World Cup Journeys: Is Paul Pogba the real deal or just a fancy French peacock?
Paul Pogba has all the tools available to him to be a great player. But can he apply them? (ABC News: Tim Madden)
He’s always said it himself; Paul Pogba wants to be the best player in the world. He’s already been the most expensive (until PSG paid ALL THE MONEY for Neymar) and he’s definitely among the most popular players on the planet. But if it’s Balon D’Ors this footballing Maserati wants, a star turn at the World Cup is the best way to start winning them.
Football has been an obsession for Pogba almost since birth. His parents migrated to France from Guinea with a pair of soccer-mad twins in tow (Florentin now plays for Saint-Etienne and Mathias for Sparta Rotterdam and the Guinean national team). Their third boy, Paul, was born in 1993 and was playing football soon after he’d learnt to walk — as every kid in his housing estate did. He joined his first club, US Roissy, at the age of six.
“In terms of maturity and determination, there was no one like him at that age,” the guy who coached him as a kid, Papis Magassa, said.
“Paul always wanted to be better, to be a cut above the rest.”
Pogba’s first pro club was Le Havre. He led them to second place in the national U-16 league, and that’s when the international scouts started sniffing around this strapping midfield leader with the gorgeously languid technique.
Arsenal and Juventus were interested but it was Manchester United who got their man. Well, boy actually; Pogba was only 16 when the English giants offered his family big money and a new house to lure him across the Channel.
Le Havre were not happy at all. It was his first of several hackle-raising transfers.
At the Man U academy, Pogba’s star shined brighter. At the same time he was earning France caps at under-age level. Piledriver goals from distance became his trademark, like the one he scored in FA Youth Cup against Portsmouth.
Despite angering a few clubs along the way, Pogba continued to star in France’s under-age setup. (Instagram: Paul Pogba)
Sir Alex Ferguson promoted him to the first team in February, 2011, amid fears the feisty teenager would have his head turned by other clubs if he wasn’t getting game time.
Despite increasing appearances as a sub, Sir Alex was right to worry; Paul was restless. Stardom beckoned and he wanted it now, not later. He signed for Juventus in July, 2012. “It is disappointing,” Sir Alex said. “I don’t think he showed us any respect at all.”
At Juventus, Pogba grew into his promise. Surrounded by champion players and given consistent game time, he developed into a midfield powerhouse. He is one of those rare footballers who patrol from box to box with an imposing presence, but can also produce magic with the ball at his feet. He won four consecutive titles as Juve’s midfield engine, and was named in FIFA’s World XI for 2015. He had arrived as a force.
Despite perennial controversy buzzing away in the background through his career, Pogba the living, walking meme has amassed a social media following based on his charisma and ever-changing look.
Drastic hairstyle revamps occur almost on a weekly basis and you can follow his dancing, dabbing life along at home through Instagram, Facebook and whatever other social platforms the kids are into these days.
Euro 2016 nearly saw Pogba pick up his first international trophy, as he and zippy striker Antoine Griezmann led the way in France’s run to the final — only to fall just short against Cristiano Ronaldo’s cagey Portugal side. The tournament showed just how reliant France have become on their midfield general. Pogba blew hot and cold at times and France’s fortunes inevitably followed his.
Manchester United, who were rumoured to have had to let Pogba go for about $1.5 million, set a new world record for a transfer fee of $150 million to bring him back from Juventus in 2016. Premier League fans got to see what an immense player he had developed into in his years in Italy, though since returning he has copped criticism for the up-and-down nature of his performances, which vary between astonishing and frustrating. When you cost that much money, there is nowhere to hide.
Club legend Ryan Giggs says he has the ability to do anything.
“He’s a talented player. He can shoot with both feet, pass the ball with both feet and you don’t realise how big he is,” Giggs told ITV.
“Physically he’s immense, he’s strong, he’s quick, and he’s got everything. He has got everything.”
Pogba has been criticised for not producing enough for Manchester United. (AP: Frank Augstein)
France go into the World Cup as the third or fourth favourites, with an exorbitantly talented bunch of players who look good enough to win the trophy. On paper. But Pogba is the dynamo to make the whole engine purr. France can only win the World Cup if they get beast-mode Pogba for seven games. Not mercurial Pogba or showboating Pogba. If he can pull of such sustained brilliance, France can be world champions for a second time.
Is he worth the money? Is he worth the hype? We’ll get the answers to those questions and more in Russia.