Pogba proves he has what it takes

Sunday, June 08, 2014


Sit down with a professional footballer for the first time and there is one icebreaker that is virtually guaranteed: the shared experience. With some it's easier than others; with Paul Pogba, it's a cakewalk: the 1998 World Cup final.

"I remember this so well, it's the biggest memory I have," he says, lighting up, wide-eyed, and perhaps for a minute regressing to the 5-year-old he was back on that July day. "We watched the final against Brazil [which France won 3-0] at home and then we all spilled out on the street. Everyone. They were full. I just remember the joy, the happiness, everyone together... "

As his voice trails off, you can almost imagine him in the Paris exurb where he grew up, a short jog away from Disneyland, running out into the summer night behind his older brothers, aware that something incredible has just happened, though not fully comprehending it in the way kids sometimes do.



This summer's World Cup in Brazil is a chance to recapture that 16 years later. And a lot has happened in that time. The excitement of the "Black, Blanc, Beur" world champions came and went. Some bristled when a sporting achievement was turned into some kind of deeper allegory for social integration, evidence that "everything's fine, nothing to see here."

The recent European elections saw the rise of Marine Le Pen's Front National party and, prior to that, the shells of burned out Renaults in the country's banlieues and even "La Marseillaise" being booed at the Stade de France suggest otherwise.

The low point, sporting-wise, came four years ago in South Africa. The camp was split, there was a full-fledged player revolt against manager Raymond Domenech, captain Patrice Evra nearly came to blows with the fitness coach, striker Nicolas Anelka was booted out midtournament and the French FA ended up apologizing to fans.

"Hopefully we can make France fall in love with the national team again," Pogba says. "Already, we're seeing fans are more with us. Look, what happened was difficult, it wasn't popular. It's our job to make people forget about it. And the way to do it is to go the World Cup and try our best."

- #WorldCupRank: No. 30, Paul Pogba

The fact that Pogba -- despite having only turned 21 in March -- speaks confidently and fluidly is not a coincidence. This a young man whose name has been spoken in hushed tones in scouting circles for the past decade. The spotlight found him early and followed him for eight years through four clubs, three countries and two recruiting controversies.

"I've had a brief career and it's been a roller coaster," he said. "But I don't regret anything, because I'm happy with the outcome. I'm here and playing for Juventus. So for me, the whole experience has been good."

It takes broad shoulders to bear the responsibility thrust upon him at every stage of his career. Nobody who saw him play as a 13-year-old for Torcy, a boys' club outside Paris, could miss the tall, elegant livewire in the middle of the park. That's why Le Havre, on the banks of the English Channel, signed him and shuttled him 120 miles away along the A13 autoroute.

Two years later, he was on the move again, across the water and up to Manchester United, at the court of Sir Alex Ferguson. Three years, a Premier League debut and oodles of accolades later, his bags were packed after a contract offer was turned down: He was joining Juventus on a free transfer.



Why say no to United? As ever, versions differ. Ferguson said Pogba had "disrespected" the club. Some blamed the fact that he had signed with super-agent Mino Raiola. Others felt his prospects for first-team football were better at Juve while others still saw a kind of karmic comeuppance in what happened. Pogba left Le Havre for United amid controversy -- the case went to FIFA, which eventually ruled in United's favor -- but now the shoe was on the other foot.

Whatever the case, Pogba has fond memories of his time at Old Trafford and credits that experience in helping him grow.

"That's where I became a man," he says. "I learned a new culture, a new language, but most of all, I grew up. I mean I was on the pitch next to guys like [Patrice] Evra, [Ryan] Giggs, [Rio] Ferdinand ... big players with big personalities. You have to play, you can't be shy, you have to show yourself. It was difficult, but I learned to do things for myself, without my family. And I learned to focus only on the positives and what I needed to do to improve."



Joining a Juventus side in 2012-13 that already included Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio -- arguably as good a midfield trio as there was in Europe (outside Barcelona, at least) -- might not have seemed the ideal place for a youngster seeking playing time. But Pogba didn't fear the challenge.

"First, I was used to it; at United I had [Paul] Scholes, Anderson, etc." he says. "But also I came here to show what I could do. I used it to learn, from the very first training session. I mean, Pirlo, Marchisio, Vidal ... there was so much to watch and learn.

"When I look at the aggression and intensity of Vidal, the passing and creativity of Pirlo, the technical quality of Marchisio ... it gives me the chance to build. If I'm in this position today it's because of them and working with them every day."

Where he is today, quite simply, is that he's the most coveted midfielder his age in Europe. After a first season as a super-sub, he forced his way into the starting 11 last year, forcing out Marchisio, who is "only" a homegrown, hometown hero in the prime of his career and an Italian international to boot.

Pogba's "Robocop" size, athleticism and presence make him some kind of physical freak. But it's the personality, calm, intelligence, range of passing, creativity and technique that has scouts drooling. At every step of his career he has lived up to the billing. Spend some time with him and it's not hard to see why.



Until recently he was compared to Patrick Vieira. That's what happens when you're a tall, black, French central midfielder: the former Arsenal (and Juventus) enforcer is the benchmark when it comes to a certain type of player.

"I was always proud when I heard this and I still am," he says. "But I always wanted to be Paul Pogba. And I want to be better than him. I know it's going to be hard, because Vieira was a world-class player and to be better than him I have to work hard. But I use it as motivation. If people tell me this, it means they can see something in me. Maybe it's something I can't see now, so I tell myself if I can work even harder I can be better than Patrick."

What does this "working hard" mean to him? You might struggle to find the flaws in his game, but he has no hesitation.

"For a start, I need to score more headed goals," he says. "I mean, I'm 191 centimeters tall and I'm really bad with my head. But seriously, I need to improve everything. I think my aim has to be becoming a truly complete player. That means scoring goals, winning the ball, being physically dominant, having the right movement, going box-to-box."

That's the scary bit. He's still just 21 and he's determined to improve -- starting this summer in Brazil.

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