Absent, as he has been for 18 months now, from France’s internationals, Paul Pogba took the opportunity of last week’s international pause to give a rare interview.
Opening up to Al Jazeera, he reflected on some of the difficulties in a challenging year professionally and personally: “Sometimes I was by myself, thinking ‘I don’t want to play any more'," he said to camera.
Barely had the interview been broadcast when Italy’s Anti-Doping Agency announced that the World Cup-winning midfielder, who has played 91 times for France, had returned a positive test for synthetic testosterone in a routine doping sample taken after the opening game of the Serie A season at Udinese, where Pogba had been a non-playing substitute for his club, Juventus.
He is provisionally suspended with immediate effect, pending the results of a second examination of the sample. If Pogba is found to have intentionally doped, he faces a four-year ban.
The player’s agent, Rafaela Pimenta, has insisted: “What is sure is that Paul Pogba never meant to break any rules. We will await the counter-analysis.” Results from that are expected within the week.
The episode confronts Pogba with the possibility of his time in the elite tier of his sport coming to a sudden end. He turned 30 earlier in March, while at the lowest ebb of a career that began with precocious promise in his teens and reached the heights with his stirring role in France’s triumph at the 2018 World Cup.
He had then just completed the second year of his second spell at Manchester United, having cost what was then a world-record transfer fee – €105 million – when United, who first recruited him as 16-year-old, bought him back from Juventus.
The pattern of his club career then repeated, with last summer’s return to Juve, where he played between 2012 to 2016.
Pogba, after a mixed time as Old Trafford’s star midfielder – often criticised; sometimes dazzling – let his United contract expire and rejoined Juve without a fee but at close to the top of their salary scale.
The ambition was to help Juventus regain dominance in Serie A – a nine-year run of successive league titles had ended in 2021 – and compete in the very later stages of the Champions League.
Juventus failed, a dreadful year for the club finishing not only outside the top spots in Serie A – and featuring a group-phase exit from the Champions League – but in disgrace. The club was found to have falsified their accounts. A points deduction was imposed domestically, and Uefa banned Juve from European competitions for 2023/24.
Pogba was a mere bystander for almost all of it, hampered by injuries that, within the club, caused friction because of differing opinions over treatment.
He arrived from United still in recuperation from muscular problems that had put a full stop on his United career – 226 matches, 39 goals, 51 assists, a Europa League and a League Cup medal in his second spell – 10 minutes into a 4-0 defeat against Liverpool in April last year. In pre-season with Juve, he then suffered a cartilage injury.
One line of advice was surgery; the alternative, favoured by Pogba because it might offer an avenue to playing for France in the World Cup in Qatar that November, was to resist a major operation and ease himself back into action. He chose the latter initially.
When surgery became the only viable option, time had been lost. Pogba played no competitive football for Juve before February, missed France’s run to the World Cup final, and finished year one of the much-heralded "Pogback", as Juventus called his reunion with them, having made the starting XI just once. That was in May, when he had to be withdrawn in the first half with a hamstring issue.
Off the pitch, there was turbulence, too, with police investigating an extortion attempt made against him, in which his brother Mathias was allegedly involved. He had been held at gunpoint by the extortionists, it was reported.
“It was like a movie,” Pogba told Al Jazeera. The incidents are subject of a complaint Pogba has filed to Turin prosecutors. Mathias Pogba denies the allegations against him.
Over the summer, Juventus, facing a year without Champions League – or indeed any Uefa-competition income – had been eager to lighten their wage bill. Leo Bonucci, Juan Cuadrado and Angel Di Maria, big-earners, were all moved on.
The club monitored, with interest, the enthusiasm for signing Pogba from clubs in Saudi Arabia’s Pro League, but the midfielder had felt determined, after an almost blank 2022/23 season to start to earn the €200,000-plus weekly wage Juve have committed to him.
He felt encouraged by two outings as a substitute in the last two Serie A matches. Should he be found to have intentionally taken a banned substance, Juventus will not be counting on him any longer, and a once brilliant, dynamic midfielder will confront a terminal crisis.