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The Failure Of Paul Pogba

Paul Pogba of Juventus in a match against Torino on December 1, 2012.
Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

Paul Pogba is 30 years old. It's been nearly 12 years since he properly introduced himself to the world in his first season at Juventus, emerging all at once and seemingly fully formed, as if born from a bolt of lightning. Befitting the future he appeared destined for as a 19-year-old, Pogba has spent most of those 12 years under the brightest of spotlights. He's been a key player in memorable club teams, a crucial fixture in a legendary national team era, won the most important trophy in all of sports, and has littered the pitches of Europe and the memories of spectators the world over with an uncountable number of matches and moments that testify to his unique, staggering, all-encompassing talent.

In spite of that—and maybe in part because of it—Pogba's career has been clouded by an air of disappointment, of potential untapped, of a charted course that still hasn't reached its intended destination. Much of that is unfair. Some of it is understandable. None of it needed to be the final word on the Frenchman's athletic legacy; again, he's only 30 years old, which for a midfielder of his skill and experience should place him closer to the peak of his powers than the end of them. But in light of Thursday's decision of Italy's anti-doping tribunal to hand him a four-year ban for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, Pogba may never get the chance to play his way into a different, happier ending to his remarkable playing career. And if there is any true failure related to that career, it's not Pogba's inability to reach his potential, but rather the greater soccer world's failure to fully appreciate the player he actually was.

From the outset, dressed in Juventus's black-and-white stripes, the teenaged Pogba already had most everything that would make him one of the most captivating players of his generation: the trademark mohawk, often chiseled with fanciful parts and streaked with bursts of exotic colors, the omnipresent smile, the irrepressible self-confidence and swagger, and of course the talent—my god, the talent.

The best word I can think of to describe both the young Pogba's abilities and the potential those abilities portended is unbounded. He had everything. Physically, he was tall, strong, fast, and agile. Technically, he could flick and drag the ball around his body with frightening quickness and accuracy; he could kick the everliving shit out of the thing and send it exactly where he wanted it to go, whether that be to a teammate across the pitch or into the outer edges of the opponent's goal; he could dribble his way through the tightest of spaces and could race through open acres with his long strides. Tactically, he could play deep and organize possessions from the first passes, he could play ahead of the ball to link the midfield with the attack, he could defend, he could create chances for his teammates, and he could score himself. In terms of mentality, Pogba came across as a ferocious competitor who nevertheless played with lightness and joy, unencumbered by the pressure of his role, fame, and potential, instead being free to realize his aspirations on the pitch while delighting in the enviable pleasures of doing so. The breadth of his skills, his incessantly inventive invocation of them, and the freedom with which he played made Pogba exhilaratingly alive with possibility—of what he might do today and what he might become tomorrow. He seemed totally unconstrained by anything other than his own desires and ambitions.

But soccer doesn't actually work that way. No player is above their context, and before long Pogba's context began to ensnare his prodigious talents.

It was inevitable that Pogba would one day leave Juventus, a major club in a major league that nonetheless lacked the rigor and attention found in the biggest clubs in England and Spain. His departure from the Italian giants after four sterling seasons—four Serie A titles, three Italian cups, an impressive run to the Champions League final—was meant to coincide with the maturation of his game, when, on the biggest of stages, he would unveil the player he'd decided to become, presumably something we've never seen before. Instead, he went to Manchester United.

Despite the romantic undertones to Pogba's signing with United—the prodigal son returning home (he was in the club's academy between the ages of 16 and 19) on a mission to bring the club back to its former greatness—the union didn't look like a natural one even at the time. United offered Pogba the money, the position of prominence, and the platform the Frenchman was after, but not the stability or complimentary supporting cast that could get the most out of his star turn. Pogba offered United excitement, legitimate superstardom, and a renewed sense of pride, things the club had been desperate for ever since its post-Alex Ferguson slide. However, as a midfielder, he was not the sort of player to spearhead the kind of transformation the Red Devils were trying to implement. To really pull off the return the Red Devils wanted, they'd need more superstars than just Pogba, preferably of the goal-scoring variety. And the cavalry never came.

