One of the most electrifying eras in Major League Soccer history came to an end on Wednesday, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy announced that they were mutually parting ways after two seasons together. While the LA Galaxy have time to figure out what to do with the roughly $7 million in savings from Ibra’s contract, the clock is ticking for the big striker in terms of figuring out his next move. He will be free to join another club in January.
ESPN FC sources say that Ibra is looking to join a club in the Champions League — a trophy he’s never won — or one with which he has an emotional connection. He has played for eight European clubs throughout his career, earning 31 major trophies across five countries. It’s no surprise that several clubs might be interested in his services, even at 38 years old. A source in MLS recently intimated that Ibra has “received several offers” and that the strongest likelihood is “probably in Italy.”
Let’s break down his options across the soccer world, one by one.
With reporting from Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson, Stephanie Brantz, Jonathan Johnson, James Horncastle, Stephan Uersfeld and Tom Marshall
Returning to one of the clubs that made him great (or that he made great)
The first batch of teams to consider are places he’s played before: There are nine of them spanning two decades, though we can rule out the Galaxy in this equation. For the other eight, it makes some sense to go back: Relationships already exist, the fit could be a little smoother given that familiarity, and most of those clubs also have the financial capacity to pay him. He also performed fairly well for almost all of them, yet the interest levels aren’t there, at least not right now, according to sources.
AC Milan, where he won the Serie A title in 2011, are among the front-runners for Ibrahimovic’s signature — Ibra’s agent, Mino Raiola, has reportedly offered the striker’s services to the Rossoneri in recent weeks — but according to ESPN FC sources, opinion at the club is divided. MLS commissioner Don Garber’s comments about Zlatan being recruited by Milan were misinterpreted in Italy. But the rumours won’t go away even though sources say it would go against the club’s recent strategy, which, over the course of the past two windows, has exclusively focused on signing players age 25 or younger. Milan need experience and possibly another guarantor of goals now that Krzysztof Piatek, the man who replaced Gonzalo Higuain, is going through a serious dip in form.
Any deal would have to be on Milan’s terms: a short contract on low wages relative to Zlatan’s earning potential. Do we really expect him to settle, especially with AC Milan not even in the Europa League this season?
Another former club of Ibra’s in Italy is AC Milan’s cross-town rivals, Inter Milan, where he won three league titles in three years as well as two Italian Super Cups. They, too, remain a possibility. Inter boss Antonio Conte is looking for another forward, having failed in his bid to sign Edin Dzeko from Roma in the summer, but sources have told ESPN FC that the club are wary of committing. Equally, Ibrahimovic’s arrival would likely mean a system shift in terms of how they line up, which seems unlikely with the club back in the Champions League. That said, they could well be eliminated following the group stage — they’re third in Group F behind Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, with two games remaining — and that could adjust their thinking.
Ibra spent more time at Paris Saint-Germain than any of his other clubs, with four consecutive league titles and over 150 goals in 180 games. But does a move back to Ligue 1 make any sense? The club has two center-forwards (Edinson Cavani, Mauro Icardi) as well as Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, revamping significantly since the Swede left the club in the summer of 2016. Sources told ESPN that he would have liked to stay maybe a year or two more but left and joined Manchester United. (More on them in a minute.)
In Paris, Zlatan helped the Qatari-owned super-club reach the next level, but the Parisians felt that to keep growing and developing, they needed a new superstar. Ibra will always be a special player in Paris’ history, and sources say he might come back someday as an ambassador or in another role, but he won’t return as a player.
So how about the Premier League and Manchester United? Ibra won the Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League there in just 18 months, but the club aren’t interested. Their league form could benefit from additional scoring following the summer exists of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, and, in public at least, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has not ruled out the prospect of bringing Ibrahimovic back to Old Trafford. But sources tell ESPN FC that the club’s transfer strategy is focused on sourcing younger talent.
After scoring 29 goals in 53 games during two seasons in Manchester, Ibrahimovic is still well thought of at the club, but United are insistent they will not make panic signings halfway through the season. Unless Marcus Rashford and/or Anthony Martial suffer significant injuries in the next six weeks, that is unlikely to change.
This leaves four clubs that previously had Ibra Fever. We know how things ended with Barcelona and Zlatan last time around — well, with Zlatan and Pep Guardiola — but the big striker could be a sharp, quick-fix alternative to Lionel Messi.
A homecoming at Ajax, scene of his first professional trophies, wouldn’t be mad, but his profile doesn’t fit the club’s ambitions — and in any event, they have an aging, hometown hero on the bench in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Juventus have too many forwards — Cristiano Ronaldo, Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic, Marko Pjaca — and money tied up in salaries across the squad to make a reach for Ibra seem unlikely. As far as his actual hometown, Malmo FF‘s new league season doesn’t begin until March, and it’s tough to imagine him waiting that long to return to action.
Other big clubs in Europe?
The big two in Spain beyond Barcelona might be “impossible” for the ageless goal scorer in terms of engineering a move. Zinedine Zidane‘s Real Madrid have a ton of bodies up front already — Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema are over 30, Eden Hazard is 28 this season, and Luka Jovic, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio are still maturing. The club seem hamstrung by the need to invest elsewhere.
