Paul Pogba, Neymar Jr and That Small Matter of Legacy

Legacy. The word does carry a certain sense of magnitude, but if you happen to eavesdrop on any football-related conversation at a pub, you might find it getting thrown around a lot.

Did the penalty miss in the final of ‘94 tarnish the way we look at Roberto Baggio’s career? Has Qatar 2022 cemented Lionel Messi’s credentials as the most decorated footballer in history? What could’ve been had O Fenomeno’s knees not given up on him? Did all the scandals surrounding Diego Maradona elevate his larger-than-life personality?

The most widely followed sport in the world offers a level of fame, power, and celebrity that few other trades can match. But that prospect of legacy-building also comes at a certain cost. Footballers’ careers and even their personal lives, especially now in the social media era, are constantly under the purview of the general public.

Sometimes, the regret of an incredible talent never coming close to fulfilling his potential garners greater emotion among fans than the contentment of a career well-materialised. From Mario Gotze and Adriano to Alexandre Pato and Mario Balotelli, from Hatem Ben Arfa to Ricardo Quaresma—and on and on and on.

The fact that not every bright promise is destined to become great is a tale as old as sport itself. But we rage on about the ‘what ifs’. Perhaps, the uncertainty of it all offers a false comfort of possibility which allures and, then, invites discussion. The collective hysteria, though, seems to operate only in black and white, and there are only villains and heroes. There are no greys, and definitely no middle ground in such conversations.

And the line separating them? It’s incredibly thin.

Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Both Paul Pogba and Neymar Jr have been traversing that tightrope of public opinion for almost their entire careers. Flashy, loud, and possessing the kind of genius that only comes across once in a lifetime, they have seen themselves go from being deified to almost debased with the cycle repeating over and over again.

The duo that generated world record transfer fees in 2016 and 2017 now finds itself fading away from mainstream football fandom, with years of anonymity and distraction slowly catching up to them.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Paul Pogba tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone and was immediately suspended by Italy’s anti-doping agency Nado Italia. While the French midfielder and his entourage still await the result of the B sample that he believes could bail him out of this crisis, his club Juventus has effectively ceased all communications. It is the latest in a long line of scandalous episodes that have plagued the career of Pogba, who has made just one start since returning to Turin from Manchester last summer.

Meanwhile, just halfway into August, the heir apparent to Lionel Messi’s throne decided to trade the bright lights of Paris for the riches and obscurity of Saudi Arabia, moving away from the European football landscape at just 31 years of age.

Their respective football careers are hurtling downhill like a dislodged rock off a cliff face, entering the realm of ‘what if?’ extremely quickly. And for both of them, that singular moment can actually be traced back to their blockbuster transfers that broke the transfer market.

Prior to Pogba’s United homecoming, the Frenchman enjoyed four stellar years with Juventus and won the league title every season besides adding two Italian Cups to his cabinet. Along with Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, and Claudio Marchisio in midfield, his game flourished without the shackles of defensive responsibilities. He has always been one of those players who is able to bring out his A-game when enjoying his football, and both Antonio Conte and Max Allegri knew how to get the best out of him. More importantly, the leadership of veterans like Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini ensured that the team’s burgeoning star always had his feet on the ground despite his obsession with the occasional theatricality and glam.

As a result, he quickly became a coveted prospect—landing the Golden Boy award in 2013, and even making it into the UEFA and FIFA Teams of the Year in 2015 after finishing runners-up in the Champions League final, losing to a Barcelona side that had Neymar at the peak of his powers.

Neymar! Oh, Neymar!

Infectious charisma? Check. Show-stopping ability to get people out of their seats repeatedly? Check. Goals and assists by the handful? Check. Clutch mentality? Check. Licence to entertain a la Jogo Bonito? Check, check, check.

How else do you describe a talent who had football fans tuning into Brasileirão on illegal 360p streams during the ugliest hours of the night to watch him play for Santos at just 19?! Not only was Neymar destined to be the next big thing, but he also embodied the principles of Brazilian football more than anyone else in his generation.

He found his footing in European football with Barcelona, and with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez alongside him, was rapidly becoming one of the best players in the world. Entertaining fans came naturally to him, and as colourful as his life was off the pitch, on it, he was a fiend who could neither be marked nor stopped.

