Juventus vs Barcelona: Proud Paul Pogba has his eyes fixed on the Ballon d'Or

For one young Frenchman, Saturday's meeting with Barcelona in Berlin is not just about claiming Europe’s top trophy for Juventus – it's a step towards the highest personal ambition. Jack Pitt-Brooke outlines the rise and rise of Pogba

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The Independent Online

There were four minutes left at the Bernabeu and Juventus were clinging on, as Real Madrid summoned up one final surge in defence of their European crown. Juve cleared another corner but, before Toni Kroos could attack again, Paul Pogba beat him to the ball.

Pogba galloped away upfield, still quicker and sharper than anyone else on the pitch. Raphaël Varane backtracked, Isco could not keep up and, eventually, Sergio Ramos took him out, 60 yards from where Pogba had started. Juventus regrouped, held on, and are in this evening’s Champions League final.

This game will be the climax of Pogba’s time at Juventus, his likely last match after three years which have already yielded four major trophies. This summer there will be an effective auction for him unlike anything seen in Europe for years.

Pogba is a priority for Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. His preference is Spain, although that is complicated by Barcelona’s transfer ban for the rest of 2015. Whoever buys him will not get much change from €100m (£72.8m). His representative, Mino Raiola, has realistic hopes of Pogba earning an annual salary of €10m net.

The move is likely to be contested and controversial, but so has each of the four moves of Pogba’s career so far. It all started in 2006 when he was 13, and the president of his local side, US Roissy-en-Brie, decided he would be better off at nearby Torcy, infuriating his coaches. When Le Havre complained that Manchester United had stolen Pogba from them in 2009 – a Fifa-appointed judge eventually cleared United – Torcy complained that Le Havre had done the same thing to them two years before.

Pogba, from this brief but peripatetic career, is now a remarkable player, futuristically complete in his mastery of almost every side of the game. He has developed in three countries, learning in every one, and yet is likely to captain France long before he ever plays a Ligue 1 match.

 

His is the story of a very modern football education, a young man on the move but always with his eyes on the very top. This is why those who know Pogba always point to his ambition, ahead of anything else. The Paris suburbs are full of aspiring young footballers yet Pogba is the one of his generation who has most emphatically made it.

Sambou Tati is president of Roissy-en-Brie, the local club in the banlieue where Pogba grew up. He told The Independent of the mental strength of the boy who joined at the age of seven.

“He was a kid who was very sure of his qualities, who worked hard every day to reach his objectives,” Tati said. “He was very ambitious, very demanding of himself and his team-mates, a winner with the fighting spirit.”

Pogba’s father, Fassou Antoine Pogba, was an electronics inspector in Guinea who moved to Paris just before Pogba’s birth to become a teacher. Paul and his two elder brothers, Mathias and Florentin, were driven hard by their father, and they toughened up each other too. The Pogba family grew up in La Renardière, a 14-storey tower block in Roissy-en-Brie. Playing street football with his brothers – twins, almost three years older than him – Pogba would take them on and cried when he lost.

That was also how Pogba reacted when Tati told him, at half-time during a game, to stop trying to imitate his hero Ronaldinho, with all his flicks and dribbles. But Pogba took it on board and is remembered at home for his endless diligence in technical drills, making himself the best he could be.

Tati soon realised that Pogba would outgrow his local team. “I knew Stéphane Albe, the manager of US Torcy, and said Paul should go there, for his progression,” he said. “He could become better than he did here.”

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Pogba was 13 when he joined Torcy, where he played for one season before signing controversially for Le Havre, where he stayed for two years before leaving France to join United. Even away from all the legal wrangling, his arrival at Old Trafford made an instant impression.

Defender Sean McGinty, now of Aldershot, was part of Pogba’s year-group at Carrington and still remembers the Under-16s’ first session of the 2009-10 season. “We all went in on the first day, expecting to see new faces,” he said. “And this guy walked in with an aura about him. When we got a first glimpse of him in training, he did things I’d never seen before. Things that were far, far ahead of a 16-year-old boy.”

The talent stood out but so, again, did the application. “He was very driven and focused, never late for training, never messed about,” McGinty added. If there was one issue, it was discipline. “Sometimes he would lose his rag or do something stupid,” McGinty said. Pogba was sent off for dummying a penalty in an FA Youth Cup quarter-final against Liverpool at Anfield on United’s way to the 2011 trophy. “But you can see now that he has worked on it. If you are hungry, that will always happen.”

Pogba started to train with the first team and, although his breakthrough never came, his commitment to learning was clear. Paul Scholes wrote in his Independent column last month about Pogba’s confidence to ask senior players for advice, and his “desperation” to make it.

“He spoke to me about improving his range of passing,” Scholes explained. “So after training we would spend time pinging the ball to each other from 50 yards’ distance. He had stronger suits to his game than his long passing, but he was determined to get better at it.”

Pogba2.jpg Pogba, in Scholes’ words, “always stood out a mile as a kid at United”. But he wanted to be a first-team player with first-team money and United could not provide that. So in summer 2012 he left England and signed for Antonio Conte’s Juventus. He had never played senior league football but he took to it with ease, holding his own in a midfield that included Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, winning three consecutive scudetti.

Off the pitch, Pogba was receptive to the advice of his senior partners, a magpie of learning and improvement. “I try to steal something in every training session,” he said. “I try to take on Claudio’s technique, or Arturo’s aggression, or the passing of Andrea.”

He looks to Cristiano Ronaldo, the most complete player of the previous generation, who, having got the hang of everything else, became brilliant at heading in his twenties. “I watch him,” Pogba says, “and see someone who knows how to do everything.”

Ronaldo, with his mastery of the whole game, is Pogba’s model. Ronaldo played one senior season in his native Portugal before beginning his career with the superclubs of Europe. Pogba, eight years younger, did not play one minute of French senior football before he joined the elite.

Ronaldo has made history at Manchester United and Real Madrid, but he is a player who will ultimately be remembered for his individual achievements more than those of the teams he has played for. He has won two Champions Leagues but three Ballon d’Ors and that individual award means more to him than it has probably done to any other player.

Pogba is the same. When he talks about his ambitions, being crowned the best player in the world is specifically important to him.

“His objective is the Ballon d’Or,” admitted his personal trainer, Didier Reiss, recently, “and he will leave no stone unturned to get there.” Pogba himself has said that it is his “dream” to win it “sooner or later”.

It is a modern ambition. Winning the Ballon d’Or used to be a happy by-product of winning the European or World Cup, not an end in itself. But then Pogba is a very modern player, and he has worked hard to give himself all the tools required.

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