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Amid team full of stars, Pogba leaves lasting impression for France at World Cup

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Teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe took home most of the plaudits for his breakout performance at the 2018 World Cup, but Paul Pogba was champion France’s most valuable player.

Pogba’s role in Les Bleus‘ second World Cup victory on Sunday in Moscow in a 4-2 thriller – the highest scoring finale since 1966 – can’t be overstated. He scored a brilliant left-footed goal to put France up 3-1 in the 52nd minute, and it stood up as the winner.

He controlled the game from his spot in central midfield, spraying pass after pass around the Luhzniki Stadium pitch for the lighting-quick Mbappe to run onto. And it was Pogba who basically took the game over for much of the second half, willing his team to glory. 

Yet all tournament long, fans and media members — including this one — who marveled at France’s embarrassment of talent had mostly focused their attention elsewhere.

There was the 19-year-old Mbappe, who on Sunday became first teen since Brazilian legend Pele to score in a title match, running away with the Best Young Player award in the process. There were French strikers Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, the latter of whom finished tied for second in the Golden Boot race with four goals. Even defensive midfield linchpin N’Golo Kante, who expertly manned one of the most important but least glamorous positions in manager Didier Deschamps’ starting lineup, seemed to be getting more love than Pogba as the biggest match of them all approached.  

In many ways, that’s understandable. Deschamps’ squad is so stacked, it’s easy for even an all-planet player to get overshadowed. On just about any other national team in the world, classy central defender Raphael Varane, who started in Real Madrid’s Champions League triumphs in 2017 and 2018, would be a marquee attraction. With France he’s an afterthought.

Pogba, on the other hand, has been a certified global superstar for years. He was at the center of sportswear giant Adidas’ global advertising campaign in the lead-up to the tournament in Russia. He was transferred to from Juventus to Manchester United in 2016 for a then-record fee of $116 million, a nearly impossible sum to live up to.

So while Pogba played well enough overall in England over the last two seasons, he’s also found it difficult to shed the perception that he’d underachieved since rejoining United, where he was a academy product and briefly played for the first team before moving to Italy. This criticism wasn’t new: Pogba also took plenty of heat after he and his teammates were upset on home soil by Portugal in the final of Euro 2016.

(Getty)

When taken together, there’s no doubt that Pogba’s stock had dropped in the two years that preceded this World Cup. The narrative really didn’t change after the games in Russia began last month.

Les Bleus started the tournament slow. They scored just three times in the group stage.  And although they got better as the competition went on, France didn’t truly dominate any opponent between the second half of their Round of 16 win over Argentina, and the second half of the final against a Croatian team that finally began to show signs of fatigue after becoming the first nation to reach the decider by winning three consecutive knockout games after extra time. 

But Pogba, quietly, was consistently excellent. Anyone watching closely could tell that he was sharp and engaged from the start. He was a tour de force in central midfield throughout, even if en route to the final he had exactly zero goals and assists to show for it. With four goals between them ahead of Sunday’s contest, Griezmann and Mbappe understandably took most of the plaudits.  

As it turned out,  Pogpa was saving his best for last.  When Croatia was pressing, as they did for a significant portion of the first half on Sunday – the Croatians finished with 61 percent of the possession – Pogba helped nullify two of the competition’s top midfielders in Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric. (No easy feat: Modric was named the Golden Ball winner as Russia 2018’s best player afterward.)

When France had the ball, it was Pogba who made it count.

The first-half dive by Griezmann that led to France’s opener off an own goal from Mario Mandzukic helped matters, it’s true. But Pogba was the best player on the field nonetheless. His second half performance secured his legacy as a champion.

Sunday’s win was a career-defining moment that will forever change the perception of the one of the sport’s most misunderstood stars years before he enters his prime. As under-the-radar as Pogba flew for most of this World Cup, the fact is that France wouldn’t have won it without him. There’s no bigger compliment than that.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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