Within moments of meeting each other for the first time in an off-the-grid photo studio on the outskirts of Turin, Paul Pogba and Hector Moreno are at ease and entertaining each other with the types of stories about their clubs and team mates that aren't fit for publishing. It didn't take them long to find common ground and why would it? This summer, both players will be fighting for their country in two of the biggest international tournaments in all of sport: Euro 2016 and Copa America.
Having spent the last two years of my life being ushered from one product launch to another, where faces of the beautiful game are thrust in front of the press as not-always-enthusiastic talking heads, I've made a habit of trying to build rapport with people that have only ever been familiar to me through FIFA Ultimate Team at short notice. It doesn't always work.
Today feels different. With shared experiences at the highest level of the game – Moreno just won the Eredivise with PSV Eindhoven and Pogba picked up Serie A with Juventus – both players are excited to talk about their exceptional past and the momentous challenges that await them in the instant future. At just 23-years-old, Pogba is the hottest property in world football and will be the face of France's charge towards glory at Euro 2016 – while Moreno is one of the catalysts for Mexican football's 21st century revival, which culminated in their victory at the CONCACAF Gold Cup last year.
Both men will carry the weight of their respective countries on their shoulders this summer. Speaking exclusively to COMPLEX, Paul Pogba and Hector Moreno talk Euro 2016, Copa America and how football has the power to change the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.
COMPLEX: What are your earliest memories of international football and what made you fall in love with your national team?
Hector Moreno: I was a young kid and I remember my whole family loved watching football. The first memory I have is the 1994 World Cup, which was in the USA right next to Mexico. It was a great memory because Mexico had a good tournament and they actually only got knocked out of the competition in a penalty shootout. I thought ‘I want this and I want to play’ but I was never sure I’d make it.
Paul Pogba: For me it was the World Cup in 98, of course. I was a young kid but I remember when we won, I was running outside in the streets with my friends and jumping everywhere. I was so happy and that pushed me harder to become a footballer.
Who were the players you looked up to growing up? Who were the national heroes?
PP: I would say Zidane, of course. He’s the guy, everyone was looking at him and he’s the hero of France.
HM: For me it’s Rafael Marquez, the former Barcelona player. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to play with him and he’s still actually part of the team. He’s in our roster for Copa America so I’m lucky. He’s my idol but now I’m sharing all these experiences with him and learning all the time.
France are obviously one of the favourites to be successful at Euro 2016 this summer. As an outsider who plays his club football in Europe, Hector, how do you assess France right now?
HM: They have a great team. It’s such a talented young squad with players like Paul. I can’t tell you their roster right now but I know Gignac is doing really well in Mexico. I know Benzema isn’t there but Koscielny is fantastic, Varane at Real Madrid, Dimitri Payet was a star in the Premier League…they’re one of the candidates to win and I hope they do well for him (gestures towards Paul).
Copa America doesn’t get as much shine as it should in Europe – perhaps time zones are responsible for that, it’s definitely harder to watch the games – but how much do you know about Mexico right now, Paul?
PP: I always remember seeing Mexico with technical players, they were so good. Right now there’s players like Chicharito, Dos Santos and there’s a player with long hair, I think he plays in Spain…
HM: You mean Guardado? He plays with me now, at PSV…
PP: Yeah! He’s very, very good. They’ve always had good players. I watched the Gold Cup last year and saw plenty of talent.
I always remember seeing Mexico play with plenty of heart at World Cup tournaments over the years. What’s the spirit like in Mexico’s national team?
HM: I think you’re right to say that as a team, we don’t always have the same quality as something like France or Argentina, but we’re workers. We work so hard. We want to change the mentality of Mexican football, before it was a case of ‘go there and enjoy’ – it’s not like that anymore. We want to go out and compete, to try to win and be part of the top teams.
On the other hand with France, there always seems to be issues off the field that makes it harder for players to play to their potential on it. How are things looking from inside the France camp ahead of Euro 2016, Paul?
PP: We have a very good group with very good players. We’re young too. All the young players now, they’re actually playing Champions League as well, so they’re getting more experience at the top level. Since two years ago at the World Cup, you’ll see that we’ve improved and grown up a lot. We have a great spirit right now, we’re like a family. We have experienced players like Evra and even Lloris has been there for a long time. Then someone like Varane is very young but he’s played so many games. The old and young players really get on.
"Football has something special. It helps the young people, football has the power to take troubled people out of dealing drugs or other bad things." – Paul Pogba
How important do you think football is to your respective countries?
