Through to their fourth World Cup final in seven editions, France have become accustomed to success on the international stage and central to it all has been Didier Deschamps, a born winner as a player and now an inspirational leader as a coach. As Les Bleus approach Sunday’s showdown with Argentina in Doha, it seems remarkable now that there were serious doubts about this French side coming into the World Cup.
They had disappointed at Euro 2020 and Deschamps was already dealing with an injury crisis before Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema withdrew from the squad on the eve of the tournament. Yet the circumstances have brought the best out of the France coach, who ripped up his tactical plans and pulled off a masterstroke in turning forward Antoine Griezmann into a midfielder. Griezmann’s own comments during the competition told a story.
“I owe him everything in my international career. I give everything for the shirt, for France, but also for him,” said the Atletico Madrid star who has arguably been the player of the tournament.
“Every game, every action is like me saying thank you to him. I want to do everything to make him proud of his number seven.”
Deschamps may be derided by some fans who feel his team should play more attractive football. But Griezmann’s comments revealed something else about Deschamps -– that his man-management skills are even more important than tactical nous.
That Deschamps is so highly respected and admired by his players is undoubtedly partly down to what he achieved in his own career. A midfielder once famously dismissed as a “water carrier” by Eric Cantona, he was 24 when he captained Marseille to victory in the 1993 Champions League final.
Later a Champions League winner with Juventus, he skippered France to victory at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 before retiring aged 32.
Les Bleus have not really looked back since those formative triumphs. Over a generation they have become international football’s pre-eminent power. Deschamps has been the driving force behind that, although following the end of his playing career there was a successful period in club management.
He took Monaco to the 2004 Champions League final aged 35 and led Marseille to a Ligue 1 title before replacing Laurent Blanc as France coach in 2012. Then France were struggling to rebuild after the disaster of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
A decade on, they are into their third final in the last four major tournaments and also won the UEFA Nations League last year. So how does he keep doing it?
“It is very difficult to win, especially a World Cup, and it is even harder to win it again,” he told AFP shortly before the tournament.
“You need quality and talent, but those things on their own are not enough. Without the mentality, the right mindset and determination, it is impossible to win at this level.”
Driven on by Deschamps, France are the first World Cup holders to return to the final since Brazil in 1998, as they look to become the first side in 60 years to retain the trophy.
It has certainly been different to 2018, with half of France’s line-up having changed, partly because of injuries to such key players as Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Lucas Hernandez. In 2018 Deschamps became just the third man to win the trophy as a coach having also done so as a player, following Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
Now he stands one game away from becoming the first coach to lift the World Cup twice in the postwar era.
“I am not the most important thing here,” he said after beating Morocco. “We have the chance to retain our title and that is already a great achievement. Let’s hope we can be even happier on Sunday.”