How Signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic Changed Everything for Paris Saint-Germain

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 7, 2020

AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of Sweden,  pose in front of the Eiffel Tower with  his jersey, in Paris, Wednesday, July 18, 2012 after signing an agreement with the Paris Saint Germain (PSG) club. Ibrahimovic will be the Ligue 1 club's third major signing of the summer, following the arrivals of former AC Milan teammate Thiago Silva and Napoli's Ezequiel Lavezzi. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
Jacques Brinon/Associated Press

As Zlatan Ibrahimovic's introductory press conference drew to a close inside the Parc des Princes auditorium, Paris Saint-Germain marketing director Michel Mimran quietly slipped out of a door at the back of the room.

Dressed in a dark grey suit and an open-necked white shirt, he left the stadium and hopped on the back of a black moped driven by his assistant, Jose Moury. It was a hot July afternoon in western Paris, and within minutes the pair were speeding down Avenue Georges-Mandel in the shade cast by the horse-chestnut trees that flank the road. Out of all the people involved in Ibrahimovic's unveiling as a PSG player, they were among the few who knew what was coming next.

A spectacularly talented serial trophy-winner with an ego to match, Ibrahimovic was the first superstar signing of PSG's new era, which had begun the previous year when the club was bought by Qatar's sovereign wealth fund. PSG had signed several new players that first summer, most notably Argentinian playmaker Javier Pastore, but none of them were on the same level as Ibrahimovic. In any case, the stardust had been quickly blown away when newly rich PSG were pipped to the French title by modest Montpellier.

Ibrahimovic signed for PSG in July 2012, following closely in the footsteps of his former AC Milan team-mate Thiago Silva, and his new owners wanted to mark his arrival in style. The day before his official presentation, it was decided that after the press conference at the Parc des Princes he would be taken for an improvised photoshoot in front of the Eiffel Tower before continuing on to the Champs-Elysees for a signing session at the club shop. It was all part of a desire to strengthen PSG's association with the city of Paris, which was a central element of the new owners' branding strategy.

PSG had not informed the local authorities of their plans to take their new recruit to see the Eiffel Tower. They deliberately kept fans in the dark to prevent an unmanageable crowd from forming, and the photographers who had attended the press conference were not told what was happening until the last minute. 

Less than 10 minutes after leaving the Parc des Princes, Mimran arrived at the Place du Trocadero, an elevated esplanade that overlooks the Eiffel Tower. He quickly walked through where Ibrahimovic would be asked to stand and then used a piece of chalk to mark out the photographer positions on the ground.

As journalists, photographers, club officials and a handful of security personnel wearing black suits and sunglasses assembled on the esplanade, the tourists who had been merrily taking souvenir snaps of the Eiffel Tower began to realise that something was up.

By the time Ibrahimovic arrived, wearing blue jeans and a crisp white shirt, he had to be steered through an excited crowd of a few hundred people. Beneath a blue sky strafed by wispy cirrus clouds, he posed for photographs holding a PSG shirt, performed a few keepy-uppies and then returned to the black Mercedes-Benz Viano people carrier from which he had alighted moments earlier, with chants of "Ibra! Ibra!" and "Merci Zlatan!" ringing in his ears.

"That image of Zlatan in front of the Eiffel Tower is one that people always go back to," Mimran tells Bleacher Report. "But of all the things that took place that day, it was the one that had the least preparation."

The PSG convoy carried on to the Champs-Elysees. Mimran joined PSG general manager Jean-Claude Blanc and sporting director Leonardo in one car, with Ibrahimovic and his agent, Mino Raiola, following in the car behind. By the time they arrived at the top of the world-famous shopping street, so many fans had gathered outside the PSG boutique that it was impossible for traffic to pass down one side of the road.

Police on motorbikes halted the traffic to allow the PSG cars to drive down the wrong lane, and Ibrahimovic was able to dart inside the shop and sign a few shirts before wrestling his way back through the jubilant throng of supporters outside and into the car. With fans chanting and brandishing flares, it was a chaotic scene, but PSG's directors were thrilled.

"Usually you can only go the wrong way down the Champs-Elysees in the Tour de France," says Mimran. "I was in the car with Leonardo and Jean-Claude Blanc, and Leonardo told me, 'You've organised the most beautiful mess I could ever have dreamed of. It's exactly what I wanted.' It was a crazy afternoon. The disorganisation made the magic that day. We never presented a player like that again."

