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HeartOfFootball

Inflated price tag for Pogba casts pall over quest for foreign legion

In Olde England this weekend, they are celebrating, in sepia, the day that Bobby Charlton and company won the World Cup in 1966.

In new England, Manchester United are haggling over the finer details of the £100 million(S$177 million) attempt to recapture Paul Pogba, a player they let go for nothing in his teens.

Where is the connection, if any, between the two?

Well, Man U are of course Charlton's club. And Pogba is a goal-scoring midfield player, as Sir Bobby was in his prime.

But the greater, and more worrying connection, is the fact that by far the majority of English football's wealth flows out of the country to buy foreign talent.

To be sure, the Premier League is a much more handsome product, a world-class league, because of its global appeal to players on a global scale. And to be equally sure, this preference to import talent rather than nurture it as Manchester United historically used to is fundamental to the national team's 50-year decline as a world competitor.

At the time of writing, only a few details (such as the agent's cut) are holding back Pogba's return to Old Trafford.

Raiola could pocket as much as £20 million from the transfer. He is also the agent who moved Henrikh Mkhitaryan and a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic to United. At one time, he also sold Mario Balotelli to City. Not bad for a man who once made his living selling pizzas. Rob Hughes

At the same time, Manchester City are baulking at Everton's price tag of £50 million for John Stones, which would make him the most expensive Englishman ever.

One imagines the bean counters will get there in the end. Pogba turned 23 just before Euro 2016. Stones recently had his 22nd birthday. And if the Frenchman is considered a player at his peak, the argument around Stones is that he still needs to grow into his potential.

The managers (both foreign) at the two Manchesters are very different characters.

Jose Mourinho looks for proven winners to buy, ready-made, for his "winning mentality". Pep Guardiola, new to the EPL, likes to develop players and to expand the concept of how the winning is achieved.

They worked together once, at Barcelona. They have worked in direct, sometimes bitter, opposition in the Spanish Primera Liga. And now they are in the same square mile or so again, spending like there is no tomorrow on behalf of the Americans who own Jose's United, and the Abu Dhabi royals who bankroll City.

Pogba and Stones are by no means the only individuals the rivals covet. But they do represent the new managers' haste to put their mark on the teams they are forging.

Yet both come with some mystery about them.

It was baffling that France, having powered towards the Euro 2016 final with Pogba - who used his physical might and his thirst to either get in on goal himself or set somebody else up with a pass - was switched by coach Didier Deschamps to a deeper role minding the defence for the semi-final and final of the tournament.

Bewildering not because Pogba, with his 1.91m frame and his willingness to work, could not do the job of shielding the backline. But because it deprived France of his energy, his desire, his ability to score with both feet and his head.

For Juventus last season, he used his power going forward. He scored 10 times, assisted on 12 other goals, and even if Italy's Serie A is less defensive-minded these days, he was prodigious too in Juve's run to the final of the Champions League the season before.

So the matter of Alex Ferguson letting him go as a teenager is water under Old Trafford's expensive bridge.

The flashpoint had less to do with Pogba's impatience or his potential than with the clash between Fiery Fergie and Pogba's equally combustible agent, Mino Raiola.

Apparently the last arguments between United and Juventus over the Pogba deal had to do with Raiola's fee. It's written that the Italian-born, Dutch-based, Monaco resident Raiola could pocket as much as £20 million from the transfer.

He is also the agent who moved Henrikh Mkhitaryan and a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic to United. At one time, he also sold Mario Balotelli to City.

Not bad for a man who once made his living selling pizzas.

Meanwhile, John Stones waits for the second summer to be sold.

A year ago, it was Mourinho, not Guardiola, who wanted Stones. Chelsea bid three times for the defender, but none of the offers met Everton's valuation, and Stones was in limbo.

England's most promising defender, Stones has rare time on the ball and a penchant to play out of defence that marked him, in some eyes, as a potential Bobby Moore or Franz Beckenbauer.

They, for those too young to remember, were majestic centre-backs - defenders in name only because of their ability to read the game, to pass or to glide forward to turn defence into a beautiful art.

For a brief few weeks after the abortive Chelsea overtures, Stones knuckled down to his Everton duties, and England's too. But then, following injury and appearing to be disaffected with life at Goodison Park, he lost his form as well as his place.

Now, with Everton ready to sell but determined to reap a fee close to half the Pogba amount, Stones is treading water once again.

His critics see him as over-elaborate, a "fancy Dan"? who takes too many risks trying to embellish his play rather than safely clearing his lines. All this, the turning of his head by first Chelsea and now City and the suspicion that he is not the confident young man he was 18 months ago, was reflected at Euro 2016, where he never got a role for England.

Stones, the erstwhile heir to Moore and Beckenbauer, sat and watched while England lost to Iceland. Now, again, he has his mind in one place and his body in another.

Everton's price is fixed at 16 times the sum they paid Barnsley for him 31/2 years ago. Pogba's return to Manchester comes at around 100 times the sum for which he was allowed to leave United four years ago.

That's inflation, soccer style.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Inflated price tag for Pogba casts pall over quest for foreign legion'. Print Edition | Subscribe