Every morning as I catch the Metro to my lectures, I pick up a copy of the free daily newspaper, Direct Matin. Despite not reading it cover to cover, a fleeting glance at the headlines gives me a general overview of the issues at the forefront of the French public’s mind.
The sports section of the paper is brief – usually just a single double page spread – yet it offers a fascinating insight into the way the French view their domestic football. The current Ligue 1 table makes surprising reading, with favourites PSG lingering in 3rd position, a staggering seven points adrift of rivals Olympique de Marseille.
The history between these two heavyweights of French football is deep and complex. The match between them is named Le Classique or Le Classico after the world famous Spanish El Classico between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The contest is pitched as the battle between the capital and the province, the chosen ones of French football against its enfants terribles, or, more simply, the North against the South.
Although PSG are the dominant force in French football today, Marseille are the more traditional frontrunners; along with Saint- Etienne, they boast the record number of French championships, their total of ten dwarfing PSG’s surprisingly paltry collection of four.
Marseille have also won La Coupe de France a record ten times, and remain the only French club to have won the Champions League.
However, since the departure of manager Didier Deschamps in 2012, Marseille’s form has been in steady decline. After becoming the first ever French team to pick up zero points in a Champions League group stage during the 2012/13 campaign, they finished 6th in the league last year, missing out on a European spot for the first time in a decade.
This season, however, has seen a sharp reversal in fortune for Les Olympiens. After picking up just one point from their first two games, they’ve won every subsequent match, leapfrogging struggling rivals PSG, and now lead by five points at the top of the table – an impressive margin so early in the season.
Skimming the daily headlines, however, is not how I found out that Marseille were doing so well. In fact, even reading the articles offered little clue about who the high fliers were in the league this year. The reason for this is that almost every inch of the daily sports section is fully dedicated to the decline of PSG and, more specifically, the questionable form of its talismanic striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“What’s wrong with Zlatan?” exclaims one headline, the reporter in question noting that the Swedish giant has notched up just one goal in five starts this season. “Maybe he’s got a bout of the blues,” suggests an- other, citing his recent hint at his fast approaching retirement, questioning the Swede’s continued commitment to the beautiful game. Zlatan hasn’t even featured for the wealthy French outfit since the 21st September due to a niggling ankle injury, but his withdrawal from the front line has not seen him given respite by the press, even during the International break.
Why is it, then, that the French are so utterly obsessed by the outspoken, enigmatic striker?
“Everything he does is a source of debate,” explains Eurosport France’s Maxime Dupuis. “When he scores, when he laughs, whatever — everything becomes a story. No interview will be conducted with a PSG player without a question being asked about Zlatan.”
It is true that almost everything Zlatan does – or does not do – finds the back page. First, the public was staggered by his salary; then, they were dazzled by his ability; now, I feel that they are charmed by his personality. He is a big fish in a small pond in the French league, and the waves he’s causing appear to fascinate, rather than revolt, the French public. It appears to be a general source of national sadness, even for fans of opposing teams, that Zlatan isn’t firing on all cylinders. This was best exemplified by the magnanimous actions of Toulouse FC last week, who sent him a tub of ointment for his birthday to help ease his injured heel.
“Today is your birthday […] Now all the mums and sisters also want to see the phenomenon, Ibrahimovic […] bring the whole family back together around football. Despite the perverse pleasure you took scoring goals against us the last two seasons […] we want to thank you for everything.”
Perhaps the thing that best epitomizes his reputation in France is that after just half a year since his move to PSG, the verb ‘to Zlatan’ entered the French dictionary. It’s meaning? To subdue, overpower, or dominate. And after less than a month in this country, I can safely say that Zlatan’s domination over the media, and the public, is indeed total.