Manchester United ace does the dirty work to help France flourish
A towering physique and range of flashy hairstyles mean Paul Pogba rarely goes unnoticed but he has become emblematic of a French squad willing to sacrifice personal gain for World Cup glory.
France go into Sunday’s final against Croatia in Moscow aiming to make amends for the bitter disappointment of losing the Euro 2016 final on home soil to Portugal.
Just weeks before Manchester United paid a then world-record £89 million ($118 million) to sign Pogba from Juventus, that final largely passed him by.
The intervening two years have not always been easy either. Pogba has been criticised in England for failing to dominate big games and was even dropped a number of times last season because his defensive work did not match the standards demanded by Jose Mourinho.
However, it is that aspect of Pogba’s game that has been so impressive in Russia as he and N’Golo Kante have laid the perfect foundation for France’s array of attacking talent headlined by Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
“I want to win this World Cup and you have to make sacrifices,” said Pogba on Thursday.
“Defending isn’t my strong point, I’m not N’Golo, but I’ll happily do it. I have grown up, matured.”
France’s back four and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris have earned deserved praise for four clean sheets in six games in getting to the final, but the chalk-and-cheese midfield combination of the quiet Kante and confident Pogba has provided the perfect screen in front of the defence.
In a 1-0 semi-final win over Belgium, Pogba routinely tracked Marouane Fellaini back into his own box to snuff out his club teammate’s physical threat from crosses.
“Paul was monstrous,” said France boss Didier Deschamps. “He was very efficient in our defensive plan.”
Pogba’s extroverted nature has also seen him become a leader for a young team on and off the field.
He flew his barber out to Russia from London to give some members of the squad a mid-tournament haircut, while Pogba’s social media output is filled with pranks being played on teammates.
But the 25-year-old is also a source of advice for younger players such as Mbappe and semi-final match-winner Samuel Umtiti, having already experienced huge highs and lows in a short career.
“I’ve known Pogba for a long time. He’s always been a leader. He can talk to players and give advice because people really listen to him ” said Umtiti.
Pogba’s defensive discipline will be fully tested by Croatia’s midfield creators Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
But with Croatia having played 90 minutes more after coming through three periods of extra-time — and having a day less to recover than France — Les Bleus are the heavy favourites to win their second World Cup.
“I don’t have a star. It’s on the shirt but I didn’t win it. I want one,” Pogba said of the star on the French shirt that represents the 1998 World Cup win.
“I know the taste of defeat in a final. It’s really not good, very bitter… we really want to finish well, with a smile.”
Pogba tends to live life with a smile on his face. But in Russia he has proved how hard he is willing to work for success.