L’Affaire Pogba: A shattered family unit, alleged extortion, injuries and a year to forget

The animated opening sequence to episode five of his documentary series, The Pogmentary, depicts Paul Pogba reflecting upon all he has achieved in his life. The cartoon has him striding up a staircase and, once on the top step, flinging open heavy double doors embossed with the World Cup trophy and images of his children. Through the golden frame, he spies the summits of mountains he has yet to scale as his career enters his next phase.

He sprints forward, parting the clouds as he goes, and joyfully leaps over a chasm to be greeted by his family. There waits his wife, Zulay, with the couple’s two boys, the youngest clad in a onesie and the other clasping a football. His mother, Yeo Moriba, stands behind Zulay with Pogba’s twin older brothers Mathias and Florentin, Guinea internationals both, glowing with pride at her shoulder.

“No matter the challenge, my family will always be there,” narrates the France midfielder. “This family that I created, (and) the one that watched me grow up. This year I’ll need them.”

PogbaFrom left: Yeo Moriba with her sons Mathias, Florentin and Paul Pogba in 2019 (Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP via Getty Images)

Pogba is referring to the 2021-22 season ahead, the last to be covered by his existing contract at Manchester United. Rumours of interest from Real Madrid and Juventus were swirling at the time the documentary was filmed, while United continued to imply they had not given up hope of convincing the Frenchman to stay.

And yet, while the player experienced plenty of frustrations over that last season at Old Trafford, he has been confronted by far more daunting challenges over the calendar year of 2022. This has been his annus horribilis, one wrecked on the pitch by injuries which have frustrated attempts to revive his reputation at new club Juventus and threaten his ability to help France defend their World Cup title when the tournament in Qatar begins in November.

Off the field, he has endured far worse.

While he played in a Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid in March, his home in Manchester was burgled while his children slept upstairs. A month later, he lost his agent, friend and sounding board, Mino Raiola.

In between those incidents, and out of the public eye until exposed five months later, Pogba claims he had been subjected to yet more trauma. On international duty in Paris, he says he was driven to an apartment in Chanteloup-en-Brie, a suburb to the east of the capital, by people he considered childhood friends. There he says he was held at gunpoint by two strangers and allegedly blackmailed over accusations he had paid a marabout — technically a Muslim holy man, but with connotations of a north African witch doctor — to curse his international team-mate Kylian Mbappe, suggestions he denies.

The threats have allegedly pursued him from Paris to Manchester to Turin in the months since, and it emerged last week that the Juventus player has been living recently under police protection. Now, perhaps most unsettling of all given how tight he once considered his family unit, Pogba has seen his brother, Mathias, among five people arrested over the alleged extortion attempt.

The Pogmentary was supposed to offer a snapshot of life as one of the more high-profile footballers on the planet, providing an insight into the trials and tribulations that have helped forge the man, but it has been made to look rather tame given everything that has played out in reality since the release of Season One.

The sinister plot lines of L’Affaire Pogba, being played out daily in France at present, increasingly appear too outlandish for words.

The injuries feel the most conventional aspect of Pogba’s traumatic year.

His final season at United was blighted by a torn thigh muscle. The three-month hiatus over the winter while he undertook his rehabilitation in Dubai encompassed the tail-end of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure and the early toils suffered by Ralf Rangnick at Old Trafford.

He played 16 games for club and country once recovered, only to succumb to a calf problem sustained in the 4-0 defeat by Liverpool in mid-April. That nine-minute appearance at Anfield represents his last competitive action.

PogbaPogba trudges off at Anfield on April 19 (Photo: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

The summer’s free transfer return to Juventus, with whom he won four successive Serie A titles between 2013 and 2016, was supposed to represent a fresh start, only for the midfielder to tear the meniscus in his right knee during pre-season training in Los Angeles.

Pogba initially opted against surgery, hoping a more conservative approach might see him return well in advance of the announcement of France’s squad for the World Cup around November 9. Then, on his second individual session working outside back at his club, he complained of discomfort and the original strategy was out of the window.

He went under the knife earlier this month with, optimistically, an eight-week recovery period ahead. Juventus do not expect to have him available before the new year even if France have not yet given up hope entirely that he will be fit for the tournament. “I know Paul well and he will do everything he can to recover as soon as possible and be with us in November,” said the national coach, Didier Deschamps. “But time is short and he will only join us if he is fit and competitive.”

There may be a Pogba-shaped hole in France’s midfield this month, starting in Thursday’s Nations League tie against Austria, but there will clearly be no free pass back into their line-up at the World Cup.

