Late last week, Paul Pogba was unveiled as a playable character in the latest iteration of all-conquering video game franchise Call of Duty. By Monday he had been forced to pull out of the World Cup. The horrors of war.
Of course, it won’t be a sprained trigger finger or virtual shellshock that will necessitate the midfielder’s absence from France’s squad, but rather a setback in his recovery from knee surgery. The 29-year-old realised a universal childhood dream in 2018 when he scored for his country in a World Cup final. This year he will be forced to follow along from home. Or play as himself in Call of Duty. Watching himself get shot time and time again might actually be less painful than the sting of passively observing his teammates from the enforced comfort of his sofa.
In some respects, Pogba’s injury is a relatively anomalous one. True, he joins a teetering scrapheap of talent who will, or at the very least might, miss out this winter, but unlike others, his lengthy period on the sidelines means that he almost certainly wouldn’t have featured had the tournament stuck with accepted convention and happened over the summer instead. For the majority, however, there’s no doubting that the unorthodox timing of the World Cup has hamstrung them – in some cases quite literally.
The list of potential absentees is already remarkably laden. From an English perspective, Kyle Walker, Kalvin Phillips, and Reece James are all considerable doubts. For Brazil, Richarlison could miss out, while Liverpool’s Arthur Melo is definitely sidelined. Belgium could be without Romelu Lukaku. Argentina face nervous waits over Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala. Alongside Pogba, France will be without N’Golo Kante, and are uncertain over Wesley Fofana, Lucas Hernandez, Mike Maignan, Raphael Varane, Jules Kounde, and Boubacar Kamara.
I could go on. So I will. The Dutch are doubtful over Memphis Depay and are certain that Georginio Wijnaldum will not travel to Qatar. Premier League duo Pedro Neto and Diogo Jota will not feature for Portugal, while everyone’s favourite voluntarily-bald psychopath Pepe might have to settle for scaring his neighbours in the coming weeks instead of terrorising foreign strikers. Germany pace anxiously up and down a sterile corridor with their tie loosened and their shirt sleeves rolled up, eager for news on the wellbeing of Armel Bella-Kotchap, Leroy Sane, Florian Neuhaus and Mahmoud Dahoud. Plenty of other nations besides are going through similar purgatories. At this rate, the World Cup might not be entirely B-list, but it is starting to emit a worrying “Sue Cook has pulled out” vibe.
Now granted, every major international tournament is preceded by a tense period of limbo during which injury speculation germinates and thrives like bacteria in a petri dish. But even acknowledging that caveat, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the intensity with which players are being crammed through the meat grinder of fixture congestion is having a detrimental impact. The final round of Premier League matches before the World Cup will end on Sunday November 13th. The tournament will get underway in Qatar on November 20th. This year’s final be held on Sunday December 18th. Top flight football will then resume in England on Boxing Day. By any metric, that’s ridiculous.
Factor in the relentlessness with which the early stages of the campaign have been contested, purely as a means of accomodating a winter World Cup, and the whole thing veers from the ludicrous to the absurd. Between now and November 20th, Premier League clubs will play two more fixtures, while teams in the Championship will play three. It will be a miracle if everybody involved comes through those clashes unscathed.
And as we get closer and closer to Qatar, even the most minor of knocks could be enough to preclude a player from selection. We are about to witness a high-wire trapeze act without a safety net, and in the unfortunate instances when things do wrong, as they so often can, it won’t be the circus ringmasters who pay the price physically. It will be the crumpled pile of body parts lying in a heap where a functioning footballer once stood.