Paul Pogba might never play football again; like Neymar, his legacy is ‘what if?’

Pogba speaks on Man Utd Credit: Alamy
Pogba speaks on Man Utd Credit: Alamy

A rather dull international break sprung into life on Monday afternoon with the news that Paul Pogba had been provisionally suspended by Nado Italia (Italy’s national anti-doping organisation) after a drugs test found elevated levels of testosterone in his system.

While a B sample is still to come back and Pogba’s representative Rafaela Pimenta has claimed that the Frenchman would never knowingly dope, it is the latest controversy in a career riddled with almost as much drama as football.

The drug test in question took place on August 20 after Juventus’ opening day 3-0 win at Udinese, a game in which Pogba was an unused substitute, having suffered yet another injury during pre-season.

His Turin homecoming party has never really got started, with several serious injuries, including a meniscus tear which ruled him out of the World Cup, meaning he has made just one start for the club since re-joining last summer.

That return to Juve came at a time when the 30-year-old was going through serious off-field issues, including alleged extortion from his older brother Mathias and childhood friends, death threats from mafia-like organisations and accusations of apparent witchcraft to ‘neutralise’ Kylian Mbappe among others.

To compound the mental and emotional turmoil Pogba was going through, his long-time agent and father figure, Mino Raiola, also passed away in late April 2022, which perhaps led to his supposed ‘friends’ sensing an opportunity to capitalise.

You would have to be a sociopath not to feel a serious sense of empathy with the player’s plight both on and off field over this time, and it is little wonder that he considered retirement as his body and family relationships broke down at alarming pace.

How different it all could have been? Raiola’s fingerprints are all over the good and bad of Pogba’s career, which might have taken a very different course if certain choices had been made at important junctures over the last decade or more.

Pogba speaks on Man Utd Credit: Alamy
Pogba speaks on Man Utd Credit: Alamy

Even before Pogba decided to leave Manchester United for the first time in 2012, his teen years had been dramatic, with his first club Le Havre accusing the Old Trafford club of tapping up their young starlet three years before. It would set the tone.

Starring alongside Ravel Morrison in United’s 2011 FA Youth Cup-winning side, there was considerable hope and expectation that Pogba would become the main man in United’s midfield, serving as a much-needed replacement to his fellow Paul, Scholes, and aiding a revamp of an ageing and tired midfield that had not been modified for years.

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It did not happen. Instead, Pogba made just three league appearances after Christmas in the 2011/12 season, by which time him and Raiola were plotting a move to Juventus on a free transfer, much to the chagrin of Sir Alex Ferguson, who felt both had disrespected the club and later labelled the Italian agent a ‘sh*t bag’ in a hilarious pep talk to the Sale Sharks in 2017.

Not that Fergie was faultless in the acrimonious departure, having selected Rafael Da Silva over the young starlet in midfield for a 3-2 loss at home to Blackburn during the festive period, which proved the final straw for the ambitious Pogba. The defeat to the soon-to-be relegated Rovers would haunt everyone at the club after the title was lost on goal difference to City in dramatic fashion.

What if Pogba had decided to stick with United and chosen Fergie over Raiola? It represented the first of those important career decisions and also made Pogba, like his fellow ‘what if’ contemporary Neymar, someone who looked towards agents and family for guidance rather than world-class managers.

The move did work out, of course, for Pogba, and Raiola’s bank account, and no doubt it was the best spell of the player’s club career. He joined Juve just as they had returned to the top of Italian football again under Antonio Conte, and soon found himself in a brilliant midfield alongside Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio.

These players allowed the youngster to flourish without too much defensive responsibility, and their leadership, as well as that of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, kept the player grounded even as he took flight as a burgeoning world star.

His four years in Turin were a rip-roaring success on both team and individual levels. This was the best Juve side post-Calciopoli, and they vanquished all that came before them at domestic level, winning the title in each of Pogba’s seasons, as well as two Italian Cups.