In normal circumstances, the possibility of being denied involvement in the tournament would constitute reason enough to lower Pogba’s mood. In reality, it almost feels incidental; a subplot to the main crises.

The loss of Raiola, who had guided him since his youth-team days at United and had been such a significant influence on his career, would have been hugely unsettling. The Dutch-Italian agent, who had stepped back from everyday duties since being diagnosed with a serious illness in January, died in April at the age of 54.

The Brazilian lawyer Rafaela Pimenta, Raiola’s business partner for 20 years and a figure Pogba refers to as his “second Maman, la Maman de Business” in his documentary, has effectively taken on the agent’s client list and played a significant role in smoothing the player’s return to Turin. She is close to Pogba and his young family and continues to fight his corner.

But Raiola had always provided another layer of protection. Without him, the player inevitably appears more fragile. And, as the events of the last few months have demonstrated, he is under attack.

The outside world was initially oblivious to everything Pogba and his family had endured until it emerged in late August that criminal investigations were well underway in Italy and France into allegations of an extortion plot. There has been a remarkable drip-feed of information since, leaked to media in France by sources close to the case, casting light on an alarming series of alleged incidents dating back to mid-March. Some police sources have told outlets that the constant revelations risk damaging the case but, given Pogba’s vaulted status and the wild nature of some of the allegations, the flow of stories has hardly been stemmed.

Five men were charged last Saturday, after several days in custody, with involvement in a plot to extort money from the player and currently remain in detention awaiting trial. Four, aged between 27 and 36, were charged with “extortion with a weapon in an organized gang”, “arrest, kidnapping, confinement or detention in an organized gang with a view to preparing or facilitating the committing of a crime, followed by a voluntary release before the seventh day” and “participation in a criminal association for the preparation of a crime”. All deny all of the charges.

Mathias Pogba, 32, was charged with “extortion in an organized gang” and “participation in an association of criminals with intent to prepare a crime”. His lawyer, Yassine Bouzrou, has indicated his client contests the charges. Indeed, according to information sourced by the French newspaper Le Monde, all five of those indicted claim to have been the victims of pressure, threats and reprisals from a second circle of blackmailers.

PogbaThe Pogba brothers together in 2019 (Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP via Getty Images)

France’s Central Office for the Fight against Organized Crime (OCLCO) in Nanterre has called its investigation Operation Penalty. There have been suggestions the authorities hope to make further arrests. This process is ongoing.

Paul Pogba’s account of the events of the night of March 19, four days after the burglary at his home in Manchester, was submitted to officers from the OCLCO on August 9.

The midfielder had been back in Paris that March preparing for France’s friendlies against Ivory Coast and South Africa, in which he would earn his 90th and 91st caps, and had spent time that evening with a childhood friend, referred to as Boubacar C. in transcripts seen by Le Monde, on the Renardiere estate in Roissy-en-Brie, an eastern suburb of the capital close to where he grew up.

Pogba had intended to return to his hotel in the city centre but, at around midnight, the player reportedly told the OCLCO they were joined by three other acquaintances he recognised from his youth — Adama C. and the brothers Roushdane and Machikour K. — and, instead, driven to a flat in nearby Chanteloup-en-Brie. According to French news outlet Franceinfo, the apartment had been rented out in the name of one of the four, a figure whose permanent residence is in Dubai.

There, Pogba says he was forced to turn off and hand over his mobile telephone. Three of the four then left the flat before two hooded figures unknown to Pogba, both wearing bulletproof vests and brandishing assault rifles, were granted entry to the property.

In Pogba’s testimony to the investigation — details of his interview were initially reported by Franceinfo and subsequently backed up by transcripts seen by Le Monde — he claims Roushdane K. instructed him to pay €13million (£11.4m; $12.9m), including €3m in cash, to cover the alleged protection the two armed men had been discreetly providing from afar over his 13-year professional career.

The player was still digesting that demand when it is claimed the two new arrivals raised their weapons and warned him that, if he did not comply, they would disclose the reputationally damaging contents of a USB stick in their possession.

The memory device apparently contained evidence that Pogba had paid a marabout to cast a spell on his opponents as well as his France international team-mate, the Paris Saint-Germain striker Mbappe.

Pogba, MbappePogba and Mbappe at France’s training base in Clairefontaine in March (Photo: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

“I was scared,” Pogba reportedly told the investigation. “The two guys pointed their guns at me. Given I was being held like that at gunpoint, I told them I’d pay. They shouted: ‘Shut up, look down (at the floor)’. One of them spoke in Roushdane’s ear. When the two hooded guys left, Roushdane told me I had to pay otherwise we were all in danger.

