Paul Pogba faces his biggest test when Juventus meet Barca in the UCL final
Paul Pogba knows he is more than a footballer. He is a commodity, a plus sign on a balance sheet -- and a hefty one at that.
It is nothing new. He is 22 years old, and from the time he turned 14, he changed clubs three times. Each time, there was acrimony, controversy and bile. Not directed at him so much, but more fueled by the notion that a prize asset was slipping through a club's fingers for far less than it was worth.
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Shortly after his 14th birthday, he moved from the tiny French club of Torcy to Le Havre, with the latter accused of behaving improperly: They allegedly held a trial for him without advising Torcy, and registered him as an amateur without telling his former club.
Then, at 16, he moved to Manchester United, signing his first professional contract; this time, it was Le Havre who were incensed. They brought the case to FIFA, again, claiming impropriety. It was later dropped when they settled with United and agreed on a fee.
He spent three years at Old Trafford, helping United win the FA Youth Cup and making his first-team debut at 18 in September 2011. Then, the moment that may have cost United tens of millions: He turns down the offer of a new contract and leaves for Juventus in the summer on a free transfer.
In classic "Rashomon" fashion, exactly what happened depends on whose version you believe. Pogba felt he was ready and should have had more playing time. Instead of turning to him with United short-handed in midfield, Sir Alex Ferguson asked Paul Scholes to come out of retirement. That was a sign the club weren't fully convinced.
Another version holds that Pogba simply wanted too much, and that by ditching his representative and joining up with Mino Raiola (the super-agent who also represents Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli), he laid down a very clear marker United could not accept.
Pogba told me last year he has fond memories of United, and his eyes widened when talking about how much he learned from the likes of Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs. There is no acrimony on his part, but at Old Trafford, there was undoubtedly a sense that a prized asset slipped through the club's fingers. And that maybe, if handled another way, recent history would have panned out differently.
Now he's at Juventus and, again, he is commodified. Would he be the first nine-figure (in euros) player if he is sold in the summer?
Players are assets on balance sheets; it's a fact of life in the modern game. Pogba is neither the first nor the only, but few have moved so often before age 20 while leaving a trail of missed (financial) opportunities in their wake.
Factor in the obvious: he has size, strength and athleticism. He has intelligence, charisma and technical ability. Factor in some realpolitik, too. Three of the four wealthiest clubs in the world -- Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich -- are either nursing wounds from a disappointing denouement to the campaign, or in the midst of a massive, ongoing rebuild.
Factor in Raiola and his penchant for getting clients hugely lucrative moves, time and again. Factor in the fact that while Juventus do not need to sell, at the right price they may wish to sell. Fourteen years ago, they shattered every record to let another French midfielder, Zinedine Zidane, leave the club, and found themselves better off as a result.
Factor in some accounting magic we'll call "amortization," too. His age means that whatever you spend can likely be spread out in your books for a decade or more. In an age of Financial Fair Play, that matters, too. And then consider that on Saturday night against Barcelona in the Champions League final, he has a chance to add to his résumé on the biggest stage in world football.
Even the pressure is ratcheted down to some degree. He may be Juve's biggest asset by some margin, but there are enough subplots to keep the media entertained -- Andrea Pirlo's future, Patrice Evra facing Luis Suarez once again, Arturo Vidal's stunning return to form, Alvaro Morata in his own "mini-clasico" -- so that he's not the focus. Plus, on a team packed with veterans from Gigi Buffon to Pirlo, from Carlos Tevez to Vidal, from Evra to Claudio Marchisio, the attention is spread out. Throw in the fact that Barcelona are overwhelming favorites, and the stage is set.
Pogba has weaknesses, of course. Everybody does. I asked him last year and he said he could improve his heading -- not that, at 6-foot-4, he isn't already a threat in the box. His critics in Italy worry that sometimes he relies too much on his technique to get him out of trouble. Maybe that's true, too, though it's worth remembering Pirlo got the same knock until he got older (and grew a beard), and that some people are talented enough to protect the ball when pressed without booting it up the pitch.
For the budding tacticians out there, Saturday will be a good test of his nous off the ball. Odds are he'll line up just to the left of Pirlo, which means it will be his responsibility to slide wide and help Evra out when Dani Alves advances and Lionel Messi receives the ball (and you know at some point he will) on Barca's right flank.
Messi's goal against Bilbao is fresh in everyone's mind. Barcelona can beat you a dozen different ways, but this is their basic, go-to move, the equivalent of the Chicago Bulls' triangle offense: from there, an array of possibilities are unlocked. That's when opposing defenses end up playing whack-a-mole (which is better than whack-a-Messi, I guess). Barca cycle through the options quickly and then execute as soon as there's an opening.
It's a huge ask when, at the same time, Pogba will also be deputized to help Pirlo shield the central defense and provide an outlet for those times when Suarez doubles back to press him (and you know he will).
This won't be the game where Pogba "comes of age," or the one where he "proves himself." Unless you've been living under a rock, he's already done that. Nor will it necessarily be the one where he makes history: given the world in which we live -- one where transfer fees seem to matter as much as achievements -- that will come regardless if he moves in the summer.
No, this is a chance to add another chapter to a career which thus far has met expectation at every turn. And if that happens, there will be more second-guessing in Torcy, Le Havre and Manchester, and more soul-searching over what -- if anything -- they could have done differently.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.