When Paul Pogba — who ranks No. 40 on ESPN’s World Fame 100 — moved from Juventus, five-time consecutive champions of Italy’s Serie A, to Manchester United, the most successful English club in the Premier League era, it followed a familiar miniseries pattern. You knew where the narrative was going. You knew how it was going to end. And yet you could not take your eyes off it.
From the incessant hype that accompanied him as the star player for the host nation, France, at the European Championships to his stateside road trip, duly punctuated by a jaunt to the ESPYs, right down to the official announcement of his move, you can think of July 2016 as the “Summer of Pog.”
It was chronicled on his Instagram feed, whether he was flexing his six-pack abs in a Florida infinity pool next to his equally shirtless, but rather more rotund, agent; goofing off with barbecue utensils in a manicured backyard; swatting away a layup on a Miami Beach playground or filling the tank of a Lamborghini in a black-and-white photograph that had been Photoshopped so his baseball cap and high-tops burned a United red against a bichromatic background.
It culminated on Aug. 7 with the #POGBACK hashtag, a reference to the fact that he was returning to United, where he spent three seasons between the ages of 16 and 19. He departed as a free agent, turning down the club’s offer because it wasn’t deemed good enough, and he returned as the most expensive player in history: He cost a whopping $115 million, with another $18.5m in commission going to his agent, Mino Raiola.
You’d think the combination of world-record transfer fee and overexposed (but, of late, underachieving) global brand would somewhat dampen the enthusiasm. Particularly since his debut campaign at Old Trafford (the self-styled “Theater of Dreams”) didn’t see Pogba dominate or carry a team that hobbled to a disappointing sixth place in the Premier League.
But Pogba is difficult to dislike. Part of it is the big-man-with-little-man-skills thing: You won’t see many 6-foot-3 midfielders with his grace, balance and close control. But this also comes with a Bunyan-esque outsized work rate and willingness to bear responsibility. He doesn’t hide, and he’s keen to be in the thick of it.
There’s also the fact that he’s bright and articulate, regardless of which of his four languages (French, Spanish, Italian and English) he chooses to use. And while his hair is a canvas for an array of extravagant styles and colours, he manages to exude both corporate cool and street cool while coming across as genuine in both.
The game has been searching for an heir apparent to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have dominated on the pitch and been the (disparate) faces of the sport. The obvious successors are Pogba and Neymar, who at 25 is 13 months older than the United midfielder. Yet Neymar is in some ways penalized by the fact that he plays for Barcelona, which means he plays second fiddle to Messi (and presumably will for the next four or five years). What’s more, he’s far more identified with Brazil than Pogba is with France, a country the United star left when he was 16. And that makes him far more sponsor-friendly: Like a blank warehouse wall (or Peyton Manning), you can project just about anything you want onto Pogba and it will seem credible.
It hasn’t been an easy season for him. When you’re the most expensive player in the history of the game, the bar is set very high, and because he’s the only central midfielder among the priciest transfers ever, statistical comparisons in a sport that really only takes goals seriously are tricky. On top of that, the other expensive transfers all joined dominant, stat-inflating sides, whereas he’s at a rebuilding Manchester United, which finished sixth in the Premier League, their second-worst top-flight finish since 1990.
Yet when you watch Pogba, particularly in person, the star power is obvious. Whenever he gets the ball, instinct tells you something truly special could happen. And your brain tells you that because he relies on intelligence and technique more than athleticism (not that he’s lacking in that department), he will likely only get better.
That’s what United paid for: the charisma and the ceiling. Pogba is delivering on the former, and you won’t bet against him delivering on the latter soon.