Bemoaned as a man who hides his emotions in that stoically inscrutable face with thick-set features, Didier Deschamps couldn’t hide his emotions, as he maniacally galloped towards his 11 valorous men on the field, before in the blueish blur, he sank into the ground. As the cameras craned and flickered unremittingly on his face, they soaked a few beads of tears dripping down his cheeks, which he quickly wiped with his fingers, and shook the embrace of his players to commiserate his Croatian counterpart, Zlatko Dalic.
It was an image that befitted someone so obsessed with his public persona, or that of his team. Some call his ideals pretentious, but Deschamps has conformed to the old French ideals of equanimity and dignity. Fewer still have strove to instill those virtues in his players, which they exuded throughout the tournament, or come out of relentless, scathing criticism from his own former teammates for his pragmatic vision of football with flying colours. In the end, he stands vindicated, on his steadfast refusal to bend his ways, on his unwavering philosophy of the game.
It might be that he has moulded the team in his own cast — cutting the frills and fanciful, forging steel and resolve — but it won France the World Cup. And there the argument ends, as the whole of France plunge into revelry. To think that he was a maligned man back home seems a mislaid misjudgment.
But he was. Around the same time last year, when France were grinding through their World Cup qualifiers, Eric Cantona implored Zinedine Zidane on a television show: “Zizou, Zizou, please return. Your country needs you.” He followed it up with a familiar tearing up of Deschamps: “France needs a visionary, not an accountant.” Like several of his compatriot ‘le voyeurs’, Cantona was critiquing Deschamps’s intrinsically pragmatic style.
It hardly perturbed Deschamps, familiar now with “King Cantona” recriminations. “King”, Deschamps always spits out with a tinge of who-cares-for-him scorn, “I have to thank him for most of my nicknames.”
Cantona had once infamously referred to him as a “water carrier” in his playing days, implying his industrious playing style, as opposed to the hedonistic flair and the hipster arrogance he exuded. Later, when Deschamps embraced coaching, Cantona again poured vitriol. “He’s a racist, bowing to a section of racist Frenchmen,” he alleged after Deschamps overlooked prolific Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema.
Not an easily provoked man, unlike the temperamental Cantona, Deschamps responded by suing Cantona, and re-emphasised his notions of morality. “I don’t pick the best 23 players in my squad, but I look to pick the best squad. By the best squad, I imply the players with the best attitude, ethics, skills and moral values,” he said. Benzema was then placed under criminal investigation over an attempt to blackmail teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex-tape.
Deschamps’ words might be misconstrued as preachy or puritanical, but he has always prioritised moral values over skills, that he wouldn’t tolerate misbehaviour. A few days after he took over the team, he ferried copies of his code of conduct to each player at their base in Clairefontaine.
In it, he stresses them to respect the jersey and the national anthem, to display an open and friendly attitude, to be genuine and humble. There’s also a section on how to handle the press, to remember that “your behaviour, attitude and words shape your image as it is replayed to the public by the media, which are an unavoidable and indispensable part of your journey.”
When he took over, France was not just struggling football-wise, but there was also a morality crisis. The squad, according to him, had become a “sin can”. One by one, he began, in his own words, “cleansing the national team”. He weeded out Hatem Ben Arfa, who then was touted as the most talented player in France, but was prone to hubris. Next was Samir Nasri for his expletive-ridden rant at a reporter after France’s defeat to Spain in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals. Jeremy Menez was ousted because of an on-field confrontation with teammate Hugo Lloris. Even Franck Ribery, the biggest name in French football since Thierry Henry, couldn’t escape his moral censuring because he was involved with an underage prostitute. More recently, he chucked out Dmitri Payet because he was showboating too often. His methods evoked sarcasm from Cantona: “Moral science teachers won’t win you the Cup.”
On more instances than one, Deschamps has voiced his disapproval of the overuse of social media. “They are all using social media in their spare time so they become more isolated and selfish,” he grumbled. “They share less, they talk less. They have apps, their phones and the internet, but they are less used to talking to people.”