PP: In France, football is the main sport. Everyone plays football. If you go to Paris, you will see every kid kicking a football along the streets. Football has something special. It helps the young people, football has the power to take troubled people out of dealing drugs or other bad things. If you grow up in a rough city, football really can keep you out of jail.
HM: In Mexico, it’s exactly the same. People follow footballers and treat them like idols, you become an example to them, you make them believe they can follow a dream and work hard to achieve something. People in Mexico are very passionate and there’s a lot of poverty, so people look to football for inspiration. It’s the people’s game. Everyone in the streets is kicking something, if you haven’t got a ball you’ll use a bottle – it means so much.
What would you say the main differences are between international and club football?
PP: For me, the national team, especially if you’re playing in a World Cup, is the highest level of football. It’s the pinnacle. We have all the best players in the world and they’ll give their best. Quite often, some countries will have problems and football is a tool that can bring an end to it, or make people forget about their troubles for 90 minutes. I think players try even harder for that reason and it’s more about emotion.
On that note, what was it like to play against England at Wembley just days after the Paris terror attacks last year?
PP: Seriously, it felt like the English people were with us that night. We felt everyone’s pain in France and so did England. The Paris attacks didn’t just affect France, they touched everyone in the world because these problems are everywhere. We were thinking about all those people but we have to fight this – we can’t just stop the way we live, we have to move forward and for us that meant playing football. We try to not think about the bad things happening, but we’ll never forget the people who died that day. Football can make people smile again.
Similarly, it must mean so much for you to play for Mexico, Hector, and represent your people in a similar way…
HM: It’s our pride, it’s what you dream of since being a child. My family is the proudest when they see me wear the national shirt. There’s a lot of bad things happening in Mexico – we do our best to make them smile in 90 minutes. We run hard, we run fast and it means a lot to our people that we try.
"The Paris attacks didn’t just affect France, they touched everyone in the world because these problems are everywhere...football can make people smile again." – Paul Pogba
The United States is hosting Copa America this year, what sort of atmosphere are you expecting? Teams from Central and South America have such passionate fans, but that’s not always the case north of the border…
HM: When Mexico is involved, it feels like we’re always at home. There’s so many Mexican people in LA, 10 million, I think. When we played the USA in Los Angeles last year, the stadium was full of 90 per cent Mexicans – it’s incredible. It will be just like playing in Mexico and that will make us work harder and it’ll be nice for us. We’re not the favourites to win – it’s Brazil and Argentina historically – but with the support of the people, we’ll have something extra.
It actually will be a home tournament for you this summer, Paul. Does having Euro 2016 in your country give you extra motivation?
PP: It helps a lot. When you have your family around, all your friends around, everyone will be wearing your home jersey…it’s a great feeling. You don’t want to make them sad, you want to win for them.
Who are you backing to win Euro 2016, Hector?
HM: I really do believe France and Germany are the favourites.
And Paul, who do you think will take home Copa America?
PP: Honestly, Mexico. They won the Gold Cup and the team was together, everyone was fighting. They’ll go very far.
If we continue to talk about football on a global stage, who is the best player on the planet in your eyes right now?
HM: I don’t like to compare but it’s down to Messi and Cristiano. It depends what you like to watch, but those two are the best and I still can’t choose between them.
PP: What can I say? I’ve been watching them for so many years and they’re still at the very top. I will say this year, you can see Suarez is coming closer. He’s the top scorer in La Liga but everyone still talks about Messi and Ronaldo, it’s incredible. Those two names are always in your head.
Very few people are privileged enough to understand what life in a professional footballer’s shoes is like. What’s your favourite part of the job?
HM: To make my family and my friends proud of what I achieve.
PP: I do it for my family, the people who are close to me and the poor people who don’t have anything. They see football and when they see us play – they don’t have anything – but seeing us play makes them forget about their problems. I’m very proud of that.
Finally, have you got any final words for one another ahead of your respective tournaments this summer?
HM: Advice to him? (Points to Paul with surprise) Shoot from the middle of the pitch, like on FIFA! You’re gonna score for sure. Just play your game and enjoy it.
PP: I would say just enjoy your game. It might be your last one, you never know with football, so you have to enjoy every minute. I hope you win Copa and I wish you the best.
HM: Same, I’ve put my money on you, man!
Hector Moreno will represent Mexico in Copa America, which begins on June 3rd. Paul Pogba will play for France at Euro 2016, which starts on June 10th.