The club suffered heartbreak again in Europe, losing another Champions League final (they have lost a record seven) in 2015 to Barcelona and MSN, but Pogba was selected in the UEFA and FIFA Teams of the Year. He had also landed the coveted Golden Boy award in 2013, recognition of his new-found status in the game and confirmation that he had made the right call in leaving Old Trafford.

As we all know, he would then return to United in 2016 in a then-world record £89million transfer asJose Mourinho looked to build his side around the Frenchman, viewing him perhaps as his Frank Lampard from the Chelsea glory days. The PogBACK era began with the first of many social media reveals, this time featuring Stormzy.

Everything about it felt big time and Pogba enjoyed a brilliant debut at home against Southampton, but it was also the beginning of the brand overshadowing the player, which would become the theme of his second stint in red and United in general during the post-Fergie malaise.

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His first season had several ups and downs, but he did help the club to both the League Cup and Europa League, opening the scoring in the latter final against Ajax. More importantly perhaps to Ed Woodward, Pogba became the first footballer to get his own emoji, a testament to his marketability.

It was that marketability, brand and star power that kept Pogba at Old Trafford for so long, as well as the club’s inability to sell players at the right time. He went from being Mourinho’s captain-in-waiting to someone he eventually labelled a “virus”, with their infamous training ground disagreement being broadcast live on Sky Sports in classic banter era United fashion.

Pogba outlasted the now-not-so-Special One, with his final game in charge being a 3-1 loss at Anfield in which his supposed star midfielder didn’t even make it off the bench. It would not be the last time a game against Liverpool would help define the Frenchman’s United legacy.

The only period of true happiness and top form for Pogba at United (outside of those two blue-haired goals at Man City just days after Raiola had allegedly offered him to Pep) came in the whirlwind that was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s caretaker run. He scored 16 goals in the 2018/19 season, the only time he hit double figures in six seasons with the club, making him a shoo-in for the PFA team of the season.

Of course it didn’t last long with United ending the season desperately and Pogba engaging in verbals with irate United fans after a final-day 2-0 loss at home to Cardiff City. For many, he had become and remains the embodiment of United in the dark days, which might well be returning now.

With all the controversy surrounding the club, it’s almost a surprise Pogba didn’t make a second return in time for a drugs ban sub-plot, although Juventus might be one of the few clubs to out-scandal Manchester United.

From here, his final three years at United were a loveless marriage with Pogba and Raiola continually looking for a way out, infamously on the eve of a crunch Champions League clash with RB Leipzig in December 2020. United would lose, which was hardly a shock. His lack of commitment was summed up by the words ‘Adidas athlete’ on his social media bio rather than any reference to his famous and high-paying employers.

His final season at the club began with four assists against Leeds United and ended with him being accused of feigning injury 10 minutes into a 4-0 loss at Anfield. In between, he was sent off after just 15 minutes against the same side in the nadir that was the 5-0 loss at Old Trafford. Good times.

His eventual second departure was not mourned by anyone outside of strange Twitter/X accounts, and it is safe to say most Juventus fans are probably fed up with the injuries and drama at this point too.

As for France? Pogba earned the last of his 91 caps in March 2022 and missed the World Cup due to injury. It feels unlikely he will return to the fold with Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and co. leaving him in their slipstream. His brilliant role in the 2018 World Cup success can’t and won’t be forgotten, although it is the only true highlight of his recent career.

And now we wait. The results of Pogba’s B sample are likely to be announced soon, with anywhere from a two to four-year ban being on the table if it is positive. Either would signal the likely end of his career, while even a reprieve wouldn’t guarantee a return to his previous levels given the injuries, controversy, family drama and more.

It feels Pogba is destined to end his career as a ‘what if?’ player and someone who history will not judge kindly. Is that the fault of the player himself, those around him, the environment and the increasingly bleak football world? In truth, it is a mix of them all.

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