paul pogba deserves better

Words: Peter Macia

Photography: Michael Regan/Getty

Most of the last 24 days have been the same: wake up, get out of bed, crutch to the living room, lie on the couch, elevate left leg, knee on ice. The apartment is small, my view either the bedroom ceiling, the living room ceiling, the television screen, the laptop screen, or the iPhone screen. Alternate between these views from 7am until 9 or 10pm, or whenever it becomes too tedious to lie in one position any longer. then move back to the bedroom to lie in a similar position until dawn.

Fully blown anterior cruciate ligament, grade 3 medial collateral tear, and a lateral meniscus that was, in my orthopedic surgeon’s expert words, “totally trashed,” all because I thought I could still be my Sunday beer league team’s complete center midfielder. Subsequent surgery proved otherwise. Patellar autograft, meniscectomy, vertical and mattress sutures, anchors, etc. Absurd leg brace and crutches for months. Muscle atrophy. Brain atrophy. Stare at the ceiling. Stare at the screens.

A perfectly decent body destroyed for fun makes one reconsider many life decisions and reassess many long-held assumptions. Convalescence becomes a contemplative exercise, especially when said convalescence falls in the void of late summer, when there is little soccer on television for vicarious enjoyment.

Since the advent of Twitter, these dire days of soccer-less summer increasingly have become the wasteland of transfer speculation. The buying and selling of players and the rumors surrounding these transactions are now a competition unto themselves, comprised of as many tiered leagues as the game. At the top, of course, are the clubs, players and their intermediaries conducting the business. The league below—still paid professionals—is the domain of the global soccer media, duking it out for the pageview championship. Beneath it, a layer of rumor merchants, or ITKs (In The Knows), who may or may not hold day jobs to support their dubious soccer existence but somehow manage to exploit minimal talent for small-time celebrity. And finally, the amateurs, who play the game in anonymity, tirelessly support clubs from the leagues above, and try to relate to the seemingly relatable ITKs, but earn nothing for their hours and hours of dedication and pain. Every summer and every winter holiday season is now the same. The transfer window opens, and the empty, desperate search for renewal and hope begins. And every window has its ludicrously and unnecessarily drawn out transfer saga. This summer was no different, its saga’s star a young, French central midfielder named Paul Pogba, and it ended with him moving from Italy’s five-time defending champions, Juventus, to England’s all-time winningest club, Manchester United, for a world record fee of $124 million.

Stare at the ceiling. Stare at the screens. See Paul Pogba dab along to Stormzy, publicity stunting for Adidas. See Paul Pogba social network with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, fellow summer transfer. See Paul Pogba enjoying his fully hashtagged return to the club that he left for nothing five years before, unappreciated by its legendary manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. See Paul Pogba relish the opportunity to prove Fergie and many others wrong. Feel the phantom pain of heartbreak through an opiate haze. Since the summer of 2012, I had loved Paul Pogba like a long lost son. In July of that summer, he left United and signed for Juve. The following season, he made 27 appearances for the Turin giants as they stomped to the Scudetto for the second straight year. Summer 2013, Pogba led France’s junior national team to the FIFA under-20 World Cup title in Turkey. Playing amongst his peers at this tournament, Pogba emerged as a generational talent, the kind of player every follower of the game hopes will appear when we turn on the television or sit in the stands on a Saturday or Sunday.

Pogba continues to be a player who demands and rewards your attention. In his favored role, freely roaming from box to box, whether he has the ball or not, he appears to be carried along on the wires of Yuen Woo-Ping, his long legs not so much moving for locomotion as for dramatic effect. His feet seem to coax the ball from the pitch’s earthly surface so that he may grace it with a series of touches that are as unpredictable to spectators as they are to nearby defenders. And while he has been criticized for not consistently collecting these touches into a masterful body of work (trolls call him a “Vine player,” implying he’s all style, no substance), Pogba is still only 23 years old, an age when many top players are just breaking into the starting XI. The overwhelming feeling has always been that, in time, the mastery will come, and Pogba will stand alone as the ultimate post-millennial complete center midfielder. Until then, we are privy to his playful, prodigious studies.

While he was with Juventus, Pogba was easy to appreciate. He could only hurt my club, Arsenal, in the Champions League, and even that seemed fairly unlikely as my club annually flamed out of the competition before his club rumbled through the bracket. Juventus also tended to play its league matches later in the day than the Premier League, meaning that, depending on Arsenal’s result, I could watch Pogba either as a victorious apertif or drown my sorrows in his Bianconeri competence. Even the transfer windows brought a brief glimmer of unsubstantiated hope that my club would put in an unprecedented bid for Pogba, and my adoration for him could then be fully realized. On international duty with France, he was the burgeoning talent who would soon follow in the midfield footsteps of two of my all-time favorites, Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira. It was all so uncomplicated. His prodigal return to United changed everything.