Atlético Madrid have a lot of strikers already (Alvaro Morata, Joao Felix, Diego Costa) and did try to acquire depth (Rodrigo) in the summer to offset the departures of Antoine Griezmann (to Barcelona), midfielder Rodri (to Man City) and defender Lucas Hernandez (to Bayern Munich). Costa’s long-term injury — his slipped disk requires surgery — means they need help, but they’re at the salary-cap limit permitted by La Liga.
Another option for Ibrahimovic is Napoli, of whom he recently spoke fondly, but the club is in turmoil following a recent mutiny by the players. While club president Aurelio De Laurentiis has gone public with his interest in the 38-year-old striker, there are a lot of red flags around the club as Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon are in the final year of their contracts and coach Carlo Ancelotti’s status appears uncertain.
A romantic choice in Italy could be Bologna. Ibrahimovic has talked about playing for his old friend Sinisa Mihajlovic, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia. It remains to be seen whether Zlatan is prepared to follow through on his apparent willingness to play at the Renato Dall’Ara and whether the financial package put together by the club is attractive enough amid great competition for his signature.
Are there any other options in the Premier League?
Our intel suggests Tottenham wouldn’t be as interested as it sounds. The London factor is appealing, and his arrival would distract from broader issues at the club — such as team chemistry and squad depth — but he is not the biggest need for this team, and certainly not at the price point it would require to bring him to the English capital. Chelsea are still on a transfer ban, and Man City wouldn’t work due to the Guardiola Issue.
Liverpool are a genuine wild card: He’d offer a different dimension in attack, and they could use a battle-tested striker, not to mention they might be one of the clearest paths to that elusive European title that Ibra craves. However, it would have to come in the face of two glaring issues: Ibra simply does not press from the front, a key component of whoever leads the Reds’ line, and his presence would cause waves to a well-calibrated club culture established by Jurgen Klopp.
Sources have told ESPN FC that Russian side Zenit St. Petersburg remain a serious option, although their league does not get underway until March, and that Borussia Dortmund are not interested in his signature. The German side are likely to make changes this winter, and Ibra has flirted with BVB in the past. Dortmund also have a Raiola player (Immanuel Pherai) coming through the ranks and will need to add a striker in January: Marco Reus doesn’t like playing at centre-forward, Paco Alcacer is the only option right now and Lucien Favre is flexible enough from a tactical perspective to make it work. The club could use some distraction but might not be able to, or willing to, handle his wage requests.
Elsewhere in the Bundesliga or in Ligue 1, there appear to be few viable suitors. Bayern Munich might make sense in a weird way — they need backup for the league’s runaway best player this season, Robert Lewandowski — but he’s never played in Germany and might need too much time to get up to speed. The other issue is management: Bayern recently cut ties with coach Niko Kovac, installing a caretaker in Kovac’s former assistant, Hans-Dieter Flick, and identifying a new long-term manager is the top priority for a club in need of a cultural refresh. Those don’t often happen with 38-year-old strikers.
Red Bull Leipzig are a poor fit for myriad reasons — it’s simply not how they do business — and the only team beyond PSG with sufficient resources in France, Lyon, have zero interest. A left-field option could be Hertha Berlin. They have a new investor, Lars Windhorst, who injected some €225m into the club in recent weeks. Former Bayern and U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann is on their supervisory board, and despite their struggles, they are dreaming of becoming a Big City Club (whatever that means). Local papers have introduced the name Jose Mourinho to the rumor mill as a possible new coach (as current coach Ante Covic has disappointed). Rate this one in the “long shot” category.
What if he’s not moving to Europe?
Given Ibra’s work in expanding soccer’s profile in the United States with the Galaxy, it’s clear he is unafraid of an adventure or a move that makes him both a player and an ambassador for the sport. In that spirit, he’s already had interest from further afield.
Australian A-League side Perth Glory announced in October that they’d made a bid to sign Ibrahimovic. While that move seems highly unlikely, Perth CEO Tony Pignata was noncommittal. While Ibra’s representatives have not rejected the bid outright, conversations were strictly exploratory in nature: There were no terms discussed or offers, either on contract length or wages.
Argentina side Boca Juniors are no strangers to star power, having brought Carlos Tevez back to Argentina as well as proving attractive enough for Daniele De Rossi to leave AS Roma, the only club he’d ever known, to try his hand in South America. According to a report in Marca back in September, contact had been made between Ibrahimovic’s camp and Boca.
PSG’s links with Qatar have yet to result in a clear connection between Ibrahimovic and a team in the Qatar Super League, and it’s also uncertain whether he could return to a different team in MLS following the expiration of his contract in Los Angeles. As for the Chinese Super League or J.League, increasingly popular destinations for aging stars, there’s been no recorded interest from any clubs so far.
This is the world according to Ibrahimovic, and we’re all waiting for his decision. (If we had to pick, we’d reckon he ends up in Milan, one way or the other.)