The camaraderie Neymar shared with his more experienced South American partners-in-crime was evident in their chemistry on the football field. The trio proved to be the jewel in the crown of a thoroughly entertaining Barcelona side under Luis Enrique, with the Brazilian winning two La Ligas, three Copas, and most importantly, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup during his four years in Barcelona.

However, the Ballon d’Or, the most ‘out and loud’ testament of being the best player in the world, continued to elude him— at Barcelona, he was always deemed to be under Messi’s shadow. It was perhaps this desperate urge to be the protagonist that prompted Neymar to jump ship and join Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, the same club against which he had taken centre-stage and inspired a historic 6-1 comeback! Barcelona did pocket a cool €222 million for the Brazilian, before squandering it all away and entering financial ruin (the ripples of the market-warping transfer are being felt to this day).

In Pogba’s case, on the other hand, there was the feeling that he had well outgrown Juventus by his final season, and a move back to Old Trafford was always viewed favourably as the United faithful continued to flirt with the idea of their prodigal son coming home. It was in Manchester where he first made his strides in senior football, and it was in Manchester where he decided it would make most sense to continue his heroics.

Football hasn’t been kind to either of them since their respective moves.

Even though both players managed to light up Paris and Manchester on many nights, those moments of brilliance were few and far between. The magic, output, and consistency started drying up soon. Injuries and unnecessary drama, though? Almost never-ending.

Pogba never quite found the right tactical fit at United. When played deeper at the base of midfield, it seemed that his creative abilities were immensely underutilised. When given the license to move forward, Pogba lacked the technical ability to combine with forwards close to the box and play with his back to goal. The Frenchman was stuck between a rock and a hard place. A rift with manager Jose Mourinho resulted in significant mental turmoil, and despite United’s best attempts to ‘unlock’ Pogba, his second spell in England never really took off. During this entire period, he became an easy target for the media in England, and journalists, pundits, and former footballers were quick to point fingers at his new hairstyles and exuberant lifestyle after every defeat. Of course, he never helped his own case either, and his words on individual glory rather than seeking collective success never went down well with the fanbase.

For Neymar, though, the story was different. On the surface, the naked figures of 118 goals and 77 assists in 173 matches for PSG suggest a world-class return on his investment. After all, he is one of the most talented players of his generation. However, deeper introspection reveals that he has played just 47% of the available minutes in six seasons of Ligue 1, a league that PSG had won for four consecutive seasons before his arrival. And in the Champions League, the tournament (and still-elusive trophy) that Les Parisiens desperately craved more than most, Neymar has only two knockout round goals for the club, both of them coming in a last-16 tie with Borussia Dortmund. PSG did qualify for the Champions League final in 2020. The match, played behind closed doors, ended in a heart-breaking 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich, with Neymar reduced to tears on the bench.

Even on an individual level, Neymar finished 12th and 16th in the Ballon d’Or rankings, and has largely flown under the radar ever since, with international glory continuing to elude him following Brazil’s 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2016 Olympics wins. He missed the 2019 Copa America victory at home through injury, lost the 2021 final to Argentina at Maracana, and has never appeared in a World Cup semi-final. It is safe to say that brand Neymar took centre-stage over footballer Neymar during those years in Paris.

A further blow was suffered following the 2017 arrival of a certain Kylian Mbappe. Neymar had been lured to Paris by the promise of being the main man to lead a sporting project; the young Frenchman’s explosive rise in world football put paid to that dream. The same teenage Mbappe would help Paul Pogba have his moment in the sun during France’s World-Cup-winning run in 2018 (among other stats, both of them scored in the final against Croatia in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium). That year, Didier Deschamps got away with using Pogba in a deeper midfield role beside N’Golo Kante as France enjoyed a plethora of attacking riches through Antoine Griezmann and Mbappe. 

Since 2018, both Pogba and Neymar have also received the shorter end of the injury stick, enduring long and torrid spells on the sidelines. Neymar has missed 147 matches for club and country since his transfer to PSG in 2017, compared to the 32 matches he missed for Barcelona during his five years in Catalonia. Similarly, Pogba has missed 170 matches for Manchester United, Juventus, and France since his transfer to England in 2016.

Then there’s the aspect of personal life. It goes without saying that an athlete tends to achieve excellence when his head is in the right place, there’s some semblance of peace and clarity in his daily life, and he is surrounded by a positive environment. Both players have suffered from the ill effects of tumultuous personal lives inevitably seeping into their careers.

