Almost four years have gone by since I moved to Paris. I arrived in the City of Lights a few months after Zlatan Ibrahimović, unpacking my luggage under the Eiffel Tower in January 2013, while the Swedish striker signed with Paris Saint-Germain in July 2012.
Before moving to Paris for my job, I’d been in the city for six months as part of a student exchange in 2010, and I carried with me the memory of a city where people “preferred rugby”, or had strong sympathies for teams enjoying the most European success: Manchester United, Barcelona, Inter. There were no PSG flags hanging from balconies or flowing around in the streets, outside the bars, or even next to souvenirs shops or the iconic bouquinistes on the Seine river. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to spot PSG flags here and there, and souvenir shops showcase PSG shirts the same way they displayed Zidane’s national team shirt some years ago.
Things have changed, mainly because of Qatar Sports Investment, which purchased the club in 2011 and became the sole stakeholder in 2012, making PSG the richest team in France and among the richest in the world.
The first season of PSG under the new property wasn’t, however, as successful as the new stakeholders had hoped: the Parisian club finished the league in the 2nd place; despite a change on the bench – Carlo Ancelotti replaced Antoine Kombouaré, while the latter had the team in first place – Montpellier’s comeback in the second half of the season proved too much. During summer 2012, an even bigger change took place: Zlatan Ibrahimović arrived in Paris from AC Milan, after the only season in his career that didn’t see the team he was playing for lift the league title.
The goodbye that Ibrahimović recently posted on social networks, before his last match at Parc des Princes, goes straight into the history of football: “I came like a king, left like a legend”.
My last game tomorrow at Parc des Princes. I came like a king, left like a legend pic.twitter.com/OpLL3wzKh0
— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) May 13, 2016
This purely zlatanesque sentence is an immense display of arrogance and egotism; however, what he wrote is true.
Thiago Silva may have cost more, but Zlatan was PSG’s main investment during that year’s mercato. It was clear Ibrahimović arrived in Paris as a king. Marco Verratti, at the time a promising youngster, was officially presented to the press only a few hours before Ibrahimović. He revealed that Zlatan asked him, as they bumped into each other behind the scenes, “So, you are the youngster that is making me lose time today?”
The four seasons that Ibrahimović spent at PSG were record breaking for the Parisian club, who won four Ligue 1 titles, three Coupe de la Ligue, three Coupe de France and three Trophée des Champions (the French Supercup). Zlatan himself was the top scorer of Ligue 1 in 2013, 2014 and 2016, and established as the team’s all-time top scorer, with 156 goals across all competitions.
But Ibra was more than just those trophies (as much as they may have meant to the team). He was the team’s leader and its most marketable player. When Nasser Al-Kelahifi brought Zlatan to PSG, he didn’t just buy a top player, he boosted the team’s character by bringing in one of the strongest personalities of the history of football, and made a marketing investment that created new PSG fans across the globe, fans that were happy to buy the club’s new merchandise.
Zlatan is somehow right: he left like a legend, because of what he accomplished while in Paris, and because he dragged the world’s attention to PSG, a club that had not been much under the spotlight, especially outside France.
In spite of his age, he largely exceeded the technical abilities of most Ligue 1 players. Off the pitch, his personality created an interesting “game of provocations” between himself and the French press. The newspapers went from from complete adoration, glorifying his records and amazing goals, to nasty baiting, pointing out how he was disliked by several team-mates, was the cause of the team’s lack of cohesion, and wasn’t able to make PSG great when the stakes were higher. In return, the player kept up with his
In return, the player kept up with his zlattitude from the beginning to the end, acting more conceited than that stereotype of Parisians we have in our minds. He’d say things like: “I put France on the world map [of football]”, and “I’ll stay at PSG only if they replace the Eiffel Tower with my own statue”.
One may love or hate Ibrahimović; he is what he is and will never change. However, his presence represented a true step up for Paris-Saint-Germain, in terms of titles conquered and media attention gained. The idea of PSG-without-Ibra, then, leaves a great question mark in the future of the French club, particularly because when Ibra failed (as happened during this year’s Champions League quarterfinal against Manchester City), PSG failed.
Zlatan has barely left the club and already there are rumors about who will be his heir. During the season, the focus was on Edinson Cavani’s future, as the Uruguayan seemed quite unhappy. Laurent Blanc’s decision to privilege Ibrahimović as his team’s main striker meant the talents of the former Serie A Capocannoniere were never fully exploited at PSG. After Ibra’s departure was made official, the press wondered whether Cavani would become the center of the project for next year’s PSG. Such an option seems unlikely after three disappointing seasons compromised his reputation in Paris.
One possible scenario seems more a mercato-fantasy (or a PSG supporter’s dream): the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo to the City of Lights. The Portuguese would fill the Ibra-shaped hole in Paris nearly perfectly: he’d score plenty, he’d bring a (different, but still remarkable) dose of arrogance and character, and he’d be exceedingly visible and thus marketable. With CR7 among their ranks, PSG would still be able to win the league in March, and would continue selling shirts worldwide. New shirts, with No.7 on the back.
But let’s be serious. Ronaldo’s transfer fee is way too high, and Florentino Pérez would rather keep his star than cash in. Plus, it’s doubtful the three-time Ballon d’Or winner wants to leave Real Madrid to play against Troyes, Guingamp or Evian.
Rising star Álvaro Morata, who’s made quite an impression at the Euros, has also been linked to Paris-Saint-Germain. The Spaniard is young and eager to demonstrate he can be a first-choice striker in a top team, making him a decent investment. However, he lacks experience and his character is still developing.
Antoine Griezmann or Gonzalo Higuaín look like great choices, with the former having his French nationality as a plus, and the latter just coming out of a record-breaking season. But it’s thought the Frenchman will soon renew his contract with Atlético Madrid, while the Napoli forward has a nearly-€100 million release clause that must be met.
While transfer rumors are certainly already swirling, this summer’s tournaments are likely to delay serious transfer negotiations until mid-July. That means there can’t be quick answer to the question on every PSG supporter’s mind, “Who will be the next Ibra?”
The correct response should be, “There won’t be a next Ibra”. PSG needs to become an actual team, rather than “the team where Ibra plays” (or should we say, “the team where Ibra chose to demonstrate how huge, unique, and amazing he is”).
There’s a solid bunch of players already in Paris who can continue leading the club to trophies: two decent goalkeepers (Kevin Trapp and Salvatore Sirigu; at least one of team will stay in Paris); one of the best centerbacks in the world (that’s Thiago Silva, not David Luiz – just so we’re clear); promising young French players like Layvin Kurzawa and Adrien Rabiot; two midfielders, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, considered among the stars of their national teams; and a striker who proved himself great at Napoli and, if shifted back to his preferred central position, could shine again now that Ibrahimović has left.
Regardless of who they choose to lead their attack, PSG must cease to be a “one man band” so the club can cement itself amongst Europe’s elite. Rather than bring in the next Ibra, becoming a team will edge PSG closer to the Champions League title that is still missing from their cabinet, which is now stuffed full of trophies that are too easy to win.
This path is more complicated to pursue than the route that involves making one huge recruitment. It will involve the improvement, in both skills and mentality, of existing players, as well as integrating a few essential additions. PSG’s goal is to consistently make the Champions League final, and this is the only way to reach that goal. The impression is that Paris Saint-Germain must go through a full revolution. Instead, what was not achieved when Zlatan Ibrahimović was there, must now be achieved without him.