Paul Pogba: The inside story of the world's most expensive footballer
In his small apartment on the outskirts of Roissy-en-Brie, a town in the eastern sprawl of Paris, Fassou Antoine Pogba is looking down at Wednesday’s Telegraph Sport front page featuring his son Paul, and contemplating life as the father of the most expensive footballer in the world.
He taps a finger on the cover picture of his son, chin back staring down the camera, £89 million-worth of skill, power and strength in that famous red jersey and makes an observation. “If the club didn’t think he was worth all that money,” Fassou says, “they would never have paid it.”
It is hard to argue with that, although it is hard for anyone in the room to comprehend the journey that Paul has made from his first club just down the road, US Roissy, to his status as one of modern football’s elite, a man whose arrival at Manchester United was presented with all the glamour of a Hollywood movie. But every story, however remarkable, has a beginning, and this is the story of Paul Pogba, United midfielder, France international and the most expensive footballer in the world.
“He was always curious to know things, even as a small child,” says Fassou. “He always wanted to learn new things. We always encouraged him to do lots of things and to follow his interests. When I saw him play football for the first time though, I could see that his technique was very good. He was four years old, and he always played with boys who were older than him.”
In his living room are pictures of Paul with his older brothers, the twins Mathias and Florentin who play at Partick Thistle and St-Etienne respectively and are two years senior to the star of the family. There is a picture of the trio from Christmas 1998 sitting in Santa’s grotto. Pictures of the three brothers in the kit of US Roissy, are all afforded equal prominence on their father’s shelves.
Fassou is 78 and came to Paris from Guinea, his country of origin, at the age of 30. He worked in telecommunications and is retired now. He is not as mobile as he once was but he hopes to get to Manchester to see Paul play for the club to which he has returned. Fassou played football himself in Guinea and then when he came to Paris, although there were fewer opportunities then.
“I played at a level that was lower than the one I wanted to play at. 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. It got to the point where I was coaching other kids so they could give Paul a game when he was four, five, six years old. I was trying to bring them up to his level.
“While I was trying to bring these boys on, Paul was getting better and playing with boys much older than him, including his two brothers. At Residence la Renardiere [the estate the Pogba family lived on originally] every kid plays football all day so he always had a game to play in. Even then, as such a young child, he knew he wanted to be a professional footballer.”
For a small boy in Renardiere, there is only one place in Roissy-en-Brie to go for organised 11-a-side football. From the top of the 16-storey tower-blocks of Renardiere you can see the small stand and pitch of the Stade Paul Bessuard, which is home to US Roissy, the little football club where dreams come true.
THE FOOTBALL CLUB
Past the athletics club office at the Stade Paul Bessuard and down the path to a door that says “Bureau Football”, you will find Nicolas Moressee, 40, treasurer of US Roissy and coach of the Under-17s team. He is a friendly man who wears a Manchester United shirt that coincides with Paul’s first spell at the club.
“You are here to talk about Paul?” he says, “then you had better come in here and see this.” It is a small office of three rooms, shelves full of trophies, a strict player “code du sportif” on the wall and a washing machine that looks like it has been run to the brink of collapse, with damp kit spilling out the open door. Out the back there is a table of snacks, instant coffee, plastic cups and on the wall, the framed professional shirts of the three Pogba brothers, as well as one from another of their famous old boys, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, a centre-back at PSV Eindhoven.
At the centre of the wall is one of Paul’s Juventus shirts, signed with the message, “For my first dream club … Roissy-en-Brie”.
“Paul comes back to visit a lot,” Moressee says. “He was here on Sunday”. Sunday? One day before he flew to Manchester for his medical? “Yes”. What was he doing? “What he always does, playing football with his mates.”
As treasurer, Moressee is waiting to hear the good news from the French football federation (FFF) about the training payment Roissy will receive for Pogba’s transfer to United. Under Fifa regulations, any club who develop a player at 12 or above are entitled to 0.25 per cent of his transfer fees, for each year they coach him. Paul was at Roissy from six to 13 and the club estimate they could be due as much as €400,000 for their one year.
