Paul Pogba: The midfield general
The day before I meet Paul Pogba, back in May, is a creepy, eerie one. Manchester United are set to play Ajax in the final of the Europa League in Stockholm. Fans live for these big European nights, and it is an ambrosial early-summer’s evening, heaven sent for standing outside a pub drinking strong continental lager.
But Manchester is numb. Less than 48 hours before the match kicked-off, a bomb was detonated a few metres from Tiger Tiger at the end of an Ariana Grande concert, killing 23 people. The city is utterly discombobulated: one trite example is that even Manchester City supporters want United to win tonight.
But Mancunians are sardonic, even contrarian. This, after all, is the city that shaped Mark E Smith, Morrissey, the Gallaghers. Cantankerousness is in the DNA here. All of which makes it a rather appropriate adopted home for the 24-year-old French midfielder Paul Pogba.
He’s been called “football’s closest equivalent to Kanye West”, in that he can be both brilliant and utterly baffling, often simultaneously. He’s certainly, by some margin, the most singular and divisive player at work in the Premier League right now.
During the early stages of Euro 2016 — a tournament in which France would go on to reach the final — Gary Lineker asked: “Is Pogba the world’s most overrated player?” The critiques picked up venom after his AED424m transfer from Juventus to Manchester United last summer made him the world’s most expensive player (since eclipsed by Neymar’s transfer to PSG for AED959m).
Jamie Carragher, the Sky Sports pundit, called him “a defensive liability” after one match, and Frank Lampard said that he’d not found his best position yet. When figures showed that hospitals in Greater Manchester spent around Dhs472m on agency staff in 2016, about the same amount as their deficit, the sportswriter Paul Hayward tweeted, “The same cost as Paul Pogba. Same city.”
José Mourinho, who brought Pogba to Old Trafford — just four years after Pogba had left United for peanuts — became punchy on his man’s behalf. It all got a bit silly, really. However, if the diehard Reds I’ve met are anything to go by, they don’t like Pogba. They love him.
Perhaps it’s a contrapuntal Mancunian thing: “If everyone tells us he’s a waste of money…” Standing at a urinal pre-match (classy, I know), I ask a fan for his prediction. “Two-nil,” he replies. “Rashford scores the first, Pogba the second. That will shut all the [naysayers] up — press [nonsense].”
The guy turns out to be pretty much on the money. United do beat Ajax 2–0, but Pogba actually scores the opener after 18 minutes. United’s topsy-turvy season has been given a garish new paint job, covering the cracks that saw them finish 24 points behind Chelsea in the league: they have won the League Cup, the Europa League and the FA Community Shield if you want to count that (which, evidently, Mourinho does as he instructs his players to hold three fingers aloft to the crowd in Stockholm).
They have also, crucially, secured Champions League football for the 2017–’18 season.
In Manchester nightclub Tiger Tiger, something more cathartic has happened, too. At kick-off the mood had been sombre: it seemed wrong to cheer too loud or laugh too much.
Now there is a release, an outpouring. Perhaps the most guttural roar of the evening is saved for when Pogba is interviewed on the pitch after the final whistle. “We won for Manchester,” he says. “We played for the people who died.”
Part One: The Football Questions
Congratulations. You must be in a good mood today.
“You’re lucky, eh? Nah, I’m always in a good mood. Always. You have to be. There are so many things in life that make you sad, you have to be happy.”
Mourinho said afterwards that often this season he’s been made to feel that United were “the worst team in the world”. That he was “the worst manager in the world”. Do you feel you’ve proved some people wrong?
“We’re the worst team in the world, yeah. But we have three trophies. So [laughs] people can say what they want. Are we the worst? OK, no problem, I accept that. I accept that we didn’t play well, we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that. I know what we did — we won three trophies. That’s all I know. And that’s all that matters. Because you can be the best team in the world, you can play great football and you win zero trophies. And who remembers them? No one. Right?”
Have you felt like the worst player in the world?
“Yeah, as well. The worst player in the world wins three trophies! Haha! Yes, that’s fine. That’s fine, I accept it. The most over-rated, too much money, too much spending, everything you can say. This guy, for the next month he will enjoy his holiday with his medal and the trophy — nice! And I’m going to the Champions League…”
You’ve been lucky then?
“I’m quite lucky for the worst player in the world — I accept that, oh yes.”
How do you rate your performances last season?
“We can always be better and we’re learning. It was the first season with Manchester United, we changed the coach, we changed everything. It’s different, I came in for a lot of money, so people will judge me on this, I knew it. People will always talk, good or bad. But I know what I can do. If I play a bad game, I know I played a bad game. If I play a good game, I know I played a good game. So I don’t need anyone to tell me if I did good or bad — because I know it. But they [the newspapers] have to sell, so they have to speak. And to sell, they want to speak about me.”
What was it like being the most expensive player in the world? Did it make you proud? Did it add pressure?
“[Sighs] After one week, I forgot. It’s people that reminded me. Because at the end of the day, when you die, the most expensive and the less expensive, they go in the same grave.
So I don’t even think about it.”
