Football is a tough game to crack. Approximately a third of all children in the United Kingdom play the sport at some level - with an estimated figure of around 11,000,000 under-18s in Britain, that equates to more than 3,500,000 young players in the UK alone.
Approximately 0.28%, or 10,000, young players make it into a top level youth facility, and just 1% of those 10,000 hopefuls will actually go on to play football in a professional capacity.
Many of the others that make up the ‘unsuccessful’ 99% are often left waiting to find out whether they will actually make it in the game until their late teens. By this point, they are often under-educated and unprepared for a working life away from multi-million pound sports development centres.
Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, you have some youngsters who progress in the world of football so fast that they hardly have time to grow up.
Take Paul Pogba, for example. At the age of 23, when many in his age group were just starting to break into their respective first teams, Pogba was jetting into Manchester Airport to put pen to paper on a contract that would make him the most expensive footballer of all time.
Paul Pogba was born in Paris, France, in 1993 to Yeo Moriba and Fassou Antoine Pogba, who had moved from the Republic of Guinea in the early 90s in search of a better life.
Despite spending most of his working life in the telecommunications industry, Pogba’s father dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. He did play at a low level in Guinea, but ultimately Fassou Pogba never made it in the professional game. Instead, he would spend his years in Paris as a schoolteacher.
By that point he had reached his 50s and his chance had long since passed, but the birth of his twin sons, Florentin Pogba and Mathias Pogba, would provide him with the opportunity to achieve his dreams through his children. Of course, while both Florentin and Mathias went on to have successful careers as professional players, it was his third child, Paul, who would reach the very top of the game.
“I played at a level that was lower than the one I wanted to play at,” Fassou Pogba admitted some years later. “I wanted my boys to play at the highest possible level. I was really hard on them when they were kids and that meant that they learned quickly.”
However, when Pogba was just two years old, his parents decided to split, up with his father moving out of the family home on the Renardiere housing estate in Roissy-en-Brie suburb. Living on an estate best known for high crime rates and drug abuse, Pogba could have taken a very different path in life. Although, despite the family’s situation, both of his parents continued to will him on to focus on football.
According to Fassou Pogba, there was always a match being played on the Renardiere estate and Paul was always in the midst of it, often playing with children much older than him. Unsurprisingly, he would often match, if not outperform them.
Helped by regular training sessions with his father, Pogba had outgrown the concrete kickabouts taking place on the estate by the age of six and needed something more to challenge him to push on. He soon found himself on the books at US Roissy-en-Brie, a small club just a stone’s throw from the tower block.
Pogba would go on to spend the next seven years at the club and, according to his former youth coach, Sambou Tati, it was clear, even from such a young age, that the youngest Pogba would make it in the professional game.
“He's a big winner. When you are a winner, you don't want to lose and from the moment you lose, you're angry and you're mad,” Tati recalled. “And Paul, when he was young and lost, he was very angry. I remember he used to cry.”
The Pogba brothers soon became local legends as they began to outgrow their hometown club. Pogba was the first to get picked up, with youth club US Torcy moving quickly to secure his signature. Just a few suburbs over from Roissy-en-Brie, Pogba didn’t have far to travel. However, the switch saw him named captain of the club’s under-13s side. The two other Pogba's, on the other hand, would join the youth side of Spanish club Celta Vigo a year later, as they began their journey into the professional game.
All three brothers had departed US Roissy-en-Brie, but they have never gone too long without returning to the club for a kickabout. Unsurprisingly, they are offered to a hero’s welcome each and every time, due to the youth development payments that the club has received for playing a part in their early years.
In moving to Torcy, Pogba was another step closer to achieving his dream, but there was still a long way to go. Thankfully for the French midfielder, he wouldn’t have to wait too long to take the next step.
After just one season, Pogba was approached by professional side Le Havre AC, who were plying their trade in France’s Ligue 2 at the time. The club’s youth academy is famed in France for the high number of quality players that it has produced, including the likes of Charles N’Zogbia, Steve Mandanda, Riyad Mahrez, Lassana Diarra and Dimitri Payet, and a 14-year-old Pogba wasn’t willing to let the opportunity pass him by.
The switch saw Pogba depart the Île-de-France region that he called home to join Le Havre in Normandy, but the decision proved to be the right one. Over the next two years he would become the under-16s captain for both club and country and make a name for himself as one of the brightest prospects in French football.
