Pogba’s place in the World Cup with France in flux amid scandal and injury

PARIS (AP) — Paul Pogba’s knee injury could save French coach Didier Deschamps from having to make a painful choice.

For the midfielder’s fitness could prove to be the determining factor in deciding whether he plays at the World Cup, amid an extortion scandal that threatens to disrupt France’s preparations for the tournament in Qatar.

What would otherwise have been an injury headache for Deschamps could allow him to escape the potential migraine of another scandal to hit the Blues, seven years after the last one.

Reigning champions France cannot afford a campaign where two of their biggest stars – Pogba and Kylian Mbappé – are embroiled in controversy.

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

French prosecutors are investigating allegations that Pogba was the target of extortion by his older brother Mathias Pogba and childhood friends. They reportedly demanded 13 million euros (nearly $13 million) from the French midfielder.

Pogba is said to have made the payment after being threatened by masked and armed men in a Paris apartment in March while in France for the national team. The group have also made demands of the midfielder at Juventus’ training center in Turin. He said Mathias Pogba was among them, according to reports.

According to French media, Pogba told investigators that the extortionists wanted to discredit him by claiming he had asked a wizard to put a spell on Mbappé – an allegation denied by Pogba.

Mathias Pogba appeared to respond to the wizard’s allegation on Sunday in a Twitter message to Mbappé: “Kylian, do you understand now? I have nothing against you, what I say is for your good, everything is true and known, the wizard is known!

Mbappé scored for French champions Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday in a 3-0 win at Toulouse but has yet to comment on the matter.

For Deschamps, however, it must be a boring and disturbing sense of deja vu.

He’s been in an equally uncomfortable position before when star striker Karim Benzema was at the heart of a sex tape scandal in the fall of 2015, over his alleged role in blackmailing French team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

The two were in good form and combined well on the pitch with Valbuena’s quick feet and flowing runs down the right creating good scoring positions for Benzema.

This scandal also erupted near a major tournament, with France hosting the 2016 European Championship where Benzema – France’s top scorer at the 2014 World Cup – was due to play alongside Antoine Griezmann in attack.

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

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

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

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

Under normal circumstances, it would have been likely that Deschamps gave Pogba the maximum amount of time to recover from his knee injury. At the European Championship in 2008, then-coach Raymond Domenech took an injured Patrick Vieira into his squad, as the midfielder was so important to the team.

But the current climate surrounding Pogba could affect the leniency Deschamps shows one of his closest players.

The president of the French Football Federation, Noël Le Graet played down the scandal.

“These are just rumors at this stage,” Le Graet told Radio Monte Carlo. “I love Paul. I hope this will not jeopardize his place (in the World Cup) on the French side.

Basically, Le Graet initially took on Benzema’s squad ahead of Euro 2016, to conform to what Deschamps wanted – leaving Benzema feeling disappointed as he was close to Le Graet.

Time is not on Deschamps’ side either.

He knows the questions will come on September 15 as soon as he names his squad for Nations League matches – at home against Austria on September 22 and in Denmark three days after.

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

Pogba is recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee. He has decided not to have surgery and is expected to be out for a few more weeks.

It could give Deschamps an easy but diplomatic solution to the problem by saying he won’t be fit, rather than having to let go of a player who has been a central part of his team since taking his functions 10 years ago.

It seems unlikely that 29-year-old Pogba will recover in time to face Austria and Denmark anyway. Even if his knee improves, he will be well below his physical condition.

So Deschamps could cite fitness – or hope the whole mess is sorted out in time when he submits his official World Cup squad in mid-October.

But even that won’t stop questions from coming to Qatar, where Pogba’s presence could impact Mbappé’s form and therefore weigh on the overall mood of the squad under intense media scrutiny.

Benzema is set to win the Ballon d’Or as the best player in the world, while Mbappé has won the French league’s best player award three times. These are top priorities for Deschamps’ squad, while Pogba may not be as valuable as he once was with Aurelien Tchouameni now impressing at Real Madrid.

Given how well Mbappe has allied with Benzema, would Deschamps want to upset him out of loyalty to a player who – even without this scandal – would have been doubtful playing in Qatar anyway?

Then there is Pogba’s brother Mathias, 32. They were close when they grew up in a housing estate with Florentin Pogba – Mathias’ twin – in the eastern suburbs of Paris, Roissy-en-Brie. All three played for the local commune club at junior level, and the twins also had lower-level professional careers.

This family unit now appears broken.

The case became public after Mathias posted threats on social media last weekend to share “explosive” revelations about Paul’s agent, Rafaela Pimenta, and Mbappé.

He posted another obscure and cryptic video with a voiceover containing violent language and a moody soundtrack on Tuesday night.

What if Mathias Pogba continued to post such videos during the World Cup?

It’s a distraction Deschamps could probably do without.

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