Play­ers bought into nat­u­ral-born leader’s team-first men­tal­ity, writes John Le­ices­ter.

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MOSCOW Half­time at the 1998 World Cup fi­nal, France is up 2-0 against Brazil. In the lock­er­room, Zine­dine Zi­dane is flat on his back on the floor, legs raised on a bench, catch­ing his breath af­ter scor­ing both goals. Other play­ers are get­ting thigh mas­sages. But Di­dier Deschamps, the cap­tain and a re­lent­less bun­dle of en­ergy, is bend­ing Les Bleus’ ears, ex­hort­ing his team­mates to keep up the pres­sure in the sec­ond half.

“Guys, we are not go­ing to re­lax one mil­lime­tre!” Deschamps yelled. “We’ve done the hard part. But there’s still an­other 45 min­utes of mad­ness!”

Twenty years later, al­most to the day, Deschamps will again be bark­ing or­ders on Sunday at a World Cup fi­nal, but this time as France’s coach. Vic­tory against Croatia would be a crown­ing achieve­ment for the 49-year-old nat­u­ral-born leader who could join Brazil’s Mario Za­gallo and Ger­many’s Franz Beck­en­bauer as only the third per­son to win the World Cup as both player and coach.

De­liv­er­ing a sec­ond star for the deep blue jersey he wore 103 times as a player would also be an em­phatic re­but­tal to crit­ics who ar­gue that Deschamps is more a lucky coach than a skilled one. That school of thought posits that any half-de­cent tac­ti­cian could have done as well or bet­ter with France’s deep pool of tal­ent that in­cludes some of soc­cer’s most ex­pen­sive play­ers, head­lined by Paris Saint-Ger­main’s elec­tri­fy­ing teenager Kylian Mbappe.

Cer­tainly, any­thing short of a semi­fi­nal in Rus­sia would have been viewed as dis­ap­point­ing for France’s soc­cer pro­duc­tion line that fin­ished run­ner-up to Por­tu­gal two years ago at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship, and which lost to even­tual win­ner Ger­many in the World Cup quarter-fi­nals in 2014.

But as great French chefs know, it takes more than just tip-top in­gre­di­ents to make a win­ning recipe. Deschamps’ skill has been to get play­ers who are stars at Europe’s big­gest clubs to bury their egos and pull as a unit be­hind his guid­ing, al­most so­cial­ist, phi­los­o­phy that every­one is equal on the team or, as he puts it, the “col­lec­tive.”

He left be­hind hugely tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als — Real Madrid for­ward Karim Ben­zema, PSG mid­fielder Adrien Rabiot, to name two — in pick­ing 23 play­ers who have bonded re­mark­ably and seem­ingly un­selfishly dur­ing the seven weeks since they came to­gether as a World Cup squad at France’s Claire­fontaine train­ing camp and then flew to Rus­sia.

“The abil­ity to live to­gether, the so­cial side, is very im­por­tant,” he said. “You al­ways need to strike the right bal­ance. You don’t want too much in­di­vid­u­al­ism, too much qual­ity. The col­lec­tive spirit has to trump ev­ery­thing. You need to find a good blend of ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers, lead­ers who have been through things, and the young­sters. There aren’t only neg­a­tive sides in youth. They have that qual­ity of en­thu­si­asm. They’re a bit in­sou­ciant at times.”

Clearly, Des champs got the blend right.

Laboured vic­to­ries against Aus­tralia and Peru and a goal­less draw with Den­mark in the group stage were fol­lowed by an ex­u­ber­ant, con­fi­dence-build­ing 4-3 elim­i­na­tion of Ar­gentina that show­cased the speed and skills of Mbappe, who scored twice. Then came im­pres­sive de­fen­sive dis­plays against Uruguay (2-0) and Bel­gium (1-0) in the quarter-and semi­fi­nals.

Al­though rang­ing in age from 19-year-old Mbappe to veter­ans in their 30s like Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud, the team has vis­i­bly gelled, be­com­ing more than the sum of its parts with a shared mantra of self-sac­ri­fice that owes much to Deschamps.

On the pitch, the team-first men­tal­ity has seen mid­fielder Paul Pogba, in par­tic­u­lar, curb­ing his nat­u­ral flam­boy­ance and ex­celling in a more re­strained, deeper role. His de­fen­sive work has helped pro­tect France and al­lowed Mbappe greater free­dom to roam, run at de­fend­ers and do dam­age up­front.

“It’s a World Cup. I want to win it. You have to make sac­ri­fices,” Pogba said. “De­fend­ing is not my strong suit. But I do it with plea­sure.”

The sober, busi­ness-like ap­proach is a re­flec­tion of Deschamps’ char­ac­ter.

Grow­ing up in the Basque Coun­try of south­west France, his fa­ther, Pierre, worked as a painter and dec­o­ra­tor. His mother, Ginette, sold wool.

In­vari­ably po­lite and mea­sured, Deschamps is a mas­ter of what the French call “the wooden tongue,” the abil­ity to say lit­tle that could make waves, draw head­lines, risk pro­vok­ing op­po­nents or dis­tract from the team mis­sion.

He’s plenty an­i­mated on the touch­line when he needs to be, bawl­ing in­struc­tions with still-au­di­ble traces of his singsong south­west France ac­cent and con­grat­u­lat­ing play­ers with big hugs.

But the one thing he says he never talks to them about is his own ex­pe­ri­ences in 1998.

“It’s not their life. It’s my life, but it doesn’t speak much to them,” he said be­fore fly­ing to Rus­sia. “It’s a ques­tion of gen­er­a­tions.”

He wants them to write their own his­tory, rather than risk bor­ing them with his. Come Sunday, they could do just that, to­gether.


When Les Bleus meet Croatia in Sunday’s fi­nal in Moscow, France head coach Di­dier Deschamps will be look­ing to be­come only the third per­son to win the World Cup both as a player, in 1998, and coach.

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