Unsurprisingly, with that title comes interest from some of the world’s biggest clubs. It was former Plymouth Argyle midfielder David Friio, by then working as a scout for Manchester United, who got to him first. By 31st July 2009, a deal with done and it was soon announced that the youngster would be joining Manchester United’s world famous academy.
Despite being aged just 16, Paul Pogba’s switch to Manchester United would throw him into the limelight for the first time.
According to Le Havre, both the player and his parents had agreed to a 'non-solicitation agreement' upon joining in 2007, which tied him to the club until 2010, with an agreement also in place to award him a trainee contract when he met the age requirements. The club also claimed that Manchester United had offered Pogba and his family incentives to join - €100,000 to his mum, €100,000 to his dad, as well as a family home in England.
It is against FIFA rules for clubs to encourage youth players to break their contracts elsewhere. Despite Manchester United’s strong denials, the controversial saga surrounding Gael Kakuta, who had joined Chelsea from Lens in 2007, prompted FIFA to investigate.
It wasn’t until October that Manchester United were finally cleared of any wrongdoing, with the Premier League side reportedly paying Le Havre a sum of £175,000 for the emerging star.
Pogba would spend the next few seasons refining his skills with the under-18s side. The side, containing names such as Michael Keane and Ravel Morrison, went on to win the FA Youth Cup in the 2010/11 season, earning themselves the nickname ‘The Class of ‘2011’, named after the famed Class of ‘92. However, ultimately, they would fail to have the same sort of impact as the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
Going into the 2012/13 campaign, Ferguson announced that Pogba would play a part in the first team. However, it seems that the two parties had differing views of what exactly that meant.
Over the course of the season, Pogba made seven appearances for Manchester United in total, all from the bench. This seemingly wasn’t enough for the 19-year-old, who opted against agreeing to a new deal with the Red Devils at the end of the campaign. With his contract set to expire, he was soon in talks with Juventus over a potential switch to the Serie A.
Ferguson’s handling of the Pogba situation was one of the few times that he came under criticism at the club throughout his 26 year stay. However, according to the legendary manager, it was the words of super-agent Mino Raiola that led to Pogba’s exit. According to a number of sources, United did everything in their power to get Pogba to agree to a contract extension, but Raiola had other plans for his emerging star.
To Juventus and back
The French midfielder was unveiled as a Juventus player on August 3rd 2012, with Ferguson stating that the deal had actually been agreed a long while before. While United were losing a talented prospect, few would have been aware just how big that loss would end up being.
Juventus manager Antonio Conte opted to start Pogba on the bench for the first few games of the season, but by the fourth game, a visit from Chievo Verona, the French midfielder was thrown into the starting line-up.
He was soon a regular member of Juventus’ Serie A and Champions League squads, sitting out just nine more matches throughout the 2012/13 campaign following his debut, and by the end of the season, he was lifting his first piece of silverware - the Serie A title.
By this point, it was clear that Manchester United had missed out on a top talent. Yet, it was the following season when Pogba really began to shine. The 2013/14 season kicked off with the Italian Super Cup, in which Pogba, who scored one and assisted another, was key to Juventus’ 4-0 thrashing of Lazio.
By the end of the year, Pogba was widely regarded as one of, if not the most promising talents in football, earning himself the prestigious 2013 Golden Boy award, previously won by the likes of Wayne Rooney (2004), Lionel Messi (2006) and Sergio Aguero (2007).
Pogba would go on to become an instrumental figure at Juventus, as they asserted their dominance over Italian football, winning three more Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia cups and the 2015 Italian Super Cup over the next three seasons.
As the midfielder continued to grow and develop at Juventus, so too did the price tag associated with him. The media first started reporting that Pogba would be departing the Italian giants in 2013, with both Ligue 1’s Paris Saint-Germain and Premier League side Chelsea said to have offered £50 million for his services.
By 2015 he was a £70 million man. Manchester City reportedly tabled a bid, but were put off my Mino Raiola’s extortionate demands, while Barcelona were also said to have agreed a deal with Juventus, only to pull out. Likewise, Chelsea reportedly agreed a huge £72 million transfer, only for Raiola to decide that his client would be staying in Turin to give winning the Champions League with Juventus one last try.
However, 12 months later, with Sir Alex Ferguson out of the picture and cash-splashing Jose Mourinho in the Old Trafford hotseat, it was Pogba’s former club, Manchester United, who decided to meet Raiola’s demands and make Paul Pogba the most expensive player in the history of the beautiful game, paying a reported £89 million transfer fee for his signature, just four years after allowing him to leave on a free transfer.