He prohibited smart phones from dinner tables, practice sessions and board-room meetings. He knew they couldn’t be eliminated fully, but found ways to forge team bonding, and encouraged them to play cards. “Now I risked being called unrefined, but playing cards, as we used to in the past, bonded us really well and it made us more cerebral, because we are always thinking, plotting, trying to out-think the opponents,” Deschamps reasoned. He also made them read the autobiographies of Alex Ferguson and Phil Jackson.
Among other novelties, he introduced basketball and pin-balling into practice sessions, making it free for public viewership. “This was to enhance the connect between the players and the spectators. They shouldn’t feel like they are rooting for a bunch of superstars playing in fancy leagues abroad,” the coach said.
That’s perhaps the only time he lets players indulge in a bit of showboating, like keepie uppie or fancy dribbles. On the field, he sees those as something detestable to how he perceives the game. He clarified: “I’m not against players showcasing their full set of skills. But it’s always substance first. We can entertain the crowd but not at the expense of losing matches.”
Deschamps is hardly the type to curry favour with the general public. Should the France fans get prickly over his caution, despite possessing some of the most stylish footballers in the world, their voices too will be ignored. Once the victories started heaping, the perception began to change. And now it seems a shut debate. Even Zidane, ever an admirer of the ‘little big boss’, was mighty impressed. “For the first time this century, we have a manager.” It was hinted at former national coach Raymond Domenech, whose relationship with Zidane was so fractured that the back-room joke was Zidane could have head-butted him rather than Marco Materazzi in the 2006 final. Later, a group of players revolted for Domenech dropping Nicolas Anelka.
So Deschamps knew French players were traditionally headstrong, even narcissists (the first name on his lips will be Cantona), but he knew how to work around them. “To win the popularity of a dressing room is not easy, but what you can do is to stand firm by your convictions. Often I have seen that a disturbed player is a baggage. In that situation, it’s better to play a less-gifted but committed player. I don’t deal in sentiments,” he once said.
He can rattle out a few examples. In the 1998 World Cup, Les Bleus’s first-choice striker was Stephen Guivarch, who didn’t score a single goal in the tournament. Two decades later, his titular striker in Russia, Olivier Giroud, did not find the back of the net. Back home, his critics were fuming over Benzema’s exclusion.
But Deschamps is a man of unflinching convictions, and his convictions have gradually won over the players. So Antoine Griezmann is less reluctant to drop back — all except Kylian Mbappe are made to shoulder defensive responsibilities. Paul Pogba is less flashy, and often helps N’Golo Kante with “water-carrying duties”. Against a high-pressing side like Belgium, he deployed Blaise Matuidi in a withdrawn role too, which he performer willfully. The tactical obedience he draws from the players, he says, is “because I try to understand the man behind the player.”
When the players have shown reluctance to embrace fresh responsibilities, Deschamps has not hesitated in jettisoning old legs and blooding in fresh faces. True though that France are blessed with a flowing stream of young players, but it takes courage to trust them blindly. Like he threw an anonymous 20-year-old, Samuel Umtiti, into the deep end in the last World Cup. In the present squad, both fullbacks Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez have featured in a combined 22 international matches. The oldest defender is Raphael Varane.
Deschamps invites every new player for a one-on-one chat, wherein he tells them what he thinks of them, what he wants from them and warns them about what to expect in the future. “He has created a circle of trust that both empowers the group and provides him with more information to make better decisions. This is how he gains an edge,” explained Ben Lyttleton, who has dedicated an entire chapter in his book ‘What Business Can Learn from Football’ to Deschamps.
Towards the end of the chapter, Deschamps explains his biggest gift as a coach. “The key thing is knowing how to adapt,” he says. “Adapting to the group that you have at your disposal; adapting to the place where you’re working; adapting to the local environment. This is crucial: adaptability.”
In a sense, Cantona and Deschamps is study of alluring contrasts — an incredibly skilled forward, with a radiant aura but with a largely unfulfilled international career, a petulant coach thereafter, the other a moderately gifted combative midfielder who oversaw the three most beautiful moments in France’s football history. Or to quote France’s World Cup winning manager Aime Jacqeut, “the water carrier who fed us wine”.
The story of what Deschamps achieved, thus, is also the story of what Cantona didn’t.
And their interwoven, multi-layered narrative has not yet finished. Somewhere in the crammed aisles of the Charles de Gaulle, Cantona will be snarking to launch another verbal missile.