Ligue 1 has been blessed with some of football’s most clinical frontmen throughout its illustrious history. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Sonny Anderson have graced television screens in France with breathtaking moments of brilliance, weaving their way through defences and humiliating goalkeepers in plain view of their watching wives and children. But perhaps the greatest attacking magician to grace the country’s shores is Pauleta: record Ligue 1 goalscorer and carpenter of footballing magnificence.
Pauleta resisted the call of his homeland throughout his career, instead spending his days making round spheres his plaything as soon as he crossed the famous white lines at the Parc des Princes and Stade Chaban-Delmas. The latter hosts the longest players’ tunnel of any stadium in Europe, measuring 120 metres, and it is hard not to imagine Pauleta ambling through it, formulating potential snapshots of magnificence in his mind.
Football pitches were his canvas, and he would paint magic. His grace in possession was outmatched only by his cold-hearted clinical nature in front of goal, his two feet elegantly carving out artistry that propelled him to the summit of the league’s goalscoring charts and a place in the history books.
His journey started throughout Spain, before a switch to Marseille in 2000. Reportedly for family and financial reasons, Pauleta arrived in France having rejected the advances of Newcastle, Aston Villa and Sunderland. The gamble spectacularly paid off in his first game for Les Phocéens, when he scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 victory at Nantes. Just days later he repeated the feat, plundering three goals in a UEFA Cup first round tie with Lierse SK. At the end of a spectacular first season in France, Pauleta had scored 20 league goals, making him the second highest goalscorer that year.
The year after saw him deservedly named the best player in the French league, and also awarded with the ‘Oscar of football’. His prowess in front of the target saw several lustful glances cast his way, including Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City. Marseille managed to retain his services, and Pauleta went on to score twice and play an integral role in his club’s eventual French League Cup triumph.
However, his joyful performance at the Stade Chaban-Delmas was brought to a close at the end of the 2002/03 campaign. Pauleta registered 65 league goals in 98 games, and 91 in 130 matches in all competitions for Bordeaux. He departed for Paris Saint-Germain ranked the third all-time top goalscorer for Marseille, and nobody could begrudge him of the chance to demonstrate his limitless capabilities in front of a different, larger audience.
Pauleta: enter stage left at the Parc des Princes. For a reported 12 million euros, the Portuguese originally signed a three-year contract. The 2004 French League Cup was decided by Pauleta, his only goal of the game firing Paris Saint-Germain to their first trophy in six years. An eventual second place finish in Ligue 1 ended a successful season for Pauleta, after finding the back of the net 18 times in 37 games.
2004 would see Pauleta firmly placed into Ligue 1 folklore, after a magnificent effort against his former club. A strongly-weighted threaded pass found the feet of the Portuguese, who was shepherded out wide by the Marseille backline, goalkeeper Fabien Barthez racing off his line to narrow the angles. But nothing was impossible for Pauleta, who, with one glance up dug out a sublime chip that sailed over Barthez and into the back of the net. The impossible angle had been made possible through the sheer genius of a goalscoring hero, one who would go on to humiliate goalkeepers for the rest of his stint in France.
His career came to an end in 2008, with his place as PSG’s record goalscorer intact until the arrival of Ibrahimovic. But whereas the Swede’s self assurance allowed him to overtake Pauleta’s record, the Portuguese went about setting records with a quiet, dignified nature. One that allowed him to remain at the Parc des Princes as a club ambassador, and one that will forever ensure Pauleta remains one of Ligue 1’s finest ever legends.