“Roushdane said what had happened was normal when you are a famous footballer, but that I had to pay because he had vouched for me.” Pogba claimed he was not permitted to leave the premises until 4am.

The quartet’s own testimonies, submitted in their respective interviews with investigators and reported in the French media, pinpointed various occasions when they were submitted to threats and actual reprisals over the months that followed. According to information obtained by Le Parisien and backed up by Le Monde, Boubacar C. claimed he had been confronted by three hooded men. Mamadou M. had his car burned out. Roushdane K. was shot in the hand. His lawyer, Daphne Pugliesi, has insisted her client “says he himself is a victim” of a wider blackmail conspiracy.

They all deny the charges against them stemming from that night in mid-March.

In the days after his alleged ordeal, Pogba, perhaps unsurprisingly, said nothing to the outside world. His international team-mates remained oblivious to it all. He conducted media duties at the squad’s training base at Clairefontaine, including an interview with Le Figaro in which he spoke about the burglary he had suffered the previous week at his home in Manchester. There was no mention of the alleged incident in Chanteloup-en-Brie. Deschamps only became aware much later that there may have been issues.

But, behind the facade, Pogba was clearly fretting for his family’s safety.

There have been suggestions in Le Parisien that he did make one attempt to pay the money, only for his bank to block the hefty transaction after it was flagged as suspicious. According to Reuters, the player told the investigation that, at some point in the spring, he did make a payment of €100,000, but that was clearly inadequate as he still subsequently saw the alleged blackmailers in Manchester.

Following Pogba’s return to Juventus, it was said they visited him again, loitering at the gates of the club’s training ground for around six hours one day in mid-July. The Italian club’s security staff opted against calling the police largely because they recognised one of those at the entrance to be Mathias and actually found his presence reassuring.

Paul later confirmed to the investigators that he had identified his older brother, who had not been at the flat on the outskirts of Paris, among those waiting to speak with him outside the training complex. Unnerved, the World Cup winner alerted the club’s lawyers that same day.

On July 16, he filed his complaint in Italy and the first investigation was launched. The authorities in France duly followed suit on August 3.

Mathias Pogba was a journeyman footballer, a veteran of stints at 13 clubs in eight countries. Where his brother, Florentin, made a name for himself as a centre-half with Saint-Etienne and later had two years in the team at Sochaux, Mathias, a striker, flitted largely across the lower leagues from Scotland to Slovenia.

He played 66 times for Welsh club Wrexham in the fifth tier of the English domestic game and, slightly higher up the pyramid, 56 games for Crewe Alexandra. He scored on his first and last appearances for Crewe in League One.

PogbaFlorentin, Paul and Mathias Pogba at the MTV EMAs at Wembley in 2017 (Photo: Tristan Fewings/MTV EMAs 2017/Getty Images)

His career became increasingly nomadic, with brief stays at Manchego Ciudad Real, Lorca and Racing Murcia in Spain, and 13 minutes at Tabor Sezana in Slovenia, all since 2019. He was released by his last club, ASM Belfort, over the summer. The forward, like his twin Florentin, gained recognition with Guinea, the country of their birth, but, in truth, his career was unremarkable and rather fizzled out.

He and Paul, three years his junior, were always close. They had lived together in Manchester while Mathias played at Wrexham — “He was a good flat-mate, no problem,” the older brother told The Guardian — while Raiola played a small role in smoothing a subsequent move from Crewe to Pescara in Serie B back in 2014. “I don’t see him as ‘Paul Pogba’ like everyone else,” said Mathias. “For me, he’s my little brother. I’m fiercely proud of him.”

The twins were ensconced with the family group travelling around the team at the World Cup in 2018, revelling in the national side’s progress. They were regulars in the stands at the rescheduled Euro 2020 three years later. When Pogba scored a stunning goal in the quarter-final against Switzerland in Bucharest, he told his documentary: “I looked up to my right to find my brothers (in the crowd).”

Mathias, who has worked as a consultant for L’Equipe TV and made regular appearances on the Spanish football show El Chiringuito (who delighted in linking Paul with Real Madrid), was shown head in hands as his younger brother’s subsequent mistake presented the Swiss with their equaliser.

As late as March this year, their bond appeared to remain strong with all three brothers present for the launch event for the Golden Score association, a body founded by Mathias to support and advise athletes once their playing careers end, at Paris’ Shangri-La hotel. Yet, in the period since, there has clearly been a fracture.