Having grown up amidst poverty and crime in Sao Paulo, Neymar became a national star at just 16. Like most Brazilian footballers, he quickly developed a taste for exuberance, riches, and of course, the nightlife. Following his move to Al Hilal, Neymar has been in the media more for infidelity than his actual contributions on the pitch. Surrounded by yes-men friends and family members greedy for wealth, the 31-year-old has never had a stable professional environment around him to keep him rooted to the ground.

Meanwhile, back in March 2022, a month before he appeared in his final game for Manchester United, Pogba was the victim of a masked kidnapping near Paris. The perpetrators, carrying M16 assault rifles, demanded €13m in protection money to avoid the dissemination of videos compromising him. It was later alleged that his own elder brother Mathias was involved in the plot. Mathias had earlier drawn headlines by accusing his younger brother of employing a West African holy man to put a curse on Les Bleus teammate Kylian Mbappe. That kind of betrayal coming from his own family left the midfielder heartbroken.

“Sometimes,” Paul Pogba told Al Jazeera, “I don’t want to have money anymore. I just don’t want to play anymore. I just want to be with normal people, so they will love me for me—not for the fame, not for the money. Sometimes it’s tough.”

The 30 year old has also admitted to experiencing depression “several times” in his career, but, most notably, during Mourinho’s spell at United. “You ask yourself if there is something wrong with you, because you have never experienced these moments in your life.

“Of course we earn a lot of money and we don’t complain, really. But that does not prevent you from going through these moments in your life—like the whole world—which are more difficult than others. In football, it is not acceptable, but we are not superheroes, we are only human beings.”

To compound the miseries, Pogba also had to deal with the passing of his agent Mino Raiola who had long been a father figure and a sincere well-wisher. His struggles definitely invite empathy, and it comes as little surprise then that he has considered retiring on several occasions, as his body, mind, and his relationships with those close to him break down at an alarming rate. More than most, he has felt the regret and guilt of wasting the extraordinary talent that he was born with, as well as the frustration of being a man out of time—an all-you-can-do midfielder incompatible with most modern midfields.

“Football is very beautiful, but it’s cruel,” Pogba said. “People can forget you. You can do something great—the next day, you’re nobody.”

When recently approached with the subject of art and legacy, Martin Scorsese said, “I’m old. I read stuff. I see things. I want to tell stories, and there’s no more time.”

“[Akira] Kurosawa, when he got his Oscar, when George [Lucas] and Steven [Spielberg] gave it to him, said, ‘I’m only now beginning to see the possibility of what cinema could be, and it’s too late.’ He was 83. At the time, I said, ‘What does he mean?’ Now I know what he means.”

There is a sense of lament in Scorsese’s voice when he utters these words. After all, there is a cruel irony to being so great at your art without enough time to spend with it.

Of course, football and filmmaking, although both mediums of expression, aren’t remotely similar. One is a creative endeavour primarily driven by the need to attract asses to seats and make money, the other is an athletic pursuit of winning.

The feeling of lament that Scorsese sheds light on, though, is universal and timeless.

As things stand, both Pogba and Neymar’s football careers are running on borrowed time. Perhaps the biggest ‘what if?’ players of our generation, their legacy will always be tainted by those miscalculated transfers to Manchester and Paris.

Maybe, there’s still time for Neymar to turn things around and have one last laugh at all of our expenses at the next Copa America and World Cup. Maybe Pogba’s B test will overturn his suspension and he will finally be able to conquer his demons and enjoy his football at Juventus. Maybe, maybe not.

Maybe they will turn 70 one day, wake up in bed with wrinkles and weariness on their faces, and look back on their careers with the crushing sense of regret and defeat. Only this time, the train of opportunity has long left the station.

Or maybe they will find peace in being able to live out most of their dreams as a professional footballer, living their no-holds-barred lives to the fullest, and accumulating wealth that most people can only dream of.

Only the benefit of hindsight can tell us if history will be kind to them.

However, the decline of these two unbelievably talented players will continue to serve as a reminder that growth and career trajectories in football are almost never linear. Neither Neymar nor Pogba is completely at fault for the fall from glory.

It is a cruel sport, like Pogba said, and it can slam you into the ground almost as quickly as it can lift you up from a nobody to one of the most popular people on the planet.

When the dust settles, there’s a certain sense of tragedy as much as revelry in that, like everything else in life.