DOHA, Qatar — At 27, Adrien Rabiot is playing the first World Cup of his career and it started with a bang with his performance in France’s 4-1 win over Australia on Tuesday. With a goal and an assist, the Juventus midfielder played a big part, cementing his place in this team and showing that they can navigate the slew of notable injury absences — Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante in midfield, to name just two – – and stay on track.
When ESPN caught up with him in Qatar, he wanted to talk World Cup, Juventus and his future beyond next season, but also to show a bit more of the man behind the footballer.
ESPN: What does it mean for you to play in a World Cup?
Rabiot: It is a child’s dream. It is the competition. It is representing France, my country, at the highest level. It is the most incredible tournament that we all, as players, want to play one day in our lives. Obviously, there is excitement and desire for us to do well. It is a level above everything else, above the Champions League, the Euros, the leagues.
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It is extraordinary to be here.
What is your first memory of the World Cup?
For me, it was 2006. I was 11 years old. The 2002 tournament was too early for me, really, but in 2006. I followed the tournament and France who went to the final. It was the return of Zinedine Zidane. I remember that there was quite a lot of enthusiasm for it and expectations because of him too.
Growing up with my friends at the playground, we’d dream of playing in a France vs. Brazil World Cup final and winning, just like in 1998. This is the dream for every kid.
Do you feel more pressure because it’s a World Cup?
To be fair, I usually don’t feel the pressure. I see it as something positive so I can give even more. I feel more excitement than pressure.
Before the tournament, there has been a lot of talk around the midfield with the absences of Pogba and Kante. You showed against Australia how good you and Aurelien Tchouameni could be …
I don’t listen or read what is being said. Our midfield is young and less experienced than in previous competitions, that’s a fact. But it can be a positive force. Time and results will tell.
We also need to look at the quality of the players here, and our commitment. For us, even if there is less experience of these situations, there is still such a strong desire to do well.
Do you feel like a leader in this team?
It is important to have players you can rely on, players you can “rest” on. To know that some have more experience, more Champions League games, matters too.
I like to be there for my teammates. I like to be advising, talking and listening. Helping my teammates to perform and be in the right conditions, physically and mentally, for what we face on the pitch is something I like doing.
What is the target for France and for yourself here at this World Cup?
When I play a tournament, my goal is to win it. I want to win this World Cup. I don’t know if I will ever play a World Cup again, so we have to go for it and bring the trophy back home. We have to give everything, without thinking about anything else. It is now. Otherwise, there is no point being here.
We have to be serene and be confident in our abilities, but not take anything for granted, like we did against Australia.
If I tell you that football is your job but not your world, do you agree?
I do, especially with everything that is going on around the game nowadays. This is not my world. I don’t like it, and I don’t want to be part of it. It is really how I see it and feel it. All I want is to play football.
How do you deal with your celebrity status as a professional footballer?
I protect myself. I am very family-oriented, and I have a tight group of friends. I keep myself to myself, and it feels good like that. I try to protect my private life too as it’s only my business, not anybody else’s.
I think this side comes from my education. My brothers are like that, my mum too. And it suits me well.
Do you understand everything going on around the game right now?
I understand it, but I think it’s excessive. There are things [in soccer] now that we don’t control and that goes above what is happening on the pitch. Everything gets mixed up, and I think that being detached from all of that enables me to focus on the main thing, which is the pitch. I try not to get distracted so I can perform on the pitch.
Family is everything for you…
We have always been very united and I’m very close with my two brothers, my mother and even my father before that. When I left for England in 2008 to join Manchester City at 13, we all went. There was no way they would have let me go there on my own. We have always lived like that, that’s my strength. I can always rely on my family, my brothers, my mum. She has protected me a lot from everything around the game.
To go through what we have, especially the tough moments [Rabiot’s father suffered a stroke in 2007 and could only communicate with his eyelids], all together, helping each other and looking out for each other, has been very important for me. Together, we can beat anything. We can go through every obstacle in life, but also in football.
You have been the best player for Juventus this season, especially over the last two months. How do you explain it?
I think my great form comes from a mix of everything: the way I work at the club, the responsibilities I have now, the desire to help the club and to be in top form for this World Cup. All of that has helped me to feel this good. I wanted to arrive in Qatar in top form, which is the case. Right now, I feel good, I feel liberated. I express myself through my football.
In the summer, Manchester United wanted to recruit you. Do you regret not going?
Ah! In the end, once it was clear I wouldn’t go to United, I focused straight back on Juventus to give everything I had. I didn’t want people to doubt my commitment or to think that because I could have left for United, I wouldn’t care anymore.
I am out of contract in June, and I don’t want people to think that I am not committed or invested at Juve this season.
You are indeed out of contract in June. Do you fancy a return to England?
I feel attracted by football, by the Premier League itself and its super competitive nature. I loved my time there, even if I was young. I liked the culture and the life; my family liked it too.
I am not indifferent to playing in England, but there will be many options to consider. I have not spoken with Juve about the future, for example as our start to the season was tough, plus the World Cup was coming and I wanted to focus on it. After the World Cup, I will start thinking about my future more concretely.