Christophe Ena/Associated Press

It was a day of dizzy expectation, of wide-eyed wonder, that captured the moment PSG moved into a new dimension. But whereas many outside the club believed they were witnessing a kind of Year Zero, for PSG supporters old enough to remember the glory days of the mid-1990s, it felt more like a return to what had been before.

"We'd already had superstars at Paris," says PSG fan Fabrice de Cheverny. "I think lots of people forget that. We'd had Rai, [David] Ginola, George Weah...great players. Then there was a gap. We had a slump, albeit a slump during which we signed Ronaldinho. Then Qatar arrived. And when Qatar arrived, they started recruiting players like Ibra. It gave PSG that star quality, but it was an image that the club had already had years before."

If there was excitement among PSG's supporters, there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the changing room as well.

"Most of the players, and especially the French ones, when they heard that Zlatan was arriving, they were really excited," former PSG midfielder Mohamed Sissoko tells Bleacher Report. "It was pretty funny. I remember the conversations in the changing room. Everyone knew his story, his personality, his way of being. There was that sense of, 'How should we behave around him? Will he be nice with us?' But he turned up and he was very humble. He showed everyone that he was a great guy and he did the job."

Six days after being unveiled as a PSG player in Paris, Ibrahimovic flew to New York to join his new team-mates on their pre-season tour of the United States. Carlo Ancelotti's players were training on pitches at Princeton University, and the new arrival made an immediate impression.

"I'll remember his first training session all my life," says former PSG goalkeeping coach Gilles Bourges. "He did the first half with the fitness coach, while the others did some drills with the ball. Then he joined in training with the group. With his first touch, he knocked over Jeremy Menez, took the ball, shot and scored. And everyone thought, 'Ah, OK. That's how's it's going to be now.' Menez was like a little kid who'd run into a wall."

Ibrahimovic, then aged 30, needed less than three minutes to find the net on his PSG debut, cutting inside a defender to score with a powerful left-foot shot against D.C. United. He proved just as effective on his first competitive outing, scoring twice to help his side come from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at home to Lorient in their Ligue 1 opener. By the time of his first Christmas in Paris, he had scored 20 goals in all competitions and the Parc des Princes was already under his spell.

"When you were at the Parc, you saw Zlatan," says De Cheverny. "He was very different to the other players—this kind of warrior-giant. All the others looked small next to him. Technically, he was a monster, and when he scored a goal, he'd run to the fans with his shirt off and he'd tense his muscles. He'd be shouting—it was almost scary. Zlatan had everything and the Parisians loved that."

Ibrahimovic was sent off for the first time in his PSG career during a 2-1 home defeat by Saint-Etienne in November 2012 after catching visiting goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier in the chest with his studs. But he would claim ample revenge over the seasons that followed, and by the time he left PSG in 2016, he had scored more goals against Saint-Etienne (14) than any other team he had ever faced.

"He had that aura," says former Saint-Etienne defender Jonathan Brison. "Physically he's very big and strong, with an imposing stature. You had to be careful of his unpredictability, because he'd drop deep and do what he wanted. The last game I played against him, in the Coupe de la Ligue, I was marking him at corners, and it was like the ball was drawn to him. It was incredible. It was like he felt it."

With the swaggering Ibrahimovic in their ranks, PSG took to the field knowing that their opponents would be fearing the worst before a ball had even been kicked.

"You saw the fear in your opponents' eyes," remembers Sissoko. "With almost all the teams we played against. I had friends [from other clubs] all over the place and they'd all call me, a week or two weeks in advance, to say, 'Can you ask for Zlatan's shirt for me?' Once you've done that, psychologically, you've lost the match."

Ibrahimovic provoked a similar level of clamour off the pitch. Within two months of his arrival, he already had his own marionette on the satirical Canal+ puppet show Les Guignols (who would cockily predict how he would "zlatan" all of PSG's rivals).

When he changed squad numbers midway through his first season, switching from No. 18 to No. 10 after the departure of Brazilian forward Nene, his new jersey flew off the rails.

In February 2015, he was honoured with his own waxwork at the Musee Grevin, the Parisian answer to London's Madame Tussauds. And almost every time he opened his mouth to deliver a provocative soundbite, his words went viral. Together with David Beckham, who arrived on a short-term contract in January 2013, Ibrahimovic put PSG on the global map.

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 09:  Paris Saint Germain player Zlatan Ibrahimovic unveils his waxwork at Musee Grevin on February 9, 2015 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)
Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

His spectacular goals fired PSG to the Ligue 1 title in 2013—the club's first since 1994—and they would repeat the feat in each of the three seasons that followed. Edinson Cavani's arrival, in a club-record €64 million deal in July 2013, did not disturb Ibrahimovic's rhythm, with the new man farmed out on the right by Laurent Blanc—Ancelotti's successor—so that the goal-hungry Swede could continue to play through the middle.

