Despite seemingly never pausing, soccer is a sport defined by eras. Great players are hired and retired every year, but it’s possible to look back at the game’s history and identify real periods of inspiration and change. The revolutionary Hungarian national side of the 1950s, for example, gave way to Johan Cruyff’s dominant Ajax side of the late 60s and early 70s. Liverpool’s stranglehold on the English First Divison followed - predominantly in the 1980s - and was then quashed by the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominant Manchester United side.
The subsequent excesses of the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Manchester City have laid the foundations for a new era, one that’s beginning to take shape. These are not the only principle defining teams in soccer’s progression by any means, but when we speak of periods in the game’s history it’s almost always with reference to a particular club or dazzling individual. With defining eras come defining players, and arguably the game is currently on an upward trajectory, ready to hit peak on a new golden age of superstars and super-clubs.
The next generation of greats has been sounded out. With Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Arjen Robben, and other box office stars of the past decade coming to the twilight of their careers, the stage is set for a new breed. Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard - the next batch of soccer royalty has been prepped for coronation and the 2020 Ballon d’Or winner is anyone’s guess. But there’s one name now synonymous with the new era of big money and hyper-individualism - Manchester United’s Paul Pogba.
The emerging generation is one of astronomical transfer fees, 16-year-old wingers on over €100,000 a week, and players announced via UK grime artists. Paul Pogba’s record-breaking £89 million switch to Old Trafford came after a series of teaser posts on platforms like Instagram from both club and player. By the time the worst kept secret in soccer was revealed and Pogba was a United player, those keeping up with the deal had been subjected to intense advertising for both Pogba’s personal brand and that of Adidas. Frankly, most were tired of the protraction. The entire ‘reunited’ narrative - #Pogback - was well cultivated, despite the player leaving in ignominy (and for almost free) back in 2012 and returning for a truly eye-watering sum.
Manchester United is, it seems, attempting to revive the cult of the player/individual. The signing of both Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would support this theory - both are box office in their own right, and Pogba is perhaps the most marketable, high profile player to grace Old Trafford since the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham before him. If anything, the phenomenal fee will work in United’s favor, in that it elevated Pogba to demigod status even before a ball was kicked in the Premier League.
And United will earn their money back despite the huge initial outlay. The club view Pogba as a truly Millennial soccer player; his ‘dab’ celebrations, outrageous haircuts and affinity with hip hop mean there’s something for everyone in a player that cuts an enigmatic and dramatic figure seemingly everywhere he goes. Andy Sutherden, global head of sports and partnership marketing at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, told City AM that: ‘He is the embodiment of bold individualism. And that is so important when we think about what kids are getting hooked on. His magnetism in other areas — music, style — means that he becomes a magnet for younger fans that also have multiple interests beyond just football… An individual that can actually connect with youth in a meaningful and a relevant way has a currency for a football club.’
The deal is a dream come true for Adidas, too. The brand has been piling money into football as it pits itself against Nike, and has secured some of its biggest names. The meeting of United and Pogba, with all the fanfare that’s come with it, is invaluable to the brand. In fact, the Pogba deal was announced (albeit prematurely) by a video in which UK grime artist Stormzy - who is also sponsored by Adidas - danced with the midfielder whilst wearing a United Pogba shirt. Watching the video it’s difficult not to feel like it heralds a new era of superstardom in soccer, an era in which the game is as much about celebrity and culture as it is results on the field.
Adidas’ tangible involvement in the Pogba deal hasn’t been revealed, but the brand exerts what the Drum call a ‘light touch’ of influence over transfers. Both the athlete and the club have wildly lucrative deals with the German sportswear giant; it’s likely Adidas encourages transfers even if it doesn’t create them. Soccer is primarily a commercial entity - you only have to look at the dealings of the Glazers or Mike Ashley to get a decent picture - and thanks to the enduring appeal of its product, finances continue to swell. Pogba’s £89 million price tag represents 17.6% of United’s annual turnover. To put that into perspective, Bryan Robson’s £1.5 million transfer to the club in 1981 was a huge 56.6%. In the new era of mega-sponsorship and inflated fees, United’s Edward Woodward must’ve considered handing over £89 million to Juventus a record-breaking bargain.