“Messi or no Messi, I don’t give a f—. I am not going home tonight.”
Picture the scene: France are about to play Argentina in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It’s June 30, and Paul Pogba decided to speak up louder than he’d even done before. In the dressing room of the Kazan Arena, the Manchester United midfielder riled up his team, shouting words of encouragement, before that line about Lionel Messi. The rest is of course history for Les Bleus, who went on to win the competition, and for Pogba, whose status really changed that day.
Prior to that competition, Pogba was one of France’s key players, but from that day on, he became one of its leaders. He continued in that role through the rest of that World Cup and during the wild celebrations when they claimed their second win; since then, his leadership has gone from strength to strength. At Euro 2020, with one Group F game to come vs. Portugal he’s showing that he’s now “Pogboss,” the guide of this French team.
He is not just the “ambianceur” any more, like he was in his early years at the international level; back then, he’d be tasked with choosing the music, telling jokes and making fun of his teammates. He was loud and positive, always bringing a party atmosphere to national team camps, even going so far as to arrange the winning chants in the dressing room after a victory. These days, he’s so much more.
These days, Pogba is the one who, for example, stepped in at the last minute to do a press conference defusing the incident between Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud — the latter was frustrated at not getting good scoring chances in a pre-Euros friendly vs. Bulgaria, which upset the PSG forward. (It worked, too; when asked about tension in the team, Pogba calmly replied “No, the only tension is in the back and legs… maybe what was said was conveyed incorrectly.”)
Pogba is the one Didier Deschamps sends to speak to players individually, whether to boost their confidence, correct something or discuss tactics, as he did recently with Mbappe over his defensive duties. He’s also the player closest to defender Clement Lenglet when the team celebrated his birthday last week, and leading the goodbyes to Ousmane Dembele after a thigh injury ruled him out of the remainder of the Euros.
“I like to talk one-on-one with the boys. I like saying to the guys ‘how are you feeling? If you don’t think we should do it like this, let me know…’ I try to make [my teammates] feel at ease so we can be better on the pitch. I want to get the best out of everyone,” Pogba explained recently in an interview with French newspaper L’Equipe.
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In any team, regardless of the level, it is always the players and the staff who hand such leadership to a member of the team. It was never in doubt that Pogba would be recognised by all the squad as a leader, but he still had to accept that label and be good at it, both on and off the pitch.
“You saw how he evolved in this role, game after game, month after month, but he always had it in him,” a source within the France camp tells ESPN. “Pogba was always a captain, in every age group. Even at Manchester United he wore the armband under José Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It is natural for him to be a leader and to be an excellent one as well.”
So he talks, more than ever these days: in the hotel, in the dressing room, on the pitch, collectively, individually, about tactics, about life, about NBA, about everything. He’s careful to find the right words that motivate or reassure, depending on the context.
Before their first Group F game vs. Germany, he urged his teammates to send a message to the rest of the competition with a big win. (They responded, gritting out a 1-0 victory.) On Saturday, when the French were briefly dazed by Attila Fiola’s goal just before the break in the heat of Budapest, he made sure everyone stayed calm and composed.
Overall, France were disappointing against Hungary, but Pogba’s words helped keep French minds focused as they worked their way back in the game. “Don’t worry. There are no reasons to worry. We are creating chances, we will score. Let’s keep going,” he told his team while Deschamps watched on in the dressing room at half-time.
(Sure enough, Antoine Griezmann equalized in the second half and kept France on course for the round of 16.)
Deschamps and Pogba are more than just a head coach and an important player. They have an incredibly strong bond, too. They trust each other implicitly, and Deschamps consults his number 6 on a lot of choices and decisions, whether it was the decision to recall Karim Benzema, the tactical formation from game to game, or even his starting XI. The midfielder’s opinion — like that of Hugo Lloris or Raphael Varane, the other two big leaders in this squad — is important and valued.
After the victory against Germany, Pogba had a message for all the families and friends of the players who were together in one of the stands at the Allianz arena in Munich. While punching his chest with his fist, he told them: “We are going to get this trophy. It is not finished. It is only the beginning. We are all in this together.”
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