PARIS — Je Zlatan, tu Zlatan, il Zlatan. Chalk up another first for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the only footballer to have his own verb in French, the language of Moliere.
The 17th century playwright would doubtless have been shocked and horrified. Perhaps as shocked and horrified as some French were to learn, depending on which newspaper they read, that Paris Saint-Germain lured its star to France from Italy this summer with an after-tax salary of anywhere between 9 million and 14 million euros per year ($11.5 million to $18 million) – unheard of in the French league and politically incorrect in the middle of biting economic crisis.
Still, it is possible to be both revolted and fascinated at the same time. The French are learning that from Ibrahimovic, too. One French television show plays the Darth Vader theme music when it reports on Ibrahimovic, reinforcing the idea that he's scary, powerful and can bring entire galaxies – sorry, I meant opposing teams – to their knees. The popular comedy show Les Guignols de l'Info now also regularly features an Ibrahimovic puppet, a dubious honor it tends to inflict on presidents, politicians and pop culture stars. It goes without saying that the latex Ibrahimovic, like the man, adores himself. In one sketch, the puppet touts a cologne, Eau de Zlatan, "made from concentrated Zlatan sweat. "
"If you Zlatan yourself with Eau de Zlatan everyone will respect you. You'll no longer need to queue at the post office."
All of which tells us two things. One is that Ibrahimovic, from a troubled immigrant neighborhood in Malmo, Sweden, with a Croatian mother and Bosnian father, makes an impression wherever he goes, both with his football skills and me-first personality. The other is that French club football needed a character like him for people to start paying attention. Separately, neither of those things are news. It is no secret that France has the weakest of Europe's top five leagues. And Ibrahimovic's talents have long made him one of football's hottest properties. However, combine them together and the result is proving very interesting: A very big fish making massive waves, in part because he has chosen to swim in a smaller pond.
Aside from his prince's salary, playing in a league with fewer globally recognized stars than Italy and Spain, Ibrahimovic's previous homes before France, means more attention for him, fewer rivals for his limelight.
"I don't know a lot about French players," he noted when he joined PSG in July. "For sure, they know who I am."
It's not hard to find people who aren't fussed about French club football. The average attendance this season is 18,800 per game, rising to 42,800 for PSG. But many French have now heard of Ibrahimovic. It's impossible not to, given the French media's love-fest with Zlatan this and Zlatan that.
After PSG's 2-1 defeat last Saturday to Saint-Etienne, its first Ligue 1 loss this season, sports daily L'Equipe headlined: "Les Verts Zlatanent Paris" (The Greens Zlatan Paris). "Zlataner," to Zlatan. The verb, still hot from the oven of someone's fertile imagination, seems to be taking on the meaning of to dominate, to overpower, to subdue, to have one's way.
Which, to be fair, Ibrahimovic has so far lived up to. With 10 goals in 10 matches, he is Ligue 1's leading scorer and PSG the league leader, equal on 22 points with second-placed Marseille but having played a game more. Ibrahimovic's two-match suspension for karate-kicking – unintentionally, he insists – Saint-Etienne `keeper Stephane Ruffier will be an interesting study in how PSG fares without him. Even when Ibrahimovic seems not to be trying, he still makes a difference.
Against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League on Tuesday, he wandered slowly around the pitch like a man drained of energy by spending too long in a sauna. He looked bored at times.
But part of Ibrahimovic's art is being in the right place at the right time. He set up PSG's opening goal by Alex and a second by Blaise Matuidi, gifting a joyfully timed pass between three Dinamo defenders for PSG's midfielder to run onto and fire into goal. Both the stadium announcer and tournament organizer UEFA generously declared that Ibrahimovic set up Paris' two other goals, too, even though that wasn't strictly true.
His pass for the third goal to Jeremy Menez outside the box still left the winger with a lot of work, with two defenders and Dinamo `keeper Ivan Kelava to get past. And the ball that striker Guillaume Hoarau knocked in for PSG's fourth appeared to have bounced to him off Kelava's knee, rather than off the foot of Ibrahimovic, who slipped sprinting into the penalty box. But, hey, why let facts ruin a story? Ibrahimovic creates all four goals was always going to be the sexier read. "Zlatan the passer," headlined L'Equipe.
Dinamo is a weakling compared to top-notch teams PSG will encounter if it advances deep into the Champions League, so it was impossible to gauge the Parisians' level using the unreliable yardstick of this match alone. Still, that Ibrahimovic had such impact despite seeming elsewhere for much of the 90 minutes was impressive. At 31, he has learned to be devastatingly efficient, with little waste.
"Ibrahimovic weighs 100 kilograms. He has a very powerful physique. He can't be like Matuidi, he doesn't have the energy to run for the whole match," said PSG manager Carlo Ancelotti. "He runs at the right times."
PSG's supporters chanted "Ibra! Ibra! Ibra!" But, at the final whistle, he wasn't in the mood for the usual post-match handshakes and niceties. He gave Ancelotti a quick hug but then quickly disappeared to get changed.
You seem disappointed? He was later asked.
"Could be," he replied, "because I expect a lot from me."
But as author Oscar Wilde, buried at Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetery, might have said: There's only one thing worse than being Zlatan. Not being Zlatan.