By Mark Gleeson
ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) – A firm hand on the tiller for France comes not only from captaining a World Cup-winning team 20 years ago, but also from some harsh lessons in Didier Deschamps’ six years as coach.
Unfairly derided as a “water carrier” in his playing days in the French midfield, Deschamps has proven both innovative and brave as coach, and is now one victory away from joining an elite club.
Only Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer have won the World Cup as both a player and a coach. Deschamps will join them if his team win Sunday’s final against Croatia in Moscow.
His six years in charge have provided not only a French record 52 wins in 82 matches but also see him deal with the bitter disappointment of defeat at home in Paris to Portugal in the 2016 European Championship final plus the storm over Karim Benzema’s suspension.
Deschamps was accused of racism and had graffiti to that effect scrawled on the wall of his house after Benzema was kicked out of the team over a sex tape scandal, but making bold decisions has been a hallmark of his tenure.
Paul Pogba was dropped during the last World Cup in Brazil, Samuel Umtiti brought in during EURO-2016, and in Russia two inexperienced fullbacks were chosen from the start of the tournament.
The fact that only nine players have survived from the EURO-2016 squad shows a steely streak, with Deschamps not hesitating to offer a chance to players with potential. Kylian Mbappe would seem obvious, but Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard on the flanks now looks inspired.
For Deschamps, who turns 50 in October, much is about a family atmosphere. Mobile phones are banned when the players eat together, and efforts to build team spirit are a top priority. A PlayStation world cup, complete with group phases and subsequent knockout rounds, is among the activities to take the players’ minds off the football while keeping the competitive juices flowing.
Tactics and formations have changed too, but always predicated on a solid defense.
“He deserves all the credit,” said captain Hugo Lloris after the semi-final success over Belgium.
“He is the one who develops the game plans. This victory is his. We applied to the letter what he asked us to do.”
“We need a coach who gives us his confidence, who knows how to approach the games,” added Antoine Griezmann.
“Since the beginning of the competition he has got it right, and I hope it will be the same for the final,” he said.
Win or lose on Sunday, Deschamps will be staying in the job, French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet said this week, pointing out that his contract still has two years to run.
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