PAUL Pogba was the last to arrive. There was little doubt that he was the man everyone was waiting for. The rest of his mates of this World Cup-winning and potentially era-defining team had already passed through the mixed zone, boarding the bus to the team hotel to pick their stuff and take the flight to Paris where their fans will flood the Champs Elysees for the victory parade.
Pogba entered the hall — designed specifically with a walkway for the players to go through with only a three-foot high, one-inch thick plastic wall propped up on a metallic base to keep the hordes of journalists at a safe distance from them — alongside captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. He announced his arrival loudly and then proceeded to shake hands with the press pack looking forward to sharing that moment with him and getting his reaction.
Lloris immediately ran to a Colombian journalist, giving him a deep hug while celebrating with him. Pogba did the same; they jumped for joy and the strength of the plastic wall that separated them was tested. That wall had fallen moments earlier, prompting several reporters to hit the floor when Adil Rami, the man who calls himself the joker of this French squad, was speaking. Only after that, the volunteers on the side of the players began to push back the wall whenever they felt that the press pack was leaning too much onto it.
Anyways, you’d wonder why Lloris and Pogba were celebrating so passionately with a Colombian journalist when a huge number of reporters from France were already there. Well, the man in question is a close friend of Davinson Sanchez, Lloris’ team-mate at Tottenham Hotspur, and Juan Cuadrado, Pogba’s pal at former side Juventus. Pogba’s appearance in the mixed zone had taken the spotlight off Antoine Griezmann, who was speaking to a large group of reporters from Spain.
About a couple of hours ago, France had blown away Croatia 4-2 to lift the World Cup. It was a complete performance; one that showed France’s brilliance and their supreme control. Not at any stage had France looked nervous.
“We had 90 minutes to make a story and we made it today,” Pogba said as he stopped to take questions from Dawn. “I’m extremely happy to be a world champion. This really is a dream come true.”
An own goal by Mario Mandzukic off a Griezmann free-kick gave France the lead after Croatia had dominated the early stages. Ivan Perisic’s stunning strike levelled matters but the French got a VAR decision in their favour when Perisic couldn’t react quickly enough to get his hand out of the way and gave away a penalty that Griezmann tucked away to give France a 2-1 lead by the 38th minute. Pogba’s goal saw France surge clear just before the hour mark before Kylian Mbappe added a fourth to seal the result with Lloris’ error, that contributed to Mandzukic pulling one back, proving inconsequential.
“We were playing against a great team which had a tactic against us and a plan against us,” said Pogba when asked about France’s largely nerveless performance. “I think the first goal hit them a bit and so did the penalty. But then we scored the third and the fourth quickly and that made all the difference.”
The victory was a sort of redemption for Pogba. He came to this World Cup after a season at Manchester United where he was criticised for his performances. Before the final on Sunday, he had no goals or assists at the World Cup. His goal was huge and he left Russia as a world champion.
“That’s what I play for, that’s why I star,” Pogba said when asked if this win was a riposte to the critics. “That’s why we train every day, that’s why we push ourselves, that’s why we are doing all that the sacrifices in life. Everyone, however, wants to see the shiny things in life, like my house or my fast cars. But we work a lot for it and deserve it. We try to do the right things and try to help people in need. At the end of the day, we’re also human beings and that criticism is nothing.”
KANTE HAILS ‘TEAM EFFORT’
Before coming to the mixed zone, Pogba had gate-crashed Didier Deschamps’ post-match press conference where he and the other French players drenched the coach in water and energy drink as they splashed around in celebration. They danced and jumped around and when it was time for Deschamps to talk, Pogba even tried to clean up the table. No one around really objected. France after all were world champions and everyone, even the media, wanted to be part of their celebrations.
The celebrations continued in the mixed zone as well. Before that, they had a visit from French president Emmanuel Macron to the dressing room as France reveled in winning their second World Cup after 1998, when they won the title on home soil. As Macron left the stadium, he passed by the mixed zone saying: “We played very well … thank you, thank you.”
Lucas Hernandez was the first French player to come to the mixed zone, saying he hadn’t been able to ‘digest’ the victory. Steven Nzonzi, who came on as a substitute for N’Golo Kante — the man who’s given lung-bursting performances in the French midfield with France 2-1 up early in the second-half, was next.
“We were really focussed and there was no special pressure on us,” said Nzonzi. “Didier is a great coach. He made sure we had a cool head at all times.”
As Nzonzi was speaking, Rami entered. Always with a smile on his face, he said his curled moustache was the lucky charm for France, one that Griezmann and company touch before every game.
“I’ve never seen a French squad with such great atmosphere,” said the defender who didn’t play a single game but one who Deschamps hailed as the man who keeps the players together. “Our country deserves this. Everyone today gets to party.”
Mbappe came quietly. For a 19-year-old he was the one who showed very little excitement, saying it was ‘great’ to join Brazilian legend Pele as the second teenager to score in a World Cup final. It was after Mbappe had left that the party began in the mixed zone.
Correntin Tolisso, Samuel Umtiti and Benjamin Mendy, with their Beats by Dre speakers turned up to full volume, dancing their way through. Thomas Lemar wore a Mexican hat as he passed by. Raphael Varane came, holding the World Cup trophy in his hands, saying he was “out of words because you can’t touch it if you don’t win it”.
Olivier Giroud said he was “proud of being a world champion” despite having not scored a single goal with Griezmann emerging, wearing a top with ‘Vive La France’ written on it. In that melee, the quiet and reserved Kante was slinking away. But then he stopped and spoke with Dawn.
“I think it was a team effort,” he said when asked how he felt he was substituted when the match was still in the balance. “We can trust everyone in the team and when I was substituted, I wished Steven all the best and I think we did very well. I think Croatia are a very good team and they played a great game. But we did very well during the tournament and we were able to win.”
Published in Dawn, July 17th , 2018