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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Didier Deschamps - divisive and dogmatic and closing in on a unique World Cup double with France

Deschamps lifted the World Cup as France captain in 1998 and 20 years on he is one game away from achieving the same feat as a manager

France manager Didier Deschamps has plenty to ponder ahead of the World Cup final. EPA
France manager Didier Deschamps has plenty to ponder ahead of the World Cup final. EPA

The distinctions between becoming a World Cup finalist as a player, and reaching the same stage as a manager are many, according to Didier Deschamps.

It is worth paying attention when he describes what they are, because there are not many who can speak with authority on those twin experiences.

Twenty years ago last Thursday, Deschamps accepted the World Cup trophy as captain of France, and lifted it into the air with a huge, slightly wonky and amiable grin on his face, a place in history cemented.

Two decades on, he is the manager of the favourites to take France to their second world title.

His hair is thinner now, and the smile less often glimpsed. “It is a very different experience,” Deschamps said.

“Yes, the pleasure is there, the adrenaline is there, but it’s all about the players. As coaches, we have a limited importance. We are here for the players.”

Deschamps has undoubtedly served those players ably in taking France to within 90 minutes of the greatest prize in sport, to within one match of his joining Mario Zagallo, of Brazil, and Franz Beckenbauer, the German, on the brief list of World Cup winners as player and coach.

But having crossed almost every hurdle, Deschamps still hears criticism of his style, suggestions he should be serving the players better, that, given the high standards and many different strengths of the young attacking talent he has at his disposal, Les Bleus still look banal.

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Of their six matches in Russia, France have won five, but just one of them by a margin of more than a single goal. They drew 0-0 with Denmark, when a draw was all they needed and conspired with the Danes to deliver probably the dullest match of a thrilling tournament.

From the opposition they have stymied most effectively came some searing words.

Belgium's Thibaut Courtois - “France are an anti-football team” - and Eden Hazard - “I’d prefer to lose playing like Belgium than win playing like France“ - spoke with the bitterness of losing semi-finalists last week, but those taking a longer view have also deemed Deschamps excessively conservative.

He will not mind that, although he can come across as more thin-skinned, at least when dealing with the media, than you might imagine after a lifetime bearing suggestions he is always the mundane element in his most successful teams.

Eric Cantona, an attacking maverick France felt they could do without in the later 1990s, referred to Deschamps, who buzzed around in Bleus midfields behind Cantona, as a “water-carrier” as a player.

Some have called him "lucky" that he entered this World Cup, his second as a manager, with a contract that extends to 2020, six years from when he took over the role from Laurent Blanc.

Didier Deschamps jokes with Presnel Kimpembe during France's Friday training session. Getty Images
Didier Deschamps jokes with Presnel Kimpembe during France's Friday training session. Getty Images

Deschamps, with a young France, only reached the last eight in Brazil four years ago; and two summers later seemed to squander a handsome opportunity, when, at the Stade de France, as hosts, Les Bleus lost the European Championship final to Portugal.

So what can Deschamps claim credit for? Actually, some very bold management decisions for a so-called conservative coach.

He effectively banished Karim Benzema, the most decorated French striker of his generation, after striker and coach had fallen out badly.

He stimulated parts of Paul Pogba, at least this month, that some club managers have struggled to find.

Pogba, diligent in defence, alert to the best use of his fine passing, has looked more consistently the complete midfielder his price-tag implies than he did for much of the last 10 months with Manchester United.

Deschamps has been functional yes, but the formula works. “I think the coach deserves a lot of credit,” says Hugo Lloris, the France captain.

“Certainly, we adapt a bit the way we play according to the opponent. And the players respect what the manager has said. We have the talent, the belief, the spirit to shape the way things have gone.”

And this is distinctively Deschamps’ France now. It was he who gave Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and N’Golo Kante their international debuts, and he who has aligned a sturdy defence in spite of setbacks in the lead-up to the competition, notably injuries to Laurent Koscielny and Benjamin Mendy.

He has kept faith in Olivier Giroud, the centre-forward who will never move with Benzema's feline grace and has no goals so far in this World Cup, but provides a certain muscular balance in a forward line containing the teenage zest of Kylian Mbappe and the quick feet of Griezmann.

Deschamps, or "DD" to his public, may never be quite as A-list as some want from a national hero. But his dogmas have been France’s strength.

“I’m not too bothered about image,” he says. “There are better coaches than me out there, I’m sure, but there are some not as good, too.”