You’ve had a horrible couple of weeks: your father died after a long battle with cancer and then there was the bombing in Manchester. How have those events affected you?
“When you lose someone you love, you don’t think the same way. And that’s why I say I enjoy life, because it goes very fast. I remember when I was talking to my dad and now he’s not here. My dad was a very strong man, very stubborn as well, he fought, but at his age it’s not easy. No, he was a very good man, a very good dad and I’m proud to be his son. He was one of the funniest guys ever, so funny. Every time you had time with him you were laughing. Very clever as well, because he was a professor. You have to remember the happy things.”
Your father was ill for most of the last year. Was it hard to manage your feelings when you were playing every week?
“Yeah, football is not only on the pitch. So you have to be strong in the head and try to switch off when you get on the pitch. That’s not easy but my dad would never let me be sad and not focus on football. He always told me there’s no excuses. You fight for what you want.”
But wasn’t that especially difficult when personally you’re getting panned?
“I leave the people who are talking and stuff… But they’ve always been talking, even when I was at my first team, my friends criticised me, made jokes about me. You have to know that you’re lucky to be there because there’s a lot of people who want to be in your place. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. When I was younger, I didn’t see my family, I’d go and train all the time, not seeing friends, leaving the country and stuff like that. You make sacrifices, it’s not to lose your head and give up. Give up? I don’t know what that means.”
As a Muslim living in Manchester, do you have a message for people living in the city?
“It’s a very difficult moment but you cannot give up. We can’t let them get in our heads — we have to fight for it. Sad things happen in life but you cannot stop living. You cannot kill a human being. To kill a human being… it’s something crazy, so I don’t want to put religion on it. This is not Islam and everybody knows that. I won’t be the only one saying that.”
Part Two: The Life Questions
Pogba may earn an eye-watering dhs71m annually now, but of course, he might legitimately argue that he’s earned every penny.
He grew up in the eastern suburbs of Paris, not far from Disneyland; his parents, both from Guinea in west Africa, arrived in France a couple of years before he came along. His two elder brothers, both now professional footballers too, were born in Africa.
The family didn’t have much: his parents separated and Pogba lived with his mother, his brothers and their cousins in an apartment. Football, to be clear, has given him and his family a life they could scarcely have dreamed of.
What was Roissy-en-Brie, where you grew up, like?
“I grew up — how do you say this? — in the ’hood. With my friends, playing football. I really loved football from a young age. And my only thought, my only objective in life, was to be a professional footballer.”
That felt like the way out?
“Yeah. I try to remember that now, even though it’s not easy. When you want to buy a pair of shoes so bad then you have them, you start wearing them every day. Then after a while you start getting bored of the pair of shoes. But you always have to remember that pair of shoes you wanted, you had to fight to buy them and you wanted them so bad. So you have to savoure — comment tu dis, savoure? To enjoy every moment that you’re wearing it. So I enjoy every moment when I go to training, when I play football. I remember the old days.”
You were poor?
“Poor? In France, we would say poor. In Africa, we would say rich. I wouldn’t say I was poor. But we didn’t always have everything we wanted.”
You slept in one bed together with your brothers and cousins?
“Yeah, we were sleeping three, four, five people in one bed. But it was the best time, because we were all together, so it was very good. To be honest, I’ll never complain because we had water, we had some food. I had some clothes, even if it wasn’t the best. I would never say I was poor because when I see other people, I think, ‘I was rich’.”
What work did your mother do?
“She used to work in a shop, used to clean. She was working hard to take care of five people in the house, the only one. No family, that’s it. So if you have to take care of five kids, single woman, it’s not easy. This is why we are strong mentally. You have to be strong.”
Do you remember the first thing you bought when you started making money?
“This I will always remember all my life. I was 18 or 19 and I bought my first pair of Louboutins; they were white. I bought two pairs, actually. I didn’t go out for one month after that, I didn’t buy anything, I was so shocked. I said, ‘I’ll never buy any Louboutins again!’ It was funny because when you know the value of money, when people don’t have money, you feel a bit weird. You feel, ‘Wow, it’s a lot of money for a pair of shoes.’ Life goes fast, so do something that makes you happy and just enjoy life, but it doesn’t mean you forget about other people.”
Do you still have those shoes?
“Guess what? I got robbed in Italy and they stole my shoes. So please, the guy who robbed me, can you send me the shoes, please? It’s very important for me. Keep the rest, just bring the shoes!”
Are there things you still want now?
“I’ve always liked fashion but I do it less and less. I have less time to go ’round shops. I prefer to stay at home and rest.”
Was it lonely leaving France for Manchester, aged 16?
“No, it was beautiful. I learned English, new culture, new country, new friends, it was a good challenge. And I like challenges, so I was up to it.”
Did you speak any English?
“Just the basics: ‘Good morning’, ‘good afternoon’… ‘one, two, three, four, five…’”
Could you understand what Alex Ferguson was saying to you?
