“What you see from the outside is that athletes earn a lot and that they’re famous and recognised all over the world, but what you usually don’t see is the work that they put in off the pitch, and that’s the most important aspect to me,” he tells us over Zoom. “You don’t see their family problems or their everyday problems either. Yet they still manage to be on the pitch, to perform well and to be the best; they manage to keep working and be the best for another two, three, even ten years, or throughout a whole career. That’s what mental strength is and that’s what all sportspeople can draw inspiration from.”
Pogba expands on his admiration for the man who became an NFL champion again last season, aged 43. “Tom Brady was just an example to really show people that, despite his age, he was still up to the challenge. He changed franchises but still won, which means that it’s possible to do so. I wanted to show people that you could still succeed after changing clubs. He never gives up.”
To stave off the setting sun during the Indian summer of his career, Brady has had to call on some considerable mental strength – and Pogba was doing the same at the dawn of his. An ambitious and feverishly sought-after teenage talent at Le Havre, he left the familiar cocoon of France for northwest England and the unforgiving environment of Manchester United. With first-team opportunities limited and his patience wearing thin, he took another leap of faith in his own abilities and joined Juventus aged 19, defying the wishes of United’s iconic boss, Sir Alex Ferguson. Consider what sort of confidence that requires…
Pogba’s boldness paid dividends in the form of four Serie A titles – and that signature courage underpinned his return to United in 2016. He finished the following campaign with the Europa League trophy in his hand, a feat he came within a penalty kick of emulating in May. For an established senior international and one of the game’s biggest and best talents, it was not a question of coming full circle but, rather, of making the next move up.
Although a self-confessed fan of another American sporting great in the form of NBA icon Michael Jordan, Pogba’s United comeback was anything but the last dance. In fact he was only getting warmed up, with no intention of tweaking the single-minded modus operandi that had taken him that far.
“I think that most of us already know [Jordan’s] story, and his leadership and work ethic really have been an inspiration to me. You have to be at least a little bit selfish and think of yourself in order to be the best. That means that after a training session, if your friends call you to go out you need to think of yourself, refuse and go and train more instead.
“You want to take the last shots, like [Jordan] did, and you always want to win. That requires extraordinary mental strength. Muhammad Ali is also an inspiration for me. In his day he was one of the youngest heavyweights – just like Mike Tyson after him – to be crowned world champion. All of those people are inspirations because of their daily work ethic. They push themselves. They might fall or lose but they keep going, they come back stronger and they never give up. That’s important to me.”
Pogba is 28 now and wants to serve as an example to follow in the United dressing room. “You can be a leader both on and off the pitch; you can speak with the young players and the whole squad, and you can motivate them too. Motivating my team-mates motivates me in return. Whenever I see a team-mate of mine always training and working hard, that pushes me to train and reach my limits. That’s how you develop, as we want to win trophies together and you need everyone to be involved if you want to succeed. You can’t win alone.