Deschamps leads French renaissance
SAVADOR, Brazil -- Last Saturday, when Didier Deschamps took the microphone before France's first game against Honduras, the manager's chief grievance did not concern tactics but technology. The silver-haired 45-year-old announced that he'd spotted a drone, of all things, lingering over the French training camp in Ribeirao Preto. Deschamps did not know if the unmanned flying apparatus originated from Honduras (whom Les Bleus would trounce the next day 3-0) or Switzerland (whom they play Friday in Salvador) or Ecuador (Wednesday in Rio). Still, he tipped off FIFA, and an inquiry was launched. "We don't want any intrusion into our privacy," Deschamps said. "It's very hard to fight this these days."
The international media laughed about the incident, predictably, but you'll have to forgive the coach for feeling like he's constantly being watched. While a World Cup field can often take the shape of an enormous psychologist's waiting room, one could argue that no European coach arrived in Brazil with heavier baggage than Deschamps. Yes, France received one of the easiest draws to the knockout rounds in the tournament, at least on paper. But no other country is expected to bring an end to so dysfunctional a decade of world football -- the deepest humiliations of which were so brazenly self-imposed.
"Our No. 1 enemy," veteran French defender Patrice Evra said today, "is the France team itself."
And that's not simple wordplay. Just look at the horrors of the past eight years:
- At the 2006 World Cup final in Germany, the best player in French history, Zinedine Zidane, got himself thrown out in the 110th minute of a 1-1 tie for head-butting Marco Materazzi's solar plexus. France went on to lose the title to Italy on penalty kicks, 5 to 3.
- At Euro 2008, France scored one goal in three games, winning none. Upon being eliminated by Italy, again, manager Raymond Domenech went on live television and proposed to his girlfriend, broadcaster Estelle Denis, and it was as awkward as you are currently imagining it. Denis declined to say yes or no -- her own show followed that interview -- but, watching from home, her countrymen screamed answers on her behalf. ("There's a Raymond problem," retired French legend Michel Platini would say later. "People were in pain, sad, and he, he comes with his words.")
- In 2009, during World Cup qualifying against Ireland, an uneven French side backed into the tournament after a comically flagrant handball by captain Thierry Henry went uncalled in extra time -- directly leading to a game-winning cross. A few days later, Henry released a statement that read, in part: "I feel embarrassed at the way we won, and feel extremely sorry for the Irish who definitely deserve to be in South Africa." (FIFA and the French Football Federation denied requests for a replay of the game.)
- In South Africa, in 2010, France went on to distend said embarrassment by showcasing what The Guardian has dubbed "the most excruciating spirit imaginable" at "arguably any World Cup." Domenech -- who'd barely kept his job after '08 -- expelled Nicolas Anelka from the team, mid-tournament, after the striker told the manager to do unprintable things to himself, mid-argument, after a loss to Mexico. In response, the rest of the depth chart boycotted a training session in front of hundreds of fans. But that's not at all: Somehow, Domenech, in one of the oddest scenes in soccer history, wound up having to read a letter written by the mutinying players to the media. ("All the players without exception want to declare their opposition to the decision taken ...," the missive began.) At last, after everybody was expelled by South Africa, 2-1, the manager refused to shake the hand of his victorious counterpart, Carlos Alberto Parreira.
- At Euro 2012, France faced -- to the shock of absolutely nobody -- yet more embarrassment. After a 2-0 loss to Sweden, the dressing room of Les Bleus, who were now managed by Laurent Blanc, devolved into chaos. Coaches and players criticized, insulted and only narrowly avoided punching each other. "What I've seen has awoken some demons in me," midfielder Flourent Malouda admitted, as if things had not already gotten insane enough. "No one stands out as a leader on the pitch," added assistant manager Alain Boghossian. "Either the leader comes naturally, or if there isn't one then you do things another way." After France was finally, mercifully knocked out by Spain, 2-0, star midfielder Samir Nasri proceeded to tell a journalist, "F--- you, go f--- your mother, you son of a b----. F--- you."
So it was, when Blanc stepped down at the end of that month, that Deschamps was tasked -- in no uncertain terms -- with becoming the living embodiment of "another way."
Deschamps had managed at Monaco, and at Juventus, and at Marseille. But just as useful, maybe, is how the former midfielder represented his homeland during international tournaments of his own. In 2004, Pele deemed Deschamps one of the 125 greatest living footballers ever, not least because he was the vocal, pass-happy captain of Les Bleus when they won the Cup in 1998, in Paris, and when they won Euro 2000 -- a remarkable run. If you listen to his players talk now, they gush about just being around him, this legend, and talk about feeling, as Evra put it, "like a little kid again." In every way, Deschamps was hired to be a 5-foot-9 bridge to France's better days.
Of course, he also handpicked these nostalgic players himself. And the absences from his roster are both justifiable and conspicuous. To Brazil, Deschamps brought exactly four players from the depth chart that revolted in South Africa: Evra, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, right back Bakari Sagna and winger Mathieu Valbuena. Everyone else is new. The profane Nasri, despite helping Manchester City to a Premier League title this year, was not even included on the list of seven stand-by players when Deschamps announced the list last month. "I built the best squad," Deschamps explained. "I did not pick the 23 best French players." (Apparently for old times' sake, Nasri's girlfriend, singer Anara Atanes, used the F-word twice in a tweet, disparaging first France and then Deschamps, before opining "What a s--- manager.") "He doesn't do you any favors. He says, 'If you screw up, Pat, I won't miss it,'" Evra said. "He's a straightforward, humble guy."
No, Deschamps hasn't won anything more than a single game against Honduras so far. No, he doesn't have the services of midfielder Franck Ribery, his best player, thanks to a back injury. And no, it still isn't safe for him to pronounce that Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who went scoreless at Euro 2012, is officially in top form after a two-goal explosion against Los Catrachos in the opener. One determined manager cannot singlehandedly redact the past eight years from the planet's memory, not in the World Cup's first week.
But hell: he can try. In that aforementioned news conference, when he wasn't worrying about his squad's privacy, Deschamps did something else that was curious. In anticipation of nettlesome questions about his predecessors, he declined to wear the FIFA-issued headset that provides English-to-French translation. And when a British journalist naturally asked about France's embarrassing decade, and the divisions that blighted Les Bleus the last time they were on this stage, the most important part of his answer succeeded in being both oblique and, yes, straightforward.
"I didn't wear my headphones," Deschamps responded. "But I heard 'South Africa.' And you should not mention South Africa."
That's in the past, France's newest manager seemed to be saying. And this bridge, from now on, only goes one way.