MOSCOW — Halftime at the 1998 World Cup final, France is 2-0 up against Brazil. In the locker room, 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 millimeter!” 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 a button-it rebuttal to critics who argue that Deschamps is more of 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 football’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 football 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 quarterfinals 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.
Deschamps’ priorities were evident when he sat down for a long and intimate chat with a small group of reporters at the French Football Federation headquarters a few weeks before naming his squad in May. He talked more about team-building than tactics.
“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, Deschamps got the blend right. Labored