While the six years Paul Pogba represented United were turbulent for the club, the fans, and the player himself, Pogba’s career from a cultural standpoint will remain like no other we have seen before. He helped to change the way the world sees modern footballers, arguably more than any other individual.
In that sense at least, Pogba remains a generational talent and his existence will always be a milestone in the cultural and social evolution of the beautiful game.
From being a pioneer in baller x barber culture to linking up with Stormzy for the most disruptive transfer announcement of all-time, Pogba helped to set the scene for a new generation of players to unapologetically be themselves.
— adidas Football (@adidasfootball) August 8, 2016
But the reality is this move wasn’t always seen as a positive development and while week-to-week we should have seen pundits pulling apart on-pitch clinics, we instead became used to the sight of Graeme Souness launching personal attacks at Pogba.
As far as football ideologies go, Pogba and Souness represent two opposing schools of thought. One represents modern society and convergence culture, while the other is very much rooted in a belief that ‘football is football’ and nothing else matters.
The truth is, one of these schools of thought is becoming more apparent as the truth and the latter is showing how flawed it is in all of its principles. In fact, it’s creating a toxic environment which we all need to learn from.
Whether it’s online discourse, punditry or in-stadium chants, the line between criticising players and attacking them has gone past being blurred, it’s been completely rubbed out. Even if you are to put forward this argument, sentiments of being ‘soft’ and the game being ‘gone’ are often the rhetoric in response.
But the game isn’t gone. If anything, it is more representative of society than ever before. Footballers are more than the athletes on the pitch. Like Pogba, they may indulge in extra curricular activities away from work. That, however, should not be used as a beating rod to hit them with when they are low.
The gift and curse of social media continues to bring forward the good and ugly within the world. While we have been screaming for ‘never before seen’ access to players and a connection like no other generation of footballer before, such access is now used as evidence to condemn players.
Personal jibes are now linked to performances, and footballers showcasing they are human are now used as ammunition to shoot them down at any given opportunity. Look no further than Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s decision to embrace fashion as a prime example.
“We could spend forever talking about the increased fixture list, the mental and physical well being of players, the post-pandemic slump in athletes…”
This is not to excuse below par performances. In many instances, we all have great hopes for big signings or homegrown talents. But the truth is, the gap between our hopes being fulfilled and what really happens on the pitch should not result in attacks on a player’s character.
Not when we are not addressing the bigger issues at play. We could spend forever talking about the increased fixture list, the mental and physical well being of players, the post-pandemic slump in athletes. The list goes on. We could also talk about how some players may just not be in the right environment to thrive. These should all be reasons discussed before attributing bad performance to their personas or off the field personalities.
In many instances, our personal affinity to our football clubs blur our rational thoughts. In our day-to-day lives, we would not expect ourselves to progress or perform in our jobs if the infrastructure around us was not up to par. We would also feel a way if our personalities were being attacked in relation to our jobs.
Recent examples aren’t hard to find. From the fan treatment of Frenkie de Jong and Martin Braithwaite over refusing to leave the club without money they are owed, to the amplification of discussion about Jadon Sancho’s persona and performance. If we go back to last season, the constant discussion on Marcus Rashford’s performances – often linked to his campaigning and charity work – was uncomfortable to see.
It’s something we have to identify and learn from before it is too late. While we are at the cusp of further expansion in footballers being open and owning their narratives, we run the risk of eradicating that all and going back to a time where we do not hear from footballers at all.
It’s a new season and naturally, we all expect big things from our clubs and players alike. We want to be entertained and see high performance, but let’s remember that the entertainer is also a person. Let us remember that they too are entitled to a life and should not be subject to ridicule based on how they live it. Let us remember that as much as we love this game, it is literally that. Just a game.
Pogba’s career may not have been what it should have been in the Premier League but the door he opened in players being themselves should not be shut. Not by them and not by us forcing them to shut it.