With one minute left for France to hold out against Albania, Paul Pogba collected the ball in the right-back position. He had earlier blazed over the bar after good work by Dimitri Payet and lost his footing at another inopportune moment as France pushed for a breakthrough. But now the hosts had a precious lead to maintain, fellow substitute Antoine Griezmann nodding home from Adil Rami’s cross. It was time to play it safe, down the channels and into the corners. Pogba looked up and, slipping as he struck the ball, flighted a perfect pass to André-Pierre Gignac haring towards the Albanian goal. Seconds later it was game over, Payet sliding home to wrap up a 2-0 victory.
The final whistle at the Stade Velodrome signalled the resumption of the Pogba debate which has dominated the French media since the midfielder’s disappointing display in the opening game against Romania. Only now it has intensified as his supporters come armed with greater evidence to defy his detractors. Pogba’s contribution on Wednesday did not go unnoticed. “Did he make a successful entrance?” asked overblown analysis show L’Equipe Du Soir. There were impassioned arguments from both sides as there had been at the Lyon fan zone when the ‘Pogba problem’ was posed to French fans. A Twitter poll ended only 55/45 in favour.
The biggest issue facing Pogba is that in France he has become a victim of his own success. A four-times Serie A champion and double Double winner in the past two seasons with Juventus, French supporters are not surprised by talk of a €100m transfer to the Premier League or La Liga. It is widely acknowledged he is an immense talent, but Pogba’s form for the national team is the primary concern. And there is a growing sense of frustration at his failure to reach the level of performance he has delivered so consistently for Juventus.
“For everyone Paul Pogba is the best French player along with Antoine Griezmann,” explains football journalist Alexis Sandre. “In the first match against Romania he didn’t play well, so some journalists asked Didier Deschamps if he should be a substitute. There’s a lot of expectation. He’s very young, he’s only 23. At Juventus he has Buffon and Chiellini who have lots of experience – he just has to play football there, he doesn’t have to talk or lead.”
It is not only Pogba’s displays in Serie A which have led to such heightened expectations. In 2013 he captained an exciting young French generation to victory at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey. On the back of winning his first Scudetto, Pogba was named player of the tournament and slotted home the opening penalty in the shoot-out success against Uruguay in the final. One year later he was selected in Didier Deschamps’ squad for the World Cup and tipped to star on the biggest stage in Brazil.
It was there that questions began to be raised about Pogba’s role for club and country. “After winning the Under-20 World Cup with a very good generation, Pogba came into the first team and never got to the level he shows for Juventus,” says Sandre. Despite impressing in a 3-0 win against Honduras as France began their World Cup campaign, Pogba, then a hot-headed 21-year-old, threatened to lose his cool under provocation and risked a red card. He was benched for the second match against Switzerland. “There is such a buzz about him and there’s always a risk with a player who is being talked up as a star of the World Cup,” warned Deschamps. “It’s not an easy environment to manage, even if he is at a big club. He plays in a role where there are a lot of tackles but the high level demands total control.”
In a twist of fate, Griezmann was also hooked from the starting XI against Honduras, mirroring Deschamps’ decision after France kicked off Euro 2016 against Romania at Stade de France. Despite the hosts overcoming Bogdan Stancu’s equaliser from the penalty spot to win 2-1, Pogba and Griezmann took the brunt of the blame for a disjointed display with both Deschamps and captain Hugo Lloris saying they expect more from Pogba.
Perhaps it is a ploy by the manager to inspire a reaction from his young star. France thrashed Switzerland 5-2 in their second game at the World Cup, but Pogba was reinstated to the starting line-up for the following match against Ecuador and remained there until France were eliminated by Germany in the quarter-final, scoring the first goal in a 2-0 win over Nigeria in the second round. “I think he will start against Switzerland in the next match,” says Sandre. “He’s the boss in midfield. With France people are wanting more and more, but he’s still young. Some fans forget that. French people have to be patient, he has a lot of talent.”
From an English perspective, it might seem difficult for the French to love Pogba. Having never played in Ligue Un after leaving Le Havre for Manchester United as a teenager, he is somewhat a distant icon, expected to shine whenever he turns up every few months for international duty. It’s a theory Sandre dismisses: “All the big players always play outside France. It was the case before with Zidane, with Trezeguet, with Henry. Griezmann, for example, is the chouchou (the pet) – the player that everyone loves and protects. He plays in Spain but people don’t say they don’t like him because he’s not playing in France.”
The case of Griezmann’s allegiance was highlighted by his goal on Wednesday. After glancing his header past Etrit Berisha, he pumped his fist and screamed “Vamos!” – a Spanish celebration for a French goal.
Such was Griezmann’s contribution there no longer appears to be any doubt he deserves a place in Deschamps’ starting XI. But on Thursday the Pogba debate raged on for a second night. The midfielder must wonder what he has to do to gain chouchou status; given the enormous expectation, it will probably have to be something spectacular. Until then, it seems, France will not be able to make up its mind on Paul Pogba.