Juventus star Paul Pogba exclusive interview: 'I want to become a legend'
Paul Pogba can expect to be the most watched player at the European Championship. Though only 23, the central midfielder will be the key man for host France, especially now that Karim Benzema has been left off the squad after a sordid scandal.
The world of soccer also wants to know what Pogba will do after the Euros: stay at Juventus, or jump to one of Europe's giant clubs, possibly for a record transfer fee. The man from the Parisian suburbs has a lot on his mind, but he made time for ESPN at Juve's training ground at Vinovo outside Turin.
ESPN: What are your childhood memories of watching France in big tournaments?
PP: The World Cup 1998. I was young, but I remember the final: two goals by [Zinedine] Zidane, one by [Emmanuel] Petit. These are beautiful memories. I hope to reproduce them for today's children.
ESPN: In your teens, you spent three years at Manchester United. What did you learn there alongside players such as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs?
PP: With them you train to the end, up to perfection, because Paul Scholes -- despite his age -- was still there at the end of practice, hitting long passes, shots. He didn't miss one. When you're there, you have to adapt fast. I like that -- always challenges.
ESPN: Aged 19, you told Sir Alex Ferguson you were leaving United for Juventus. Did that take courage?
PP: He's a coach I respect a lot. But he's a human. I'm someone who says what he thinks. Whether it's Ferguson or [President Barack] Obama, I'll tell him. Ferguson came to my place. We talked. It did make me think. He wanted to keep me, but I'd made my decision to leave.
ESPN: How different did you find Juventus from English soccer?
PP: My first training session here, I lost three kilos. Here they really work physically and tactically. In England it's more explosive, it doesn't stop, but tactically it's not the same as in Italy. And in Italy, training sessions are longer.
ESPN: Juve's great man when you arrived was Andrea Pirlo. You're always hungry to learn. What did you learn from him?
PP: His calmness, his confidence. He'd miss a pass and it didn't matter -- he was sure he'd succeed with the next one. ... He could decide matches. I'd like to be as decisive.
Before he got the ball, he knew who he would give it to -- Pirlo, Paul Scholes, they knew how to read the game. I manage that from time to time [laughs]. Because I'm fairly big, I like to use my body. So I'll control the ball, even when there's a player on me, and then I'll pass. They are smaller, so they'll play faster so as not to be touched.
ESPN: Now Pavel Nedved, the former great midfielder who is Juve's vice chairman, gives you advice.
PP: He's always there at training. He advises me to do more in training, to work on my free kicks, penalties -- because you want to score -- to work on my left foot.
ESPN: You've said you want to create, or be, the new midfielder. What does "the new midfielder" mean?
PP: Doing everything: defend, attack, score, give assists, tackle, win back the ball. Be a leader on the field.
ESPN: A box-to-box midfielder, with a bit of Zidane added?
PP: [laughs] Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Messi, everyone. Iniesta.
ESPN: Really? You're serious?
PP: I'm serious. All players rolled into one: from defensive midfielder to attacking midfielder to attacker. I want to take the qualities from everyone. I'd like to get to the level where I have everything: Vieira, Deschamps, Zidane, Ronaldinho, Henry, Ronaldo. It wouldn't be bad, that. I've already scored goals, given decisive passes, won back balls. It's really just about raising the level.
ESPN: Despite your height you haven't scored many headers.
PP: I think it's because I'm big. They mark me too much. I don't like it when they hold me.
ESPN: Already you're a great. You've won four Italian league titles, but you think you're only at 60 percent?
PP: I don't think I am a great. I think I've done nothing. I've done nothing in soccer. I've won leagues, but I haven't won the Champions League, the World Cup, the Euro. Winning the Euro in France, that wouldn't be bad.
ESPN: You have extraordinary ambitions.
PP: That's my strength. I want to work, to be a great, to win everything.
ESPN: How do you want people to remember you in 30 years?
PP: By watching YouTube, like they do with Maradona and Pele. When I say I want to become a legend, some people say it's pretentious. For me, it's a challenge. My desire, a dream. I'm not saying I'll get there, but it's what I want.
ESPN: You play in a league that isn't the best in Europe. That's a problem.
PP: Maybe it's not the best league, but it's the hardest. Playing against an Italian team is harder than all the other leagues. The Italians won't score lots of goals, but they won't concede many, either.
ESPN: Your role with Juventus is different than with France.
PP: With Juve I'm more attacking. The coach of France [Didier Deschamps] prefers that I play deeper. It is a bit strange adapting in the national team, but after two, three training sessions it goes fine.
ESPN: When you began playing for France, you felt during games in Paris as if you were playing away.
PP: There was a time when I did. When Portugal came, there were more Portuguese in the stadium than French people. But now the fans have really been behind us for a while. We feel we are in France, at home.
ESPN: Sambou Tati, who coached you in childhood, says that in the last 10 years you have learned to play with "simplicity." Do you agree?
PP: For me, playing simply is dribbling. For me, playing one or two touches is harder. Playing simply is the most difficult thing.
ESPN: Coaches still tell you to play more simply.
PP: They should tell me, "Play complicated," then I'll play simply. [Laughs]
ESPN: Your visit to relatives in Guinea in Africa five years ago changed you.
PP: I saw how people suffered. That helped me realise the luck we have in Europe, and to think more about children, the poor, who don't have enough to eat or water to drink.
ESPN: Maybe soccer players can get spoiled.
PP: Not just soccer players -- normal people. A normal person here can drink water, can waste water.
ESPN: How did you experience Nov. 13 at the Stade de France?
PP: What was that?
ESPN: The night of France-Germany and the terrorist attacks on Paris, last year.
PP: It's a sadness for everyone. But you can't live with that because otherwise you won't live anymore. We won't forget the people who left us, but even so, we advance.
ESPN: Everyone wants to know whether you will leave Juventus this summer. When and how will you decide?
PP: You tell me. I'm asking you.
ESPN: If I were you, I'd have a pretty good idea already.
PP: Really? I'm thinking about the match to come. Then there's the Euros, and after that the holidays.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.