it was that reaction, but he was clearly caught up in the moment. Once the match ended, Ibrahimovic visited RSL's locker room to smooth things over, and offered to shake Onuoha's hand in an attempt to show there were no hard feelings — though at no point has he or anyone associated with the Galaxy confirmed Onuoha's description of the post-game locker room visit as an actual apology.

What Ibrahimovic did say was that what happens on the field stays on the field, and after scoring the game-winning goal, it's difficult to imagine the forward regretted anything he did. More than likely, Ibrahimovic probably came away surprised at the fact that Onuoha took his trash-talking so personally and stayed upset about it even after the final whistle blew.

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Trash talk doesn't make Ibrahimovic a thug or a bully, least of all when his trash talk is aimed at the biggest player on the opposing team. It's what he needed to do to get himself going and Onuoha's job was to stop him and he failed. His post-match diatribe over Ibrahimovic's behavior only served to paint him as a mentally soft player, though clearly not to those who detest trash talking and aren't fans of the experienced forward's egotistical persona.

The Galaxy and Real Salt Lake are scheduled to meet again later this season, on September 25 in Utah, and if both players are on the field, you can rest assured it will be must-see TV. Onouha will have his chance to let his play do the talking, which is his prerogative, but Ibrahimovic will also have his chance to try get into Onuoha's head with some trash talk, which is entirely his right

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