Ibrahimovic finished as Ligue 1's top scorer in three of his four seasons in France and signed off with a remarkable haul of 50 goals in 51 games across all competitions in his farewell campaign.

A clean sweep of domestic silverware (Ligue 1, Coupe de France, Coupe de la Ligue and Trophee des Champions) in each of his last two seasons left Ibrahimovic with a haul of 12 trophies from his four years in Paris. The one blemish on his record was his failure to take PSG beyond the quarter-finals in the Champions League, but in light of the miseries that have befallen the club in the years since he left—Barcelona's remontada in 2017, humiliation at the hands of a Manchester United B team in 2019—his record in the competition no longer looks quite as underwhelming as it once did.

While harder to quantify than the goals and trophies, Ibrahimovic's influence behind the scenes at PSG's Camp des Loges training centre was no less significant. Ancelotti had been surprised by the lack of drive among PSG's players when he was appointed as head coach in December 2011, saying in a Financial Times interview with Simon Kuper after he left the club that there was not enough of a "winning mentality", but with Ibrahimovic setting an example on the training pitch and in the weights room, that began to change.

"I don't want to talk about the French guys and the others, but in France, the culture of work and personal responsibility wasn't really there," explains Bourges, who worked alongside Ancelotti for the duration of the Italian's PSG tenure. "When the players arrived [for training], they'd be more likely to go to the cafe and have a coffee while reading the papers. After they saw what Zlatan was doing, the players would arrive an hour early and do some work in the gym or with the physio. It was a different mentality and it turned people's routines upside-down."

Ibrahimovic could be a difficult team-mate—former PSG midfielder Adrien Rabiot told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Yahoo Sport) that he had once come to blows with him during a training session—but his refusal to lower his own standards left those around him with no option but to lift theirs.

"He was a very demanding player," says Sissoko, who left PSG in 2013. "Whether you were a young player or someone else, if he had something to tell you, he'd tell you. He wouldn't say, 'Ah, it's a young player, I'll leave it.' He really got stuck into the young players. He was very tough on some of them. Some didn't take it well, others hit back a bit. But when you're a young player and Zlatan talks to you and gets stuck into you, it's for your own good. It's not about trying to break you."

Ibrahimovic said goodbye to the Parc des Princes in May 2016 with a brace in a 4-0 win over Nantes. He had tears in his eyes as he left the pitch carrying his young sons, Maximilian and Vincent, and would later describe PSG as "the only club that I've felt so emotional about leaving" in an interview with L'Equipe. Yet over the years since, some of the things he has said about his time in France have left a sour taste.

Shortly before his departure, he had stated that PSG "was born the day the Qataris arrived." And weeks after leaving, he declared in an interview with L'Equipe magazine (h/t Europe1) that Ligue 1 "was not at the level of my talent."

In his 2018 book, I Am Football, meanwhile, he angered PSG fans by saying that he had been forced to join the club against his will. Such proclamations, while entirely in keeping with Ibrahimovic's brash persona, have left some PSG fans with mixed feelings. "Some supporters didn't forgive some of the things he said," says De Cheverny.

Mimran, who left his post as marketing director at the beginning of 2018, says that Ibrahimovic's various pronouncements also went down badly in the corridors of power at PSG.

"We didn't understand," says Mimran, who now works for France's National Basketball League. "He's a guy who doesn't stop talking up Milan, Barcelona, Inter, Ajax. But the club he played for the longest was Paris. It's a city that made him a god. And instead of being grateful for that, he decided that all of it was due to him. He treated Paris and the people of Paris with a kind of condescension. And Paris Saint-Germain as well. He's full of praise for clubs that didn't give him half of what Paris gave him."

In recent years, PSG's player presentations have become slick affairs. The club arranged for the Eiffel Tower to be illuminated in PSG blue and red on the day that Neymar completed his sensational move from Barcelona in August 2017, while images of Kylian Mbappe were projected on to city-centre landmarks following his switch from Monaco the same summer. When Gianluigi Buffon arrived in Paris from Juventus in July 2018, his car was followed through the streets by a procession of classic Italian mopeds.

But although some of the love once felt for Ibrahimovic in Paris has since gone cold, nothing will ever match the giddy novelty of that hot July afternoon eight summers ago.