Manchester United is not only the dominant club of the Premier League era, it is the dominant club of the post-Premier League era. It is rich beyond competition. It is worth billions and publicly traded, a brand whose value could not even be damaged by the team’s on-field mediocrity of the last few seasons. In the transfer market, United is often the only buyer. With Pogba, the fee seemed to have been calculated primarily to break the world record as there were no other clubs capable of matching it. That this was all done as part of the recruitment campaign of United’s new manager and evil genius, Jose Mourinho, only made it hurt that much more, but on August 8, 2016, day 10 of my convalescence, it was done.

The next two weeks I was numb—emotionally, mentally, physically in some areas. The season started. Arsenal lost. United won. Pogba didn’t play, he wasn’t yet fit. Week two, Arsenal drew. United won again. Pogba played the full 90 minutes. His first three touches resulted in three giveaways. I texted anyone who might care. His next several dozen touches were increasingly confident and sublime. I turned my phone off. Two games in and the season was already dead to me.

On convalescence day 25, my physical therapist noticed a birthmark on the inside of my left knee. As he kneaded the scar tissue around it, he told a little ghost story of a young family—mother, father, two girls age 11 and six—struck by tragedy when both children were killed by a reckless driver as they walked down the street. A year after their deaths, the arrival of twin baby girls came as a blessing. Upon inspection, each baby bore a birthmark identical to those of their deceased older sisters. The mother and father, the doctor, and now my physical therapist were convinced that it was tangible evidence of reincarnation.

This is where it got complicated, because Paul Pogba is also a reincarnation. He is the player I and many of my fellow supporters have been hoping would come to our club and return us to former glory ever since the departure of the aforementioned Vieira. Pogba is the player whom the manager of my club has been searching the lower leagues and academies of France for since 2005. He is the player who combines all the attributes and none of the deformities of so many less talented midfielders who have played for my club in the last decade, but none more so than Abou Diaby.

Like Pogba, Diaby was born in the suburbs of Paris, but seven years earlier. Like Pogba, Diaby came to England young and raw but clearly possessing exceptional talent. In silhouette, the two would be difficult to tell apart, nearly identical in height, build and length of leg. On pitch, Diaby was Pogba before Pogba was Pogba. His unique blend of octopodinal reach, supernatural close control, intelligence, creativity, and speed made Premier League defenders look like Hackney marsh drunks. This was also his undoing. Just five months after his arrival in London, playing against Sunderland, Diaby easily beat young fullback, Dan Smith, to a loose ball. Smith clattered into Diaby’s ankle, shattering it. The ankle required three separate surgeries to repair. Diaby’s rehabilitation extended to eight months. He came back in the second half of the following season but would never be the same. Over the next eight years, Diaby only made 100 appearances, the bulk of which came between 2008 and 2010. He suffered 40 more injuries ranging from strained calves to torn anterior cruciate ligament, but he remained a cult figure and a salaried employee because his talent had been so obvious, exceptional and stupendous, and when he did manage to regain fitness, it would flash before our eyes. At the end of the 2014-15 season, Diaby was quietly released and signed for free with French side, Olympique de Marseille. He has since made six appearances and is more often the subject of Twitter punchlines than praise.

I now have more in common with Abou Diaby than I ever will with Paul Pogba. I can imagine the weeks and months he sat in hospitals and rehab facilities and what must have gone through his mind. I have a signed photograph of him, given to me by a friend who knows me well, to remind me to never give up playing, even if everyone else thinks I should. Diaby is why I have allowed the wound of Paul Pogba signing for a hated rival heal. In the past I may have wished some ill fortune to befall Paul Pogba: a nagging hamstring injury, a crushing crisis of confidence, anything that would cause him to fail Mourinho and the much-despised Manchester United. I have never in my life wanted a United player to succeed on any level, but I want Paul Pogba to succeed. I want him to become the best player the world has ever seen. I want him to realize the potential that nearly everyone sees in him, because it is the same potential everyone once saw in Abou Diaby, only greater. I want him to beat clumsy English defenders to loose balls and wire-walk over them on his way to goal. I want him to play every single possible game, because someday Paul Pogba will be my age and no longer able to play. And when that day comes, I want him to have almost nothing in common with me and Abou Diaby, other than our love for the game that sometimes breaks us.