Paul Pogba is no stranger to the headlines. But recently, the young Frenchman has been making the papers for positive reasons following a time at Manchester United when he was known more for controversial contract dealings than actually doing what said contracts were requiring him to do.
Since moving to Juventus in the summer, the 19-year-old has impressively carved out a place for himself in what is surely one of the best midfields in the world. And anyone who, at such a tender age, can convince a legendary midfielder-turned-manager like Antonio Conte that he deserves a place alongside another legend like Andrea Pirlo deserves some credit.
Scoring against Napoli and a last-minute header to make it 2-1 against Bologna in November and extend Juve's lead at the top of Serie A are highlights, but by no means isolated moments in the young Frenchman's start to life in Italy.
Throughout the season, his performances have been solid, with the occasional flash of real talent that offers a glimpse as to why the Le Havre youth product has been so coveted by Europe's top teams. But—and this will worry some—there have also been flashes of the exaggerated self-belief and murky dealings that might yet scupper his budding career.
Despite what he might think, a few months of reasonable performances do not a world-class footballer make. Pirlo is rightly revered because he's been consistently good his whole career, and continues to impress at 33. He too was a young star—breaking into the Brescia first-team at just 16 years of age. But even after all this time, Pirlo still behaves like a dedicated professional, putting football first, training diligently and letting his playmaking skills do the talking instead of his agent.
Likewise, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio—Pirlo's chief companions in the centre of the park for Juventus—have earned their fame with years of strong performances and steady, visible development. By contrast, players like Pogba get hyped, whether they want to or not, by virtue of the fact they were spotted by a scout and transferred to a big team.
There's nothing wrong with journalists and fans getting excited about the prospect of a future great player, but unfortunately one of the unwanted byproducts of our 24/7 digital media age is that, in constant need of something to talk about, we end up over-hyping or exaggerating early success.
Pogba looks like an exciting talent, but he has a long career ahead of him and still needs to prove much. After all, simply comparing someone to Patrick Vieira doesn't make him Patrick Vieira.
It's not just the media at it either, and while comments such as "Platini and Zidane are Juve's history. I want to be the future," might just be meaningless sound-bytes, it can't be good for a teenager to honestly mention himself in such illustrious company.
The player also needs to put his unpalatable contractual past behind him and settle down to hard work. There was a legal battle between Manchester United and Le Harve following his switch in 2009, with president Jean-Pierre Louvel even accusing United of offering Pogba's parents jobs and financial incentives to convince their son to move to Old Trafford.
Then, having moved to Manchester, there were rumbles that he was pushing for an improved contract a year before he left for Turin, with Sir Alex Ferguson admitting that his agent—Mino Raiola—had become difficult.
That same agent criticised Conte when he punished Pogba for turning up late, and is known to be a thorn in the side of teams across Europe. He's also the agent behind modern football's greatest mercenary, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Of course, when you're as talented as Ibra, you can do what you like, but at just 19 it seems a little early in Pogba's career to be playing the prima donna.
Accusations of moving for money will continue to stick to the young Frenchman for some time, even if he himself is now making all the right noises about needing to improve and earning his place. He maintains that he moved to Turin because he wants to play regular football, and if that's the case, fine. But if, as some say, his move had more to do with doubling his wages, then sooner or later he'll cause problems for Juventus.
Right now Pogba seems happy playing and contributing to Juve's success. It remains to be seen how he'll react to being sidelined for any length of time by Conte, because as La Gazzetta dello Sport's GB Olivero put it—and Ferguson will attest to—with Pogba, "The problem isn't playing him. The problem is leaving him out."
The road to greatness is fraught with temptation and danger, and contrary to popular opinion, showing promise at a young age, being hyped as the next big thing and earning a place in a star-studded line-up is no guarantee of success. Need proof? Just ask young Michael Johnson.
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