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How Paul Pogba proves the United States can win the World Cup

Friday 28th September 2018

People like to believe athleticism transcends individual sports. It’s not untrue. Athletes on both sides of the Atlantic have excelled at more than one sport.

Ron Tindall played football for Chelsea, West Ham, Reading and Portsmouth from 1953-69 and cricket for Surrey from ‘56-66. Dave DeBusschere was an NBA forward from 1962-64 and pitched in Major League Baseball in ‘62 and ‘63. In the US, this generation remembers Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders’ double duty in the NFL and NBA, as well as Michael Jordan’s brief foray into minor league baseball. At the writing, Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt's attempting a football career with Central Coast Mariners in the A-League. Rio Ferdinand’s boxing dream ended when the BBBoC refused to issue a license. Athletes can reach [or try to reach] elite status in more than one sport.

On the other hand, people laugh when American fans suggest their national team could win a World Cup if their best athletes took an interest in association football rather than baseball, basketball or gridiron football. Why?

All the answers other than why not insult one’s intelligence.

Some European football fans argue their game requires technical ability having little to do with athleticism. Except the game's getting younger. Veteran players who lack pace are being forced out soon after they turn 30. Look at Wayne Rooney. What about the derision Mesut Ozil receives for not running about like a madman despite putting up the best playmaking numbers in the Premier League over the past five seasons? Athleticism claims equal if not dominant status over technique in contemporary football.

Others think Americans are too thick to embrace a foreign culture. Okay, I’ll grant you Americans can be thick, but news flash: the United States’ reign as cultural appropriation world champions is well into its second century. Baseball developed from British rounders. If Scots think they’re exempt from the looting and pillaging, the Ryder Cup's this weekend. Basketball was invented by a Canadian. Americans are hijacking hockey from Canucks, as well. Eleven-time Sumo champion Akebono's Hawaiian, ffs. What makes anyone think football's safe?

Despite the controversy swirling around the player and his manager at Old Trafford, the best rebuttal for all the naysayers may be Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. The Frenchman has no American connections of which I’m aware. What I know is he’s the perfect marriage between athletic and technical ability in the beautiful game.

Pogba's 6’3” and, according to Google, 185 lbs. That’s a bit light for an NFL player but there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t bulk up if he desired. Wide receivers and cornerbacks at his height tend to weigh between 195-215 lbs. He’s United’s playmaker, suggesting he might fancy the quarterback’s role. Unfortunately, signal callers tend to weigh even more. Speed's not their concern so much as the ability to absorb a 280 lb defensive lineman’s hit.

If Pogba’s long, loping stride deceives you into thinking he isn’t a speed merchant, that the role falls to Marcus Rashford in the United squad, think again. In September 2017, the Mirror ran a story detailing Opta’s in-game Premier League data. Rashford clocked in at a top speed of 34.27 km/hr. Both Romelu Lukaku and Pogba edged him out among United players. The pending World Cup Champion delivered the fastest burst at 34.68 km/hr.

In January, the New York Times posted a similar report regarding NFL players conducted by SportsRadar. Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette’s NFL Combine speeds [in which eligible college prospects audition for professional coaches] were nowhere near the league benchmark. Nevertheless, he turned in the fastest in-game dash on a touchdown run against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He reached 22.05 mph, which converts to 35.48 km/hr. That’s right, while carrying 9-13lbs of gear [shoulder pads, helmet, ball] Fournette outran Pogba. If an average NFL player can cover more ground than a UEFA superstar, why can’t he develop a different set of football skills in a cultural environment where the world’s game is as popular in America as elsewhere?

Fournette's 6”1” 225lbs, by the way. That’s small by NFL standards. If Pogba could muscle up for the NFL, the Jags running back could slim down and be playing for owner Shad Khan’s Premier League side Fulham in an alternate universe.

Pogba doesn’t just tick the athleticism box as a footballer, however. He’s among the game’s most intelligent players. His ability to read situations and pick out a key pass is top class. He can test goalkeepers from in or outside the box, but has the imagination to create a chance from nothing.

He demonstrated those abilities against Young Boys and Wolves, last week, creating two goals from the same position, just outside the box and inside the keeper’s right post.

Against Young Boys, he took one touch to find himself there, surrounded by yellow and black shirts. A feint to the right followed by a slight nudge to the left allowed him to release a rocket volley while on his heels. It tucked into the upper ninety to give United a lead on which they built.

Against Wolves, he again took one touch, this time redirecting a cross into Fred’s path. Pogba's deft influence on an incoming ball applied the right English for it to spin to a stop where the Brazilian could drive it home.

Although a completely different game, in which it seems the coach calls every play over the headset, NFL players at most positions are required to read situations and improvise when necessary. Quarterbacks read the defence, middle linebackers the offence, both to ascertain the play call has an opportunity to succeed. Linemen on both sides read the opposing group’s alignment to adjust blocking assignments. Receivers read the coverage to be on the same page with the quarterback when improvisation's necessary. Safeties read the quarterback’s eyes to determine which cornerback needs their support or if they should move up to snuff out a run.

These are the same skills strikers, wingers, midfielders, fullbacks, centre-halves and keepers must develop to thrive in their game. They’re just applied in a different environment.

Had Paul Pogba been born and raised in Los Angeles, Dallas or Miami rather than Paris, the odds are good he’d be a Super Bowl rather than World Cup Champion. Had Leonard Fournette been born in Liverpool or Marseille rather than New Orleans, we might be discussing whether the Cottagers are out of their minds to pay €70 for the next Cheick Tiote.

The United States possesses all the resources to win a World Cup. The missing ingredient isn’t players with the necessary skills. It’s a wholly immersed football culture surrounding a round ball rather than an ellipsoid. The beautiful game already has a fast grip on Latino, Asian, African and European ethnic minorities in the US. Gradually, it is taking hold with African and Anglo-Americans who focus on the NFL and NBA. Concussion is becoming so serious an issue; participation in youth football is fading. Meanwhile, youth soccer continues to grow within the country. If an evolutionary leap ever takes place, the world is in for a surprise.

Manchester United Results
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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