ISTANBUL (AP) — France midfielder Paul Pogba is eager to cap his breakthrough season at senior level with the biggest title in junior football.
After helping Juventus win Serie A and making his debut in the national team under coach Didier Deschamps, captain Pogba will lead France's youth team against Uruguay in Saturday's Under-20 World Cup final.
After a modest start to the tournament for both Pogba and the team, they found their rhythm. France outscored its opponents 10-2 in the three knockout matches and could win the junior world title for the first time.
"We always dreamed to be in this final," Pogba said Friday. "Winning this cup would be an incredible thing for me. It's an experience for once in a lifetime." France, improving on its best result of fourth two years ago, can become only the second European winner in 22 years and the first since Spain in 1999.
"Our aim of course is to win but, first of all, we wanted to come to this point," Pogba said. "We are really proud to reach the final. Even coming to this stage is really good for us." Pogba came to Turkey after a strong season with Juventus. The midfielder, born in France to Guinean parents, had left Manchester United in the offseason after only a handful of appearances over three years.
Under coach Antonio Conte, Pogba scored five goals in 27 matches for Juventus, earning him his first call-up from Deschamps in March. Pogba played the 2014 World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Spain, but was sent off in the latter game after being booked twice within a few minutes. He also got a red card in Juventus' title-winning match against Palermo after spitting at opponent Salvatore Aronica in May.
Early at the U20 world championship, Dogba picked up a yellow card against both Ghana (3-1 win) and the United States (1-1 draw), sidelining himself for the final group game against Spain (2-1 loss). France coach Pierre Mankowski was reluctant to comment on his extrovert playmaker's temperament.
"Paul is very successful but I can't complain about any player," Mankowski said. "They all have their responsibilities and they all add differently to the success of this team. They all have represented France in the best possible way, not only on the pitch but also outside. Paul's importance for the team is obvious."
With Pogba as the driving force, France stepped up a gear in the knockout stage, easily seeing off host Turkey (4-1) and Uzbekistan (4-0) before edging Ghana 2-1 in the semifinals. "If I am successful, it is thanks to all the team members," Pogba said. "We are getting along very well, me and the teammates. It's no different before the final, we are having fun, we are laughing and we are very good as a group."
With Pogba controlling the midfield, France will rely on attacking trio Jean Christophe Bahebeck, Florian Thauvin and Arsenal newcomer Yaya Sanogo, who share nine goals between them. However, Mankowski will have to replace suspended defender Samuel Umtiti, who was sent off for a second booking against Ghana.
Uruguay's path to the final has been rougher. The South Americans edged Nigeria 2-1 on a Nicolas Lopez penalty in the closing minutes, went into extra time to beat Spain 1-0 and needed a penalty shootout after drawing 1-1 with Iraq in the semifinals.
Uruguay can become the third South American nation to win the title after Brazil and Argentina, who have shared 11 of the previous 18 youth world championships. "This is a dream for all the Uruguayan players," captain Gaston Silva said.
Despite beating 2011 champion Brazil in qualifying, Uruguay had not been regarded one of the favorites. According to coach Juan Verzeri, it's a blend of skill and character that has brought his team to its second U20 final, after losing 2-1 to Argentina in 1997.
"All the technical (skills) and also the character, the emotion, the passion, I think this is football," Verzeri said. "I think that this is some genetic thing we have. Since we were born, we play football everywhere, we learn to be very competitive since we are 6, 7, 8 years. For us the most important thing is to make Uruguay proud."