No! No, I couldn’t. At first, I couldn’t. I couldn’t even understand my team-mates with their Mancunian accents. They’d speak fast and I’d say, ‘Speak slow, slow…’ I couldn’t speak. My friends right now, they laugh at me. They say, ‘Oh, I remember the first days you couldn’t speak and now, you just speak better than us. You speak Mancunian with the accent!’ So it’s funny.
Why did you leave United first time round?
I left Manchester to play. That’s all I wanted. Even though I was young, I felt I could play now and I didn’t want to wait. So if it wasn’t with Manchester it would be with someone else. But in my mind, I knew: ‘It’s not finished, I might come back.’ My mum told me this: ‘You’ll come back one day.’ And here I am: having a haircut in Manchester.
Part Three: The Stupid Questions
That is indeed what’s happening now, as we speak. For the final, Pogba had blond highlights, but he fancies going back to black — perhaps wanting something sedate and respectful for the visit to the holy city of Mecca he will take the week after we meet.
He sits naked to the waist, in a hairdresser’s cape, wearing a hyper-rare Richard Mille wristwatch and a pair of Cartier diamond hoop earrings that glint when they catch the light. He pops Maoam Bloxx chews, preferably the red ‘strawberry’ ones, to keep his energy levels up.
Last night’s match finished at 11pm, Stockholm time, and then the team jumped on a chartered jet back to Manchester, landing at 3am. Pogba doesn’t drink (“I was with my Fanta and ice and I enjoyed it”) but there was dancing and live Instagramming to be done. Some players take pills to come down more quickly, but Pogba doesn’t, so he didn’t get to sleep till 7.30am.
Before he went to bed, showing impressive forethought, Pogba messaged his barber, Chris Rock (aka The Boss), to meet him at the photo studio. Rock, a wry, wise Jamaican, began cutting Pogba’s hair when he was a teenager and their reunion has been a happy corollary of the player’s return to United.
Rock used to rent a chair in a barbers on Chester Road in Manchester, but then Rio Ferdinand came into the shop one day and it took off from there. He’s now the go-to guy for many of the star footballers in Manchester and beyond: Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and down to London for Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck.
As Rock paints a thick layer of gunk onto his crown, I ask Pogba if he gets his hair cut a lot. He shakes his head: “The last time I’ve done it, it was a long time ago,” he says, casting his mind back to distant history. “It was maybe two weeks ago.”
For older readers, can you explain your signature dance, “the Dab”?
First of all, it started in America with [hip hop group] Migos. I started doing it because I liked the music, I liked the dance, and people loved it because they can do nice videos. But Dab is Dab, now it’s gone. I think I’ve done the last Dab of the season. Now it’s the Billy dance.
What’s the Billy dance?
You saw it last night [after beating Ajax]. The Billy dance is created by my friend Billax. I call him my brother, he’s a football coach now. He’s one of the people I grew up with. I played with them when I was a kid and they are still my best friends. So that’s the dance we have. And I will make sure that everyone does it. I’ll make sure that it goes on [video game] FIFA 18!
Who’s the worst dancer in the Manchester United dressing room?
Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Timo’s the worst! He’s funny.
Who is in charge of the music?
Er, Ashley Young, or me. DJ Pogs.
What music does DJ Pogs like?
I love African music: Wizkid, Davido. American music: Migos, Drake, Future, Travis Scott, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé.
Do you like any of the old-style Manchester bands: Stone Roses, Oasis?
The Manchester bands? Nah, I don’t know, it’s not my age.
Pulp Fiction. Gladiator. Scarface.
Can you ever imagine doing some acting?
Like you mean become the new Denzel Washington?
I guess so.
Well, let’s see. Why not?
Do you have a girlfriend at the moment?
No. My girlfriend’s my mum.
Any plans to settle down?
I want kids! Of course I want kids! I want a wife one day, hopefully. But at the right moment. At the moment, I cannot give that love to someone. I’ll be with one girl and I won’t give her everything. I want to be focused on football first and when it’s the right time, when it’s the right woman, why not?
What do your teammates call you?
La Pioche. It means like ‘The Joker’
Who gave you that?
I took it. It’s from a movie, but it wasn’t used the same way. In the film, it’s a conman who tricked the village. I’m tricking you now. [Laughs] I’m doing the Pog Trick.
Who do you most like to mess with?
Journalists, haha! No, I’m not tricky that way. I like to joke with everybody. Because sometimes I see them and they look sad. And I want to make them happy. Like when you came you looked sad and I make you happy. And you’re going to go home and you’re going to say, ‘Oh, man, this guy was funny, he made me laugh. He tricked me!’
There’s some truth in what Pogba says. Certainly, in person, he is softer, sillier and more sympathetic than you might expect if you just watch the games and read the post-match reports. But Pogba doesn’t really want to be known as a nice guy. He wants to be regarded as one of the greatest players of this era. A French midfielder who stands shoulder to shoulder with Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane.
A winner of Champions League and Premier League titles, World Cups, Ballons D’Or. A man who, with the benefit of hindsight, starts to look like a snip at AED424m.
Before all that, a holiday — what are the plans for the Pog Summer? Where is he going with his medals and trophies? “Why?” Pogba snarls, one last yank of my chain before cracking up. “You want to come?”
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