Given that their annual budget for the 30 teams that they run is €60,000, this is enormous. Roissy will be able to buy a new minibus, kits, washing machines and subsidise trips to play away games – crucial given that few of their players have parents who are able to drive the boys to matches. The future of this marvellous little club is secure. If Ed Woodward ever shows up in Roissy-en-Brie, he will not need to pay for his own drinks.
Brahim Tlili, 37, a civil servant by day and coach of US Roissy Under-19s by evening, turns up on his bike. He knows the Pogba boys well.
“We always could see Paul was special,” he says. “He was amazing on the pitch but we never thought anything as enormous as this would happen. He was always quite an eccentric boy. Any time someone put music on, Paul would be dancing.
“I wasn’t surprised he went back to Manchester. He was always saying it was like his second home when he was there. When he first left [in 2012] he was really sad. It wasn’t what he wanted to do.”
Tlili finds a picture of Paul, aged eight, with his Roissy team-mates lined up for a team picture at the Stade de France, playing before a French cup final.
“These four boys Mamadou, Habib, Nabil and Ounoussou are still his best friends,” he says, “they all went on holiday with him to LA this summer. Hang on, I’ll give Nabil a call and tell him to come over to meet you.”
Nabil Aloulou, 23, was the centre-back in the US Roissy junior teams Paul played in and now plays for the club’s senior side. He is a sports teacher for children. “Paul wasn’t much different from what he is like now,” he says when he arrives.
“He has kept the same character. I am telling you, he was football-mad as a kid and he is the same now. And he is going to prove he is worth all that money. He’s already proved himself at Juventus and with France. He’s not scared of anything.”
THE HOUSING ESTATE
There is one more place to go to understand the factors that shaped the development of Pogba, and that is his true home turf: Residence la Renardiere, the housing estate a short walk from Stade Paul Bessuard. It was there in block 13 on Avenue Auguste Renoir that the Pogba brothers grew up with their mother Yeo, a major influence on all her sons’ careers, who now lives, according to locals, in nearby Bussy Saint-Georges.
The classic trope of modern football is that every big star must come from streets that are inevitably mean, and in doing so narrowly escape a life of crime. Renardiere is modest by the standards of middle-class France but there is nothing mean or threatening about it. People are friendly and welcoming, there is a community barbecue taking place and everywhere children of all ages are doing one thing above all. They are playing football.
There is plenty of green space and a newly installed hard court for football and basketball that came after the Pogbas left. At the centre of the estate is a huge Paul Pogba mural, painted by three boys who still live there. It is treated like every other wall in Renardiere, in that balls are kicked against it every hour of the day.
The vast majority of the people here are, explains Ahmed Diawara, 16, first or second generation immigrants from central African Francophone countries. His family originate from Mali. The family of his friend, Boubacan Dioumanera, 16, are from Senegal. The Pogbas were from Guinea. These two teenagers were too young to have played with Paul when he lived on Renardiere but they talk excitedly about the times when he has come back to visit.
“I have played football with him a bit around the estate,” Ahmed says. “You wouldn’t believe his dribbling skills. He could just dribble and dribble with the football, all these little kids chasing around after him trying to tackle him and they couldn’t get the ball off him. Everyone on the estate loves football. Look around you, they’re all playing football. I would like Paul to win the Ballon d’Or at Manchester.”
From the perspective of an outsider, it is not so unbelievable that Renardiere could produce a footballer like Paul. It is the perfect crucible for raw talent: scores of kids playing football day and night, safe and happy without any need for parental supervision.
As for the £89 million fee, it is hard for anyone to put into words what that means. Ahmed is more impressed that when recently a few of them hired an indoor five-a-side court, Paul turned up and they got the court free for an extra hour.
Ahmed says that most people from Renardiere work in restaurants in Paris or as plumbers and electricians. “But everyone dreams of being like Paul”.
As the evening draws in people are coming home from work to Renardiere. Some of the men will go over to Stade Paul Bessuard where pre-season training for the senior team is beginning with laps of the track that surrounds the pitch.
As the players come in to change for training each of them pop into the Bureau Football and shake the hands of Brahim Tlili and his coaches as well as the reporter and photographer from London. It is a little tradition and will have been just the same for their most famous son, currently settling back into life in Manchester.
Paul Pogba might be an uncommon talent, but you only need to spend a day in his hometown to know that he had the sort of solid start in life every great footballer would wish for.