Pogba primed to shine for France in Brazil
PARIS (AP) If he seizes this golden opportunity in the engine room of a France team sufficiently talented to surprise almost any opponent on a good day, this will be the World Cup that puts Paul Pogba's name up in bright lights.
That's not as big an ''if'' as it sounds. The 21-year-old's potential is so eyeball-bustingly obvious that it is only an issue of when - not whether - Pogba will take over from the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Yaya Toure or Steven Gerrard as one of contemporary football's most destructive attack-minded midfielders.
''He is the only young player about whom I'm not afraid to say that he's already a great, because I know he's not going to get a big head, and he proves it with each match,'' says Pogba's veteran France teammate Patrice Evra, who has seen other next-big-things fall short of expectations in eight years at Manchester United and 57 games for Les Bleus.
Watching Pogba break up opponents' forays, shoulder first, tentacular legs stealing the ball, and then flipping defense into attack, gobbling up the pitch on a Toure-like goal-ward charge, fools one into thinking that he's been boss of the France midfield for years. But check his stats: not yet a dozen appearances for his country and still less than 100 club games, nearly all in two breakout league-winning seasons at Juventus.
He didn't make many mistakes, but one of Alex Ferguson's biggest in 26 years managing Manchester United was letting Pogba slip through his fingers. Pogba says he left United because he believed he deserved to play more frequently in a solitary season of just seven appearances, all as a substitute. That would have seemed mighty arrogant of the teenager had Pogba not subsequently proved himself so quickly at Juventus, where coach Antonio Conte calls him an ideal modern player: strong, rapid and resistant.
Evra says he tried in vain to talk Pogba out of leaving United, telling him: ''Here, you'll become a legend. Be patient.'' Pogba says the last straw was a Dec. 31, 2011, Premier League match against Blackburn. Missing first-choice midfielders, Ferguson plugged the gap with a full-back, Brazilian Rafael da Silva, rather than call Pogba off the bench.
''I was disgusted,'' Pogba said in an interview for French broadcaster Canal Plus.
United lost 3-2 and Pogba said he lost ''the relationship I had with the manager. I was really disappointed.''
Perhaps not as disappointed as United's accountants when a football think-tank in Switzerland this week estimated Pogba's market value now at northward of 60 million euros ($80 million), ranking him as football's sixth most valuable player and most valuable midfielder.
Pogba is now one of the first names on the team-sheet. Not once in 10 games for France has coach Didier Deschamps put Pogba on the bench. Pogba is still a work in progress: his passing can be wayward and self-assuredness looks like over-confidence when Pogba lingers too long on the ball. In only his second game in French blue, a 1-0 loss to world champion Spain in World Cup qualifiers last year, Pogba collected two yellow cards in two minutes, ramming a knee into Xabi Alonso and raking his studs on Xavi's right foot.
Pogba called the sending off ''a very good lesson.'' He seems a quick study: He didn't pick up a card of any color through the next seven games.
Another asset for a team looking to prove it has started afresh is that Pogba has no connection to the disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, where Les Bleus made themselves a laughing stock by going on strike. Drawing a line under one of the most shameful episodes in post-World War II French sporting history, and to ride the buzz of the Brazil World Cup, a former team sponsor last month destroyed a replica of France's bus from South Africa.
With his polite good humor and twinkly eyes, Pogba comes across as the anti-thesis of the bores of 2010.
The Stade de France chanted his name after Pogba scored the first of four French goals without reply against Norway, in the first of three World Cup tune-up matches. In a 1-1 draw with Paraguay on Sunday, Pogba also distinguished himself while charging downfield by flatfooting defender Ramon Coronel with an abrupt hip-shimmying change of direction that any Brazilian would be proud of.
Mathieu Valbuena, whose cross set up Pogba's header against Norway, said his teammates are telling him to ''let himself go'' and push forward from midfield ''because he's capable of scoring goals.''
Asked about Pogba, midfielder Rio Mavuba could only marvel.
''He's an old youngster,'' Mavuba said with a chuckle. ''A very relaxed player.''
But one primed to go bang! in Brazil.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester