It didn’t take much to bring the words and the emotion tumbling out of Paul Pogba. For all the bravado and cool he has been displaying across Russia these past four weeks, it seems he was desperate for some vindication all along.
‘I know that sometimes you are doing good, sometimes you are doing bad, but that’s how you grow,’ he said after the World Cup semi-final win over Belgium, before launching into an unexpected declaration of love for his sport which seemed to be his way of saying that he is not as detached and self-absorbed as many like to think.
‘I came from… I wouldn’t exactly say nothing,’ the 25-year-old declared. ‘(But) obviously I had no (riches). I could do one thing – and it was to play football. It was my love. My first love. I live for football. I play for football. I wouldn’t say that I’m young but I’m not old. I can improve and get better and better. If I hear good things or bad things, I will keep fighting for my love.’
There’s been very little romance with his own nation in these past few years, during which French audiences have been among his most exacting critics. He was whistled by a home crowd in Nice when replaced in the second half of a 3-1 win over Italy, ahead of this tournament. It is his discipline which has earned him some redemption now.
Even in the crushing of Argentina 12 days ago, there were moments when the individualist in Pogba took over and he would rush off into some enterprise which was pointless, leaving his team out of shape. But the general picture has been of a player committed to the Didier Deschamps collective in a way which Jose Mourinho has not often experienced.
He has consistently been the axis between defence and attack that Manchester United always wanted. The win over Belgium revealed the full Pogba range, from a willingness to join the defensive element on which France’s run to the final has been built, to the execution of passes which broke Belgium’s defensive lines.
‘Patient, methodical, superior. No romance, but a flame,’ was L’Equipe’s description of the way France won through to the final.
The contribution of central defensive partners Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane was a source of particular national delight. The pair operated well together when Gareth Southgate’s England went to the French capital and lost 3-2, 13 months ago, but were criticised after Colombia beat France by the same scoreline in March.
Deschamps praised Pogba for shaking off the straitjacket Belgium had tried to impose on him by detailing Fellaini to stay tight and limit his chances to create.
The individual in question has been around for long enough to know that the public mood can change with the wind. ‘At the moment we are doing great,’ he said. ‘It’s a dream for everybody. A dream which we have to realise. It’s always nice to win, and to hear nice things about the team, about yourself and everything.
‘I say it again – I don’t want to prove nothing to nobody. But now we need to finish this. We are not done yet.’