In some ways Manchester United turned out to be the exact worst club for Pogba to join. Rather than honing and reaping the rewards of its new star's unbounded talent, United squandered it. Pogba might have had the ability to be anything, but he couldn't be everything at the same time, which is often what United asked of him. Trapped in midfield duos with under-qualified partners, Pogba was overburdened, tasked with being the team's organizer from deep and its chief creator up high and serving as one of its biggest goal threats, all while having to cover tons of space out of possession thanks to his teammates' inability to compensate for the multiple roles Pogba had to shuffle through throughout any given match. Ironically, some of his best performances in red came when he was taken out of central midfield and instead played out on the left, where he could focus more on his world-elite chance-generating qualities. Those forays on the left were some of the only times Pogba played within a team structure that sought to actively empower his set of skills rather than abusing his range through over-extension. More often, United suffered, Pogba was overwhelmed, and neither party seemed very happy with the other.

But if Pogba's six-year reunion with Manchester United was a failure, it was a qualified one. He may not have been the savior the club made him out to be when he signed, but it was easy to see that Pogba was indeed great, just so long as you ignored whatever it was you thought he was "supposed" to be and saw him instead for who he actually was. He was capable of godly passes, and the unfortunately short-lived tandem he formed with Romelu Lukaku—a you-run-and-I'll-find-you combo that rivaled the best of Tom Brady and Randy Moss—resulted in a constant stream of laser-guided long passes onto freight-train runs. He was still an unstoppable dribbler, and at least every other match he'd do something with the ball that would take your breath away. He might not have played too many of them, but he did show up in some of the team's biggest games, like with his deadlock-breaking goal in United's win in the 2017 Europa League final, and the brace he scored in the famous 3-2 comeback win away at Manchester City in 2018. Despite criticism of his productivity, he was a dependable source of goals and assists: his combined goals and assists tally for each his six seasons was, in order, 15, 18, 27, 5, 15, and 10.

It's true that in Manchester Pogba wasn't terribly consistent, struggled to stay healthy during the back half of his tenure, and never managed to lead United back to Champions League omnipresence the way he was expected to. But you can pin much of the blame there for United's inability to surround him with teammates of his caliber. The clearest evidence that Pogba's relatively disappointing United years had more to do with the club than the player came whenever Pogba joined up with the France national team.

It's often said that it was while playing with France that Pogba was able to recapture his old Juventus form. This isn't true. In reality, Pogba with France was a much more delimited player than he ever was with Juve. After struggling to find the best way to fit Pogba's unique gifts inside the world's most talent-laden national team, manager Didier Deschamps eventually chose for Pogba a less adventurous, deep-lying playmaker role. Far from being shackled, the midfielder thrived under the constraint. It focused his game, gave him a specific role for him to master with his copious arsenal of skills, and, surrounded by great players capable of relieving him from the need to be everything all at once, he was able to seize his place as one of the most influential forces on an extraordinary team. The 2018 World Cup was the culmination. His performance may not have been as flashy as his most resplendent moments with Juve, but it was the product of an undeniably, historically great player of the sort everyone thought he'd become way back when.

The hope was that the 2018 World Cup would prove a turning point. He was 25 when he won it, and presumably had the better part of a decade to take that consecrating tournament, and the mature player therein, and dominate club and international soccer for the future. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Pogba did have what was statistically his best individual season at club level that year, but it was for a deeply dysfunctional United. The following years would be marred by injury, a continuation of the same over-reliance and under-support that hampered the rest of his time in Manchester, and an increasing distancing between the club and its hand-picked talisman. Negotiations for a contract extension turned sour as his original deal neared its end, and upon its expiration in 2022, the two parties parted ways. It was impossible for even the biggest Pogba fans to deny that the reunion had been a disappointment, and the Frenchman became the latest and most high-profile example of great players who suffered serious and lasting reputational damage due to trusting their careers to the red circus in Manchester.

Pogba's fortunes were better when he dressed in France's blue, but even then he never recaptured the magic of 2018; France underperformed at Euro 2020, and Pogba missed the 2022 World Cup due to injury. The same injury that kept him out of the World Cup limited him to only 10 appearances during the 2022-23 season, spoiling his return to Juventus, the club he'd rejoined after flaming out at United.

Coming into the 2023-24 season, it was impossible to know what to expect from Paul Pogba. It had been years since we'd last seen him as a regular, consistent, impactful presence on the pitch. If the teenaged Pogba was the pure embodiment of possibility, of a tantalizingly inevitable and wondrous future, then this Pogba was uncertainty incarnate. The question of what Pogba might one day become had given way to what was left of the old Pogba. Worst of all, the preliminary PED suspension he was given last September, after he'd played only two Serie A matches, and Thursday's four-year ban means we very possibly will never get to know the answer to that or any other question.

If this really is to be the final chapter of Pogba's story as a soccer player, then it's an undoubtedly sad ending. However, that shouldn't ruin how anyone looks at the rest of what by any true measure has been a magnificent career. More so than the injuries or the inconsistency or the years toiling in mediocre Manchester United teams, the biggest threat to an accurate assessment of Pogba's legacy is the early expectations. His talent was so uncontained, and his charisma so enchanting, that it was hard not to see the young Pogba and immediately start fantasizing about the future. It was as if everyone who saw him back in the Juventus days was compelled to build in their mind's eye their own hypothetical future Pogba. Depending on their creators' tastes and biases, these hypothetical future Pogbas varied in skill sets, positions, areas of focus, clubs, and so on. Maybe yours went to Barcelona and conquered the sport as a hybrid of both Xavi and Iniesta. Maybe someone else's went to Real Madrid and to inherit and even surpass the role of Luka Modric. Maybe another's joined Chelsea, and alongside fellow countryman N'Golo Kanté spent some 10 years recreating the best moments of the 2018 World Cup every three days.

What these hypothetical Pogbas shared was a perfection attainable only by hypothetical beings and a certain few South Americans. Living inside the mind, tied to the real world only through the unbounded talent that inspired it, the hypothetical Pogbas could be anything and everything in a way the real Pogba could never have been. What's more, the allure of the imagined versions of the player set for the extant one a standard of comparison that could only result in disappointment in real life. It sounds silly when you say it out loud, but I do believe something like this is indeed the case: The fact that Pogba did not turn out to be literally the greatest midfielder in history, and of a sort the game has never before seen, means he has been seen as a letdown.

To an extent, there's something understandable at work there. Like everything born from society, sporting talent is a communal resource. We all have a vested interest in it, and as such it's easy to feel some sort of ownership stake in it. Seeing talent legitimately wasted, or hidden away in far-flung locales in exchange for pharaonic sums of money, or fashioned into golden trinkets used to glamorize repugnant institutions, is so offensive in large part because of how it misuses and/or disfigures some of the most beautiful aspects of the world's collective cultural heritage. As such, it makes sense that we'd have high hopes for a talent like Pogba's, and would feel disappointed when that talent isn't realized to the extent we imagined it might have.

However, it's also easy for that language of property rights to bring with it the dehumanizing concepts of commodities capitalism, and in the process spoiling the whole process. Paul Pogba should not be thought of as some extractable resource that was inadequately exploited, or some speculative asset that ultimately didn't hold its "value" when it came time to cash it in. We all may have an interest in his talent, but it resides in an actual human being, and should be given the deference and autonomy and grace befitting a person. On the human side, Pogba has spoken about suffering from depression "several times" during his career. In addition, Pogba has endured significant troubles in his family life, most harrowingly when a group of childhood friends and allegedly his own brother kidnapped him in an extortion plot. Castigating Pogba the player for failing to optimize the returns on his abilities due to his inconsistency and lack of focus feels different when you take into account the very human struggles Pogba the person has had to deal with.

Ultimately, it's the communal aspect of Pogba's talent that is most heartbreaking part of what looks like it might be the premature end of his career. Put aside the hypothetical Pogbas that never were going to materialize. The Pogba we actually had was at his best and most thrilling when he was out there on the pitch. In concert with a cadre of teammates, inventing solutions to problems posed by 11 opponents, before thousands of passionate fans inside the stadium, broadcast to millions and millions of eyes hungry for joy and inspiration and awe, Pogba touched the ball with his foot and performed magic. That collective ritual that exhibited some of the best of what society can create, and that could unite billions of people around the world who stopped and watched it, will miss Pogba's contributions. It's not about what Pogba didn't do, it's about no longer having the amazing things he did like no one else.

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