In his quest to conquer the World Cup, head coach of the French national soccer team
has stuck to a strategy rooted in rigor, hustle and unselfish play.
That, according to many of his countrymen, isn’t very French.
Fans across France are ecstatic as Les Bleus prepare to face off with Croatia on Sunday in the World Cup final. That euphoria is tinged with Gallic dissatisfaction over how Les Bleus are getting the job done.
In sports as in life, France is a nation that traditionally awards points for style, win or lose.
It was the panache of cyclist Raymond Poulidor that won French hearts—along with several second-place finishes in the Tour de France in the 1960s—but never a yellow jersey. Few stand taller in France’s pantheon of flawed geniuses than Zinedine Zidane, a lion of French soccer, remembered for the stunning head butt he delivered to the chest of an Italian defender in the 2006 World Cup final that drew a red card, which ejected him from the game, and heralded his team’s defeat. (To be fair, he had already by that time won a World Cup and European Championship with the national side.)
Under Mr. Deschamps, the French version of the beautiful game—epitomized by flashy playmakers who practice the art of “champagne football”—has been replaced by a workmanlike approach, closer in taste to warm beer. A typical Deschamps victory is a low-scoring affair, where players clamp down on defense and keep attacking risks to a minimum.
A day after France beat Belgium 1-0 to qualify for the World Cup final, one of France’s leading anchors Olivier Truchot announced the results of an online poll asking the question: “Have we been too tough” on Mr. Deschamps? Eighty percent, he said, answered “non.”
Daniel Riolo, a prominent soccer commentator who joined the broadcast, chimed in: “If we become world champions, we’ll be the ugliest world champions in history.”
Such onslaughts have put the soft-spoken, snowy-haired Mr. Deschamps in the unusual position of having to defend his victories. “Realism and efficiency are what the top level is about,” he said after France’s quarterfinal victory over Uruguay.
Defenders of Mr. Deschamps say his no-frills pragmatism is evidence France itself is transforming.
As of late, the nation that invented the 35-hour workweek has been rolling up its sleeves. President
a former investment banker, has been on a mission to transform France’s cosseted workforce into an army of go-getters by stripping away traditional job protections; economic growth is up; entrepreneurialism is in vogue.
“Like Emmanuel Macron, Didier Deschamps is a lover of pragmatism and of the need for results at any cost,” said an editorial in French business weekly Challenges.
When Mr. Macron visited the team’s training ground in the run-up to the tournament, he was asked whether reaching the quarterfinals would be considered a successful run for Les Bleus.
“My definition of a successful tournament is winning it,” Mr. Macron responded.
It is with that single-minded pursuit of victory that Mr. Deschamps went about picking his World Cup team. The 49-year-old coach left some of France’s most celebrated players on the sidelines. Instead he calculated which role players would fit best together on the field.
Eric Cantona, who played for Les Bleus in the 1990s before becoming a movie star, scolded Mr. Deschamps’s choices as the work of a “penny-pinching accountant.”
Even then, France fielded some of the most talented and explosive players in the tournament, including Kylian Mbappé and Paul Pogba. But Mr. Deschamps has urged a more conservative approach that puts preventing goals top of the list.
“Deschamps has a Ferrari in his hands and never breaks the speed limit!” said Icham, a nurse from Val-d’Oise who called into French radio to bemoan Les Bleus after they beat Belgium.
The strategy is an echo of Mr. Deschamps days on the field. During France’s last World Cup win, in 1998, Mr. Deschamps was the team’s captain, playing alongside a younger, more graceful Mr. Zidane.
As a defensive midfielder, Mr. Deschamps was tasked with winning the ball back from opposing teams and making sure it wound up at the feet of his electrifying teammate who scored two goals in the final against Brazil.
Days later the words “Zidane for President” were projected on the Arc de Triomphe. Mr. Deschamps was known by a different title: “water carrier.”
Mr. Deschamps embraced the nickname bestowed on him by Mr. Cantona.
“In a team, you need architects and you need bricklayers,” he said in a 2016 interview with the Journal, reaching for yet another analogy. “I was a bricklayer.”
Two decades later, Mr. Deschamps again found himself in the shadow of his former teammate. Mr. Zidane announced in early June he was quitting as coach of Real Madrid, creating a groundswell of speculation over whether he was waiting in the wings to coach Les Bleus.
Mr. Deschamps is under contract to coach Les Bleus through 2020, but that didn’t stop pollster Odoxa from asking 1,002 people if they thought Mr. Zidane should replace him. Seventy-two percent answered “oui.”
Mr. Deschamps responded to the frenzy with characteristic self-effacement: “One day he’ll be head coach. When? I can’t tell you, but it seems logical to me. It will happen when it happens.”
Asked in June whether he wanted the job, Mr. Zidane replied: “Yes, but we shouldn’t talk about this today.”
Mr. Deschamps’ style is the most effective France has had in years. Until his arrival in 2012, the team swung between extremes: the four World Cups from 1998 to 2010 saw Les Bleus reach the final twice and suffer the embarrassment of first-round elimination just as often.
“He is a competitor, deep in his soul,” said France’s World Cup goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris. “We are prepared to follow him.”
Now that he’s running the show, Mr. Deschamps has molded the team into a reliable unit by defying orthodoxy. He has a central striker who doesn’t score in Olivier Giroud, and a creative midfielder who defends in Mr. Pogba. France’s spot in the final was guaranteed not by a flash of brilliance from one of its improvising midfielders, but by a corner kick—soccer’s grim efficiency at its finest.
After the victory, Mr. Deschamps was again on the defensive with reporters, saying: “We had to be pragmatic.”
—Nick Kostov contributed to this article.
Write to Stacy Meichtry at email@example.com