Zava explained: AFC Richmond’s star is more real than you think

When life imitates art imitates life imitates art.

by Justin Choo

In contrast to the classic method acting Brit who will probably wind up doing a Kirk Lazurus in the most extreme of cases, Hollywood is probably the only place where you can pretty much play a version of yourself in every role that you take on a la Robert Downey Junior or Ryan Reynolds.

So I was rather amused by the latest episode of Ted Lasso, where we managed to see more of Zava, the latest addition to AFC Richmond. Zava showing up at Nelson Road is the equivalent of a Ferrari being serviced at the cheapest workshop in Ubi–no offence of course to the cheapest car workshop in Ubi, whomever you may be.

Football fans will instantly recognise the gag, but for the rest, here’s why it’s hilarious: you almost can’t tell the difference between reel life and real life.

The showrunners at Ted Lasso made no attempt to disguise the fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the inspiration for the messianic superstar in the TV show, the latter whom no doubt will set Richmond on fire with his prolific output on the field and his larger-than-life personality off the pitch. And his signature penchant for speaking in the third person. How the footballing world in Ted Lasso talks about Zava is pretty much how the Internet talks about Zlatan.

Those who know about Zlatan are divided into two camps: people who adore him, and those who detest him; there is rarely an in-between. For those who do not, once again, I assure you that his antics in Ted Lasso almost feel like the real thing. Much like Chuck Norris, social media comments around Zlatan are often filled with a wall of ‘facts’ that laud Zlatan’s ability to do anything–just like Chuck Norris–because of his fictionalised awesomeness.

Ted Lasso fans in America certainly did not miss the tip of the hat to the Swedish superstar, because they already had a taste of the man for themselves. 

This is the man, who, upon his transfer to LA Galaxy football club, took out a one-page advertisement in the local newspaper that put, quite simply, “Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome.” He proceeded to deride Carlos Vela, star player of local rivals LA FC and at the time, the MLS’ best player, for his lack of accomplishments in a spicy interview that preceded the highly anticipated clash–hilariously dubbed ‘El Traffico’–between their two sides. Zlatan came on as a substitute to score a stunning first goal that was voted the best goal in MLS history in 2020 and proceeded to also enter MLS folklore for the most gigachad debut ever by scoring the winner in extra time.

This is the man who, upon receiving a signed jersey from Lebron James as a welcome gift, proceeded to sign it and sent it back to King James. You’re welcome, LeBron.

America was in love. The yanks have always loved its trash talkers who could walk the walk–Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird, just to name a few. And they took to Zlatan quite easily. He scored his 500th career goal in the most Zlatan way possible: a taekwondo-inspired flying hook kick, and proceeded to casually strut back to the centre circle without any fanfare. It was just business as usual. “Lions don’t compare themselves to humans,” he famously responded when his name was conspicuously missing from his own list of top strikers.

The showrunners were certainly taking the piss with Zava, though one or two might not seem out of place for Zlatan–who, despite what most might think, is fully self-aware and is playing it up for the cameras. But everyone in Richmond loves Zava and what he brings to the team. Well, everyone except Jamie Tartt, who’s clearly upset at not being the centre of attention any more, and surely, he’s condemned to spend the rest of the season trying to overcome his self-doubt and push himself to the next level.

But Tartt need not be worried about Zava derailing Richmond if the inspiration is true to real life: at the ripe old age of 39, Zlatan returned to Europe after his LA stint, joining Italian royalty AC Milan mid-season in 2019, who were languishing in mid-table mediocrity unbefitting of their station. His impact was immediate, galvanising the side into a team of lions that finished second in his first full season–he finished as the top scorer for his club–and lifted the Scudetto (championship) in the next. Meta-level foreshadowing for the TV series? Who knows.

As Zlatan rides toward the sunset after an unusually long career at the top, his personality will surely do him no harm for a transition to the silver screen. He is set to make his big screen debut in the Fench comedy-action film, Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom as the Roman, Caius Antivirus, who unsurprisingly, is looked upon like a god by his men. It remains to be seen if Hollywood is keen on hiring Zlatan to play himself or in true Hollywood style, a caricature of himself, but it won’t hurt to grow his mystique further with a much-beloved franchise.

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