Paul Pogba, the world’s most expensive footballer, shows why he’s a millennial marketing machine on Hong Kong trip
The Manchester United superstar, with his dabs, ever-changing haircut and signature dance moves, is a dream footballer for the social media age – but has curmudgeons like this writer pining for simpler times
To the Adidas flagship store in Hong Kong, where the world’s most expensive footballer, Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, is to grace us mortals with his presence. It doesn’t take long for me to feel like a very old man.
“I’m not a Manchester United fan,” says a young American near the front of the autograph queue. This is curious, because he is wearing the latest Manchester United kit, and has several hours’ wait ahead, in the heat and humidity of a Kowloon June.
He continues: “But when I heard about this, I thought I might as well get the photo.”
One sentence to sum up for this curmudgeonly non-millennial reporter everything wrong with modern football, and indeed life – but also why Pogba is a marketing machine for a social media age.
Firmly in the antisocial media camp, I wait with my colleagues, several of whom are wearing Man U shirts, under a giant inflatable Pogba head that seems in danger of breaking from its moorings and floating across the harbour.
Hip-hop in French and English pumps out. We have a long wait as Pogba is late, naturally, so the playlist gets multiple airings.
One of the tracks is Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘Erase Your Social’, which as you know features the moving chorus:
“I ain’t got no Snapchat homie /
“I think it’s too personal /
“That’s what I got Twitter for /
“Instagram I’ll bag ya hoe.”
A post shared by Paul Labile Pogba (@paulpogba) on Jun 16, 2017 at 9:06am PDT
But it seems unlikely that the 24-year-old, €105 million midfielder will be following Mr Vert’s advice and erasing his social. Pogba has three million followers on Twitter, 16 million on Instagram, and 6.6 million on Facebook.
His Weibo has catching-up to do, with only 600k, but the last week should have helped – Pogba has been on a marketing blitz of China, promoting his clothes, football boots and general ‘brand’ as the coolest footballer around.
— Paul Pogba (@paulpogba) June 15, 2017
He signed a 10-year deal with Adidas in 2016 reported to be worth at least €4 million (HK$34.86 million) plus bonuses every year: the China tour, with its accompanying hashtags carefully honed by the marketing people, is payback.
Among the stunts: doing his signature ‘dab’ move on the Great Wall; shaving some Chinese characters into his hair; a fist-bump in front of the Forbidden City; swapping shirts with his former United teammate Carlos Tevez (and fellow Adidas client) in Shanghai; and celebrating his 500th Insta post with his new ‘Billy dance’ on the Bund.
Frankly it all makes me – older by 13 years which might as well be 100 – long for the days of United midfielders like Roy Keane, whose only ‘signature move’ was the two-footed, leg-breaking lunge.
(Keane, a regular critic of ‘selfie culture’ as a TV pundit in Britain, recently slammed Pogba for having the temerity to speak to his own brother, a St Etienne player, during a game: “That’s the modern footballer for you,” he snarled. Even I thought that was a bit harsh).
There is no doubt, though, that I am very much in the minority among the assembled hordes of fans (including those among the media).
A roar from Peking Street four floors below signals that the legend has arrived, and soon he is among us, sporting a bright red stripe in today’s hair, matching-colour Lennon-style sunglasses and some extravagant bling.
He seemingly enjoys watching some local kids play ‘cage football’, and pulls one delighted lad on to his shoulders for a picture; if he is bemused by a gift of a Hong Kong-style tram stop sign emblazoned with the Chinese characters for his name, he hides it well.
Though we in the press have been lured here with the promise of interview time, it is no surprise to hear it’s been scrapped, the PR woman laughing nervously when asked why.
Why should he deign to talk to us when his social media team can fire off a sanitised-yet-uber-cool message to some 25 million people at the click of a button?
It was left to local sports commentator Ma Keyman to conduct a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred Q&A.
Among the highlights: what do you think of the Adidas Hong Kong flagship store? (terrific); what kind of goals do you like scoring? (spectacular ones); do you like Chinese food? (yes); what is the plan for next season? (win everything); what kind of clothes do you like to wear? (the Adidas Paul Pogba collection); how are your new boots? (very comfortable, they help me kick the ball well); and what is your favourite colour? (gold).
After some further rest for Pogba and his entourage – presumably buddies from back in the Paris banlieue of Seine-et-Marne, with similar dedication to extravagant hair design and diamond earrings – it was time to meet 70 members of the public.
Forty were from the local Man U fans club and 30 had spent HK$2,000 or more on the sponsors’ merchandise to get a place in the signing queue.
Hundreds more crowded the streets outside, including one with a sign in French saying, “It’s my birthday, can I have your autograph?” – not unless you’ve bought the merch, mon petit fils.
First in the queue was a precocious young lad who immediately ‘dabbed’ – the kids learn fast – before an enthusiastic French woman who was determined to get some reward for her long wait; “No kissing!” shouted Keyman.
Next up it was the non-Man U fan. He may have lost some four hours of his life and HK$2,000 from his wallet, but who can possibly weigh that against off-the-chart ‘likes’ on Instagram and Facebook?
Meanwhile, Pogba’s final social media post from China on Thursday saw him posing in front of a private jet branded with the sponsor’s logo and tagline (8.5k likes in an hour). It’s a funny old game, but he’s a master at it.