The longest-running transfer saga of the summer is over. The cheeky Adidas videos, the cryptic Instagram posts, the teasing and the tormenting. The boredom. Paul Pogba is again a Manchester United player.
And he’s now the world’s most expensive player.
That’s no surprise – the value of footballers grows over time and it will probably never drop. Not unless something dramatic happens in football’s economy. Not unless people get fed up with the money, the soullessness, the franchise-mindset and Dr No’s European Super League. No, it’ll never happen.
Over the past few seasons, the signings of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo have made their team stronger with each smashing of the previous record. The same will probably be said for Pogba.
But the progression of the transfer record has often been a case of romance over substance.
Paul Pogba’s transfer is the first time since 2000 that anyone other than Real Madrid has broken the record. And if there’s one team in world football that is built around fantasy and romance, it’s Madrid. Established on the world stage after winning the first five European Cups, since then it’s been about reasserting that dominance, becoming a club of fantasy; bespoke, boutique.
Much of breaking the world transfer record is the fantasy of breaking it, and what you can do after breaking it. United, Adidas, Chevrolet – these huge corporations, brands – can market the life out of Paul Pogba. He’s already shown a personality, he’s already established himself as a bit ‘out there’ a man with an eye for a brash suit and a WTF haircut. Now turn that into a brand – you know it’s going to be easy.
He is, of course, stunningly good at football and deserves to see his name on the list of the other record transfer-makers. But if he didn’t succeed, he wouldn’t be the first big-money flop.
Harald Nielsen was Serie A top scorer two seasons in a row for Bologna in the 1960s. So when Inter Milan had succumbed to Celtic in the 1967 European Cup final, Grande Inter – one of the best teams in the world at the time – splurged desperately, breaking the record for a goalscorer to boost their team. Except, Nielsen scored just two goals for Inter. That’s £150,000 per goal, in 1967. Grande Inter died, legendary manager Helenio Herrera left, and the club won just one Serie A title in the next 13 years.
It’s the hope that kills you, and Manchester United are currently in a similar position.
Ironically, there are startling similarities between Jose Mourinho and Helenio Herrera. Both are the only men to win the European Cup at Inter. Both men like to spend big and play a pragmatic type of football. Both men were brought into La Liga by an El Clasico club aiming to curb the domination of the other by bringing in big name stars. Both men seem to follow a similar lineage.
But there is an important difference in the position both men were in, and the position both clubs were in when they made their signing. For one thing, Herrera was at the end of his cycle at Inter, whereas Mourinho is at the very start of his.
The amount of money United have spent on Pogba needs to be placed in a business context, too. The marketing and advertising possibilities open to them and the fact that they are making so much money mean that the percentage of their yearly turnover the Pogba fee comprises is fairly low, bafflingly.
Interesting that Bryan Robson (£1.5m) cost bigger % of @ManUtd turnover (2.65m) in 1981 than Paul Pogba. 57% to 18% approx.
— Simon Stone (@sistoney67) August 10, 2016
And United, unlike Inter in 1967, aren’t a club on the way down: they’re a club on the way up. After their nadir under Moyes, there was incremental progress under Louis van Gaal. He may have finished fourth and then fifth, but the form towards the end of last season puts United on an upward trajectory, as does lifting the FA Cup. The arrival of Jose Mourinho and the signings made this summer just reinforce that.
And when you look at the most successful record signings, they’re all made by a club that would seem like the final logical destination for a top player.
Since 1990, there are only three world record transfers that stand out as being made by clubs that aren’t right at the top of the tree. One is Alan Shearer to Newcastle, but that can be explained as a player moving to a club he loved. Another is Hernan Crespo’s move to Lazio, who were Serie A champions at the time and managed by a pre-England Sven-Goran Eriksson. The other is Denilson who moved to Real Betis and was relegated only a few years later.
You don’t break the world record as a desperate attempt to cling onto former glories. You break the record to assert your dominance, both on a financial and a sporting level. Manchester United have plenty of reasons why they’ll be better than last season, and only one of those reasons is Paul Pogba.
Top clubs don’t by players just to sell them off again. ‘Re-sale value’ doesn’t come into it. Unless Pogba establishes himself as the world’s very best and Real Madrid start to covet him, he won’t be moving club again for any more than United paid for him.
There’s always the chance this is a flop – but the evidence points to a few seasons of Manchester United reasserting their dominance.