Pogba’s World Cup spot is in doubt amid scandal and knee problem

PARIS – Paul Pogba’s knee injury could save France coach Didier Deschamps from a painful decision.

Because the midfielder’s fitness could be the deciding factor in deciding whether to play at the World Cup amid an extortion scandal that threatens to disrupt France’s preparations for the Qatar tournament.

What would otherwise have been an injury-related headache for Deschamps could give him an escape from the potential migraine of yet another scandal to hit Les Bleus seven years after the last.

Defending champions France can ill afford a campaign in which two of their biggest stars – Pogba and Kylian Mbappe – are embroiled in controversy.

French officials said Pogba paid 100,000 euros (nearly $100,000) to an organized group, which included his brother, who were trying to extort millions more from him.


French prosecutors are investigating allegations that Pogba was the target of blackmail by his older brother Mathias Pogba and childhood friends. They allegedly demanded €13m (nearly $13m) from the France midfielder.

Pogba reportedly made the payment after being threatened by masked gunmen in a Paris apartment in March while he was in France for the national team. The group also made demands on the midfielder in the training center of Juventus Turin. Mathias Pogba was reportedly among them.

According to French media reports, Pogba told investigators the blackmailers wanted to discredit him by claiming he asked a witch doctor to cast a spell on Mbappe – a claim Pogba has denied.

Mathias Pogba appeared to address the witch doctor claim in a Twitter post addressed to Mbappe on Sunday: ‘Kylian, do you understand now? I have nothing against you, what I say is for your own good, everything is true and known, the witch doctor is known!”


Mbappe scored in Wednesday’s 3-0 win in Toulouse for French champions Paris Saint-Germain but has not yet commented.

For Deschamps, however, it must be a distressing and unsettling feeling of deja vu.

He was previously in a similarly uncomfortable position when star striker Karim Benzema was at the center of a sex tape scandal in autumn 2015 for his alleged role in blackmailing then-France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

Both were on form and combined well on the pitch with Valbuena’s quick feet and skillful runs down the right flank, allowing Benzema to create good scoring positions.

This scandal also erupted on the eve of a major tournament when France hosted the 2016 European Championships, in which Benzema – France’s top scorer at the 2014 World Cup – was set to star alongside Antoine Griezmann in attack.

Deschamps was also close to Benzema, having previously defended the striker when he endured a lengthy goal drought. But he decided the media spotlight at Euro 2016 would be too bright and the questions too insistent, so he left both Benzema and Valbuena out of the squad.


For some observers it was Deschamps at his ruthless best, others felt he was being too hard on Benzema and that the innocent Valbuena paid an unfair price.

Valbuena never played for France again, while Benzema did not play for Les Bleus again until a surprise recall in May 2021.

While the circumstances are different, Pogba’s presence at the World Cup could also impact another player: star striker Mbappe. Both scored second-half goals in the 4-2 final win over Croatia four years ago and would normally be Deschamps’ first choice.

Under normal circumstances, it would have been likely that Deschamps would have given Pogba maximum time to recover from his knee injury. At Euro 2008 then coach Raymond Domenech included an injured Patrick Vieira in his squad, so important was the midfielder to the side.


But the current climate surrounding Pogba could affect how much indulgence Deschamps has for one of his closest players.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet has downplayed the scandal.

“These are just rumors at this point,” Le Graet told Radio Monte Carlo. “I love Paul. I hope this doesn’t call into question his (World Cup) place on the French side.”

Crucially, Le Graet initially sided with Benzema ahead of Euro 2016, only to conform to Deschamps’ wishes – Benzema felt let down as he was close to Le Graet.

Time isn’t on Deschamps’ side either.

He knows the questions will come on September 15 once he names his squad for Nations League games – on September 22 in Austria and three days later in Denmark.

They are the last two games before France’s World Cup opener against Australia on November 22nd.

Pogba is recovering from a torn meniscus on his right knee. He decided against surgery and is expected to be out for a few more weeks.


This could give Deschamps a simple but diplomatic way out to resolve the issue, saying he will not be fit for the game rather than dropping a player who has been a key element in his since taking charge 10 years ago team is.

It seems unlikely that Pogba, 29, will recover in time to face Austria and Denmark anyway. Even if his knee improves, he will be far from match fitness.

So Deschamps could claim fitness – or hope that the whole mess will be cleared up in time when he presents his official World Cup squad in mid-October.

But even that won’t stop questions in Qatar, where Pogba’s presence could affect Mbappe’s form and thus weigh on the squad’s overall mood amid intense media scrutiny.

Benzema is expected to win the Ballon d’Or as the best player in the world, while Mbappe has won the French league’s best player award three times. They are top priority in Deschamps’ team, while Pogba may not be as valuable as he used to be with Aurelien Tchouameni now impressing at Real Madrid.


Given how well Mbappe has teamed up with Benzema, would Deschamps want to upset it for the sake of loyalty to a player who – even absent this scandal – would have been doubtful about playing in Qatar anyway?

Then there’s Pogba’s brother, 32-year-old Mathias. They were close growing up with Florentin Pogba – Mathias’ twin – in a housing project in the eastern Paris suburb of Roissy-en-Brie. All three played at junior level for the local community club, and the twins also went on to lower-level professional careers.

That family unit now seems broken.

The case became public after Mathias posted on social media last weekend threatening to make “explosive” revelations about Paul’s agent Rafaela Pimenta and about Mbappe.

He posted another obscure and cryptic video with an off-commentary with violent language and an atmospheric soundtrack on Tuesday evening.


What if Mathias Pogba keeps posting videos like this during the World Cup?

It’s a distraction Deschamps could probably do without.


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