Deschamps on the verge of football immortality
Before his team played Georgia in a World Cup qualifier in 2013, and with his line-up disclosed in the newspapers, Didier Deschamps fired a shot at the French reporters covering the national team. "You want to know all our secrets," he said, "but I also know some of yours."
If there were a few people shifting uncomfortably in their chairs that day then it was because Deschamps is known to have an extraordinary network of information around him, a manager who is confrontational when he wants to be and uses that information to his advantage.
He understands the dynamics of the French media, its rivalries and its tensions, as well as he analyses an opponent, and he can be just as strategic in his alliances and his feuds.
The 49-year-old is on the brink of a rare kind of football immortality tomorrow (Sunday) when he could become just the third man to win the World Cup as a player and a manager. Before him go Mario Zagallo, the Brazilian who won it as a player in 1958 and 1962 then as a manager in 1970.
He was manager again in 1998 when the final was lost to Deschamps's France. Also Franz Beckenbauer who, some might say, completed a treble: the captain of West Germany's team in 1974, their winning manager in 1990 and then a key figure in the campaign to host the tournament in a unified Germany in 2006.
Beckenbauer was the coach at Marseille the season after his 1990 triumph, when a young Deschamps won his first league title as a midfielder in that team.
Deschamps was famously dismissed by Eric Cantona as "the water carrier" and while Cantona's pronouncements are forever ascribed a profundity by the English public because of his Manchester United career, in France he is regarded as an eccentric uncle who went missing years ago.
Instead Deschamps is the hero, venerated as a selfless player and shrewd coach who has resurrected his country's fortunes after the debacle of the 2010 World Cup finals and the quarter-final exit at Euro 2012. This is his third tournament in charge and he has plotted a steady improvement from the quarter-finals in Brazil 2014, to the final in Paris two years ago and now, as the heavy favourites against Croatia in the final. The big names have all fallen at Russia 2018, the last of them, Belgium, eliminated by France, who can claim to be the pre-eminent football nation of the last 20 years if they win at the Luzhniki.
Not bad for a country that still can feel indifferent about football, and whose fans have been thin on the ground in Russia. France has produced another generation to compare with Deschamps's team of 1998, so much so that he has left some big names behind. He felt that the attitude of Anthony Martial and Dimitri Payet did not suit his group and he has long since frozen out Karim Benzema over the latter's allegations of racism.
He indulged Antoine Griezmann while the striker did some grandstanding pre-tournament over his club future. He has backed Olivier Giroud over his six games without a goal. He has stuck to his guns about the team's essentially conservative style, preferring to counter-attack despite their wealth of attacking talent.
When some applauded him in his post-match press conference after the win over Argentina – although one could not be sure they were the French press – he shot back "you are applauding me now but you have been questioning me for weeks".
His style will be fine just as long as it delivers the World Cup tomorrow. It did not in Paris at Euro 2016, when his side were cautious against a mediocre Portugal and ended up losing the final in extra time. He has lost finals before, the 2004 Champions League with Monaco against Jose Mourinho's Porto and as a player with Valencia in the same competition. But generally his playing career was glittering: two Champions League titles at Marseille and then later Juventus; the World Cup and Euro 2000 with France, five league titles in two countries and even an FA Cup with Chelsea during a year in England.
He is Basque, from Bayonne in south-west France. He married his wife, Claude, when he was a young professional, and they have a son. His strongest professional relationship is with his assistant, Guy Stephan, a former player and manager himself. The pair of them have a contract with the French football federation until 2020 and it is not thought that either party will change their mind regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's final.
Deschamps could be about to reach a level no French player or coach has ascended to. There have been greater players in France's history – Raymond Kopa, Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane – but each have belonged to their era. Deschamps's second World Cup would mean that he transcends that 1998 team and is venerated by a new generation of French fans.
His mentor is Aime Jacquet, the 1998 coach, now 76. Jacquet is a sounding board for his former captain but a victory over Croatia would take Deschamps above even his old boss as the man who has done it all for Les Bleus.
The Telegraph, London
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