PogbaThe family celebrate France’s World Cup victory in Russia (Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

In his testimony to police, as widely reported in the French media, Mathias claimed to have only learned on July 13 of the blackmail threat made to his brother in March. At around the same time, he and two of the suspects had guns pointed at them by several men in a car in Roissy-en-Brie, with one of those in the vehicle shouting out: “Tell your brother to find a solution quickly”. Mathias duly travelled to Turin where Paul spotted him, with other members of the group of childhood acquaintances, outside Juventus’ training ground.

They did not speak that day and communication effectively ceased thereafter, with the France midfielder apparently twice changing his mobile number in the weeks that followed.

Mathias, frustrated by his brother’s silence, was staying with their mother, Yeo Moriba, when it is claimed she was visited at her home by the four suspects on July 31 and urged to convince her youngest son to meet the €13million demand. Moriba is understood to have received another visit while in Nice a little under two weeks later with lawyer Pimenta, aware of the various alleged incidents, duly filing a complaint against Mathias for “extortion in an organized gang”.

Thereafter, the older brother’s complaints were actually played out on social media, truly exposing the Pogba Affair to the outside world for the first time.

He took to TikTok, Instagram and Twitter on August 27, and promised “big revelations” about both Paul and Pimenta, as well as Mbappe — a reference to the marabout at the heart of the alleged blackmail threat. “My brother’s team-mates and his sponsors deserve to know certain things in order to decide, in full knowledge of the facts, if he really deserves the admiration, respect and love of the public,” he said. “All this is likely to be explosive and to make a lot of noise.”

In a statement released the following day, lawyers for Pimenta, Paul and Moriba — who, as reported by AFP, was also interviewed by the OCLCO as they gathered evidence for the investigation — said: “Mathias Pogba’s recent statements on social networks are unfortunately not a surprise. They come on top of threats and attempts at extortion against Paul Pogba.” The press release also confirmed that the authorities in Italy and France had opened their own investigations over the previous month.

Mathias, when later in police custody, claimed he had posted the videos out of fear of the armed men and to force his brother to reopen a line of communication. Friends and acquaintances of the 32-year-old, including Macky Sylla, who had worked with him at the charity 48h Pour La Guinee, have suggested such an outburst was distinctly out of character. The figure taking to social media was alien to them.

Yet Mathias had followed up his initial flurry of videos with a series of Twitter threads over the ensuing days in response to Franceinfo revealing further details of the criminal investigations, including the fact his younger brother had been interviewed by officers from the OCLCO earlier in August.

Mathias insisted none of this was about money, accused Paul of “wanting to play the innocent” and being a “traitor”, claimed he had “almost died” because of his brother, and appealed directly to Mbappe.

He followed that up two days later with another video and lengthy thread in which he referred, again, to the marabout and suggested that, whether one believed in the practice or not, his brother’s willingness to consult one “implied some wickedness”.

Paul had reportedly confirmed to the OCLCO that he did pay a marabout but only as he was seeking to protect himself from injury. According to Franceinfo, when interviewed for a second time in late August, he told the investigation he had consulted the ‘witch doctor’ for the good of a non-governmental organisation working on behalf of children in Africa and that he believed his older brother’s involvement was as a result of pressure exerted by third parties.

Mbappe, for his part, appeared reassured after speaking with his international team-mate by phone. “He called me and gave me his version of the story,” Mbappe said on the eve of PSG’s Champions League group game against Juventus earlier this month. “It is his word against the word of his brother. I prefer to trust the word of a team-mate.

“He (Paul) already has certain problems and it’s not the time to add to them. We’ll see how it all goes, but I’m pretty detached from all that.”

The last comment made by Mathias in the public domain was delivered on his behalf by his lawyer, Richard Arbib, on September 9. With two judges having been appointed to investigate the allegations of extortion, the former striker’s lawyer said in a statement that his client wanted “to state emphatically that he is totally unaware of any extortion attempt against his brother, Paul Pogba.”

“It is clear that the difficulties experienced by the Pogba family are the result of external threats,” he continued before stressing that, “more than anything else”, Mathias was seeking to make up with his younger sibling.

That has not been forthcoming. 

Mathias presented himself to the investigation last midweek and was formally charged and taken into pre-trial custody on Saturday. His lawyers are challenging his detention and attempting to secure his release, pointing to his clean criminal record, the presumption of innocence and the fact he was not present during the alleged incident at the flat in Chanteloup-en-Brie. At the time of writing, he remains in custody.

That familial unity portrayed in the Pogba documentary has long since been shattered. 

While Paul Pogba steps up his rehab and still yearns to feature at the World Cup in two months’ time, the saga that l’Affaire Pogba has become rumbles on towards a trial.

Article Links:https://theathletic.com/3600360/2022/09/22/paul-pogba-france-blackmail/


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