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The most expensive soccer player in the world, ever, isn’t Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar or Luis Suarez or Gareth Bale. It’s a 23-year-old French midfielder whose new club didn’t think highly enough of him to give him the contract he wanted four years ago, when he was already at that club but his deal was up.
To be sure, in the four years that Paul Pogba was gone from Manchester United between Sir Alex Ferguson deciding an unproven 19-year-old wasn’t worth the kind of salary he was asking for and new manager Jose Mourinho leading the push to bring him back – a move confirmed by United just after midnight, English time, on Tuesday – he developed into a world-class player. His swagger, tireless toil in midfield and loud goals have made him a superstar.
He’s probably one of the five best midfielders in the world, although his performance at Euro 2016 didn’t support that argument nearly as well as his time at Juventus has. With Italy’s Old Lady, he became a metronome, while his club was rewarded for its faith in the young midfielder by a haul of four straight league titles during his time there and a spot in the 2015 Champions League final.
When Pogba left in 2012, Ferguson publicly declared his annoyance that a big prospect would walk away before reaching maturity at the club. “It is disappointing,” the club patriarch said. “I don’t think he showed us any respect at all, to be honest. I’m quite happy that if [young players] carry on that way, they’re probably better doing it away from us.” For their trouble in helping to develop him, United received from Juventus a nominal fee of $2 million or so in training compensation.
So what, exactly, has taken us to the point where United gladly forked over $116 million – breaking Bale’s international transfer record and giving Juve a preposterous return on investment – to bring back a player it could have kept for free and who had seemingly run afoul of some club code?
In truth, it has less to do with Pogba crawling out of his soccer cocoon to emerge as a magnificent two-way butterfly. Or with United’s decade-long failure to adequately replace Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in central midfield. Or even with United perhaps making some kind of statement that, after three down years in the wake of Ferguson’s retirement, it’s still a club that matters and can compete for the best talent. Or even with the enormous revenue potential Pogba represents through branding and merchandising – with tens of millions of pounds in Pogba jerseys already shifting in the hours since his deal was made official, according to reports, although a mere slither of that will reach the club.
Not since Newcastle United bought Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers in 1996 had an English club broken the international transfer record – the last time before that was 1951; Jackie Sewell from Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday. The last five records, in fact, had all been broken by Real Madrid. Before that, it was Lazio, Inter Milan, Betis Sevilla, and Inter again, respectively. That wasn’t because English clubs couldn’t afford the most expensive players, exactly, but more that they seemed less interested in the one, silver-bullet mega transfer than bringing in an assortment of new players to address several needs. They spread the money around a tad more evenly, rather than try to match Real Madrid’s Galacticos policy under chairman Florentino Perez. Or perhaps it was all just a fluke.
But the game has changed. Or the game’s finances have, anyway. With the league’s $11 billion in new domestic and global broadcast deals – spread out over the three upcoming seasons – kicking in, transfer fees have become but a number. It was already true that whatever 20 teams happened to be in the Premier League were among the 30 or so richest clubs in the world, by virtue of its capacity for printing cash. But that effect is only exacerbated now that the biggest of those revenue streams has become a full-on grade-V whitewater rapids. All clubs can now afford expensive signings, shelling out hefty fees for unremarkable players. And the ones, like United, with a pre-existing infrastructure to monetize its global popularity, can afford to pay anything at all.
Mourinho, having assessed his squad’s many needs, which endured in spite of the endless millions pumped into it in during one desperate lunge at competitiveness after another, decided he needed a central midfielder. Well, that he needed two. And once he’d secured Borussia Dortmund’s Game of Thrones character Henrikh Mkhitaryan, he turned his attention – along with his club’s front office, of course, who actually handle the nitty-gritty of transfers – to the best midfielder on the market.
That was Pogba. So United swallowed its pride – although few of the men who let him walk are still around in meaningful roles – and began negotiations. Juventus set its price. United haggled. They settled on a fee.
United got the best midfielder money could buy – since the handful of players who could conceivably be deemed superior to Pogba weren’t available at any price. It just so happens the price tag was the largest ever paid. Because Pogba is entering his prime and was under contract for a few more years. And because United could pay it and Juventus knew it.
This unloosed discussions over how much Pogba was really worth. What a fair price was. What the total cost was, with a staggering eight-figure commission going to his agent, Mino Raiola. Whether United would make a return. But all of this is to miss the point. At a time of hyperinflation, any notions of fair value go out the window. Because while the money is now all but unlimited, the talent on offer still very much is. Supply and demand. Prices soar.
It just so happens that Pogba was the first high-profile manifestation of this new reality. He became the most expensive player ever not because he’s the best in the game right now, but because he’s the best who was available at a time when some TV networks had just made it rain on the Premier League.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.