Is there anything more uplifting in sport than the glorious explosions of a new talent? Is there anything quite so depressing as one that offers so much and grows so large, only to implode under its own weight?
They are sensations that prefer to live apart, but not this week. Not when one remarkable midfielder was laying the markers of greatness with his feet and did so as a predecessor of some renown was finding that his own had been planted in a bucket of raw sewage.
Paul Pogba was Jude Bellingham once. Jude Bellingham might be Paul Pogba, if a lot of things go very well. Because what would Bellingham, or almost anyone in his trade, give for the sunny side of that career? For a World Cup, four league titles and six other trophies. Had finals of the Champions League and European Championship gone his way, the Frenchman would have the full house.
So let’s soften the discussion around Pogba and wasted talent, because he did OK for himself.
But it’s about relativity – we know he might have done better. Better if he didn’t think he was so much better than the rest. Better if he made much better decisions. Better with a better brother. Better health, better agents, too. And that means we might twist the earlier question: what might Pogba give to go back to where Bellingham is now? To be 20 again, striding between those challenges, slipping clever passes through small windows, hearing the cross-generational comparisons that have a whiff of prematurity but come from an exciting place.
The latest chapter of Paul Pogba’s rollercoaster career has seen him test positive for testosterone in a drugs test
The World Cup winner might look upon the rise of Jude Bellingham with some envy years after his own explosion
As a talented 20-year-old Pogba won the Golden Boy Award in 2013, the same year as winning the Scudetto with Juventus
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Pogba was that guy. He was Carlos Alcaraz. He was Coco Gauff. He was Sha-carri Richardson, Ludvig Aberg, Rose Zhang, Harry Brook and Canan Moodie. The spreaders of new horizons.
But now he is a 30-year-old man on the back end of a hiding and a week that could well define him. The sort of week that can swallow a World Cup in a single gulp.
It’s been some ride, these past seven days or so, commencing with his lament for the ‘cruel’ world of football, escalating alarmingly with the disclosure of a failed drugs test and by Friday he was in a Parisian court, for the latest stage in a saga that ties his own brother to an £11million plot to extort him at gunpoint.
If we were to risk being flippant, we’d insert a gag here about Amazon resurrecting the ‘Pogmentary’ series. But that would underplay the gravity of what has gone on, even if that most bizarre of creations did serve as a staging post in the colouring of his reputation.
It wasn’t up to much when it came out last year. But it did reveal more about Pogba than a wiser person would have permitted. I’m thinking mainly about his willingness to be filmed telling his agent, the late Mino Raiola, that a £300,000-a-week offer from United was ‘nothing’. He was of course indulged in his disgruntlement by a man who knew the value of belligerence and nothing of its cost.
There was no protein in the viewing, but the Pogmentary did offer threads of confirmation around what we had spent years deducing about his character. I never fully bought that he was a ‘virus’, because it was the verdict of Jose Mourinho – I don’t believe flu has much of a right to judge a cold. But I did often think he was an utter fool with how he handled himself at United. It was the agitations that grated, the wandering eye, the reflex to follow an isolated patch of good form in the early weeks of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign by pushing for a move and deploying Raiola to spread his seeds. Character shows itself in good moments and bad; he often reeked of entitlement and delusion in both.
And yet I have always had some sympathy for Pogba. He was unfortunate to be a gifted box-to-box roamer in the era of hardened structures, he has had woefully poor luck with injuries since he returned to Juventus and the scenario that has taken him to court this week is just bleak. His elder brother, Mathias, maintains he is innocent, but at the very least we know this is a chap who once used social media to claim Pogba enlisted a witch doctor to cast a spell on Kylian Mbappe. If those are the sorts of anchors you are towing through life, you have to admire his trophies even more.
But if this is how it ends, with a positive test for testosterone and the possibility of a four-year ban in the event that an offence is proven, it will be precisely the kind of finale that shapes the story of Pogba, even in football, where asterisks are only ever written in pencil.
The revelation of the failed test is only the beginning of a complicated story for the 30-year-old, with drugs cases taking an eternity to resolve
Pogba has struggled with injuries throughout his career, disrupting patches of glorious form
At this stage, we are only at the beginning of that maze – drugs cases take an eternity to resolve. His representatives say the only ‘certain thing is Paul Pogba never wanted to break the rules’ and football has been quick to support him, mostly in private.
I’m told the very first message he received after the news emerged was from France manager Didier Deschamps. Soon after came others from Juventus manager Max Allegri, Olivier Giroud and Fernandinho. Former United team-mates also wrote to him – Eric Bailly, Jesse Lingard and Raphael Varane, among them, as far as I’m aware. Players do like Pogba; they don’t think he has this in him. But that will be for the anti-doping authorities to establish.
In time there will be an explanation from Pogba, a reason, because there is always one. Occasionally they are legitimate and often they aren’t, or they go to creative places, which draws the mind to the Olympic sprinter Dennis Mitchell, who was also found with elevated testosterone levels. He blamed it on having sex four times with his wife in one night. As he explained: ‘It was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat.’
He was banned for two years, but that’s in athletics. In football, we seldom hear of doping cases and some would have us believe it’s because it’s a skill-based game. Nonsense. More than ever it is a game about recovery and getting a tired body in shape to go again.
Mail Sport’s Riath Al-Samarrai writes about the unexplored world of football doping in light of Paul Pogba’s positive test
I asked a figure in the anti-doping community whether football could be as clean as some want you to believe. He had a good laugh about that fantasy, but there is also an acceptance that the entire system for catching dopers is skewed in favour of the cheat. Once you know the detail around micro-dosing, glow times and testing windows, you can easily reach the opinion that only a fool gets caught.
The legacy-defining question in the tragedy of Paul Pogba is whether he ultimately meets the description, or just part of it.
It was interesting to hear John Terry deny with some forthrightness the report that he was about to take over as a manager in Saudi Arabia. In doing so, he had a little swipe at the press. Fair to say that came as something of a surprise to a source who has been next to the horse’s mouth and heard an entirely different set of noises.
The beauty of sport is its ability to stir the soul. One addition to that genre is the role cricket is playing in putting a smile back on Andrew Flintoff’s face after all the horrors he has endured in the past nine months.
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