Famously once described as “un porteur d’eau” (a water carrier, per Goal.com) by former French international teammate Eric Cantona, Didier Deschamps is now coaching his country at this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil after lifting the trophy at the 1998 edition and the 2000 UEFA European Championship.
Solid and reliable, but often unspectacular, the 45-year-old was one of Les Bleus’ most trusted players and one of the most important members of those two tournament-winning sides. Now, after 11 years coaching at club level—including spells with AS Monaco, Juventus and Olympique de Marseille—he has been charged with the task of restoring France to greatness.
Although they have been anything but unspectacular in South America so far—thumping Switzerland 5-2 in Salvador as recently as Friday—the signs are that Deschamps is finally starting to stamp his mark on this French side.
Les Tricolores are a team modelled in their coach’s own image, and the benefits are starting to become apparent.
Following a 2-0 defeat in Ukraine in the first leg of their World Cup qualifying play-off, it appeared as if the challenge of coaching his country was becoming too much for Deschamps. However, as he did when he was a player, he responded well to adversity.
The 103-times capped former international changed his team in terms of both personnel and formation, crucially opting for players that he felt he could trust over those who were perhaps better—in terms of skill—but lacked the same attitude that Deschamps can identify with.
His reward for making a string of bold decisions was that his team became the first in World Cup qualifying history to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit. The 3-0 win at Stade de France secured their berth in Brazil.
Since that moment last November, Deschamps has not looked back, and neither have his players. The team is still riding the momentum built up by that rousing performance in the French capital. That defeat in Kiev—although the nadir of his tenure so far—has also proved to be the crucial moment.
It was at that point that Deschamps decided to make the most important decision since taking over as coach. That decision was to start picking the best squads and not necessarily the best players, with the World Cup and—more importantly—the 2016 European Championship in mind.
The most notable casualty of this change in policy has been Manchester City’s Samir Nasri.
Despite a superlative season with the English Premier League champions, the temperamental 26-year-old was left behind when Deschamps named his 23-man squad, per ESPN FC. Nasri did not even make the seven-man reserve list.
The former Arsenal and Marseille star was not alone; 67-times capped Eric Abidal and Nasri’s Manchester City teammate Gael Clichy were also left out, and while Monaco captain Abidal has announced his international retirement, the other two are now likely considered effectively retired by Deschamps.
As a player, the France tactician was fiercely committed and offset a number of technical drawbacks through his incomparable passion and devotion. His ability to give 100 per cent in every game and pride at representing his country made him a far more effective captain than his predecessor, Cantona, who later spoke ill of him in public.
What is so noticeable about this current squad now—without the likes of Nasri—is that the players selected by Deschamps to represent France at this summer’s World Cup more or less fit that same description.
There are notable exceptions, with the likes of Karim Benzema and Patrice Evra notoriously difficult characters to handle, but both have immense respect for the man that led France to its two greatest footballing triumphs. The rest of the squad are like Deschamps in the fact that they are 100 per cent committed and proud to represent their country.
All the players know what their coach represents. They have the utmost respect for what he has done for French football in the past, and they want to be a part of what he might do for it in the future.
What this optimism has created—and what we are seeing right now in Brazil—is a feel-good atmosphere within the French camp. There is a boundless sense of possibility.
Gone are the tensions created by the poisonous characters included in squads of the past. They have been replaced by players that Deschamps feels will give him absolutely everything, even if there are technically better players available for selection in their position.
Les Bleus’ coach has identified character as the most important part of this squad, and as a result of prioritising personality over playing ability, he has struck a happy balance between talent and temperament.
There is a place for loyalty in football after all; at least it appears so in Deschamps’ book.
You only have to look at the celebrations of every goal scored recently—not just at the World Cup, but also in the warm-up games and friendlies since the heroic Ukraine victory—to see that this is no ordinary France team. There is as much, if not more, unity in this group than there was in the class of 1998.
That is dangerous for any side that comes up against Les Tricolores between now and the end of their Brazilian sojourn.
Although it is still too early to compare the two sides, the signs are that something special is brewing at present and the current team have the potential to achieve something special. Whether they win the World Cup or not this summer, they will be among the favourites to take the Euro 2016 title on home soil in two years’ time.
None of this would have been possible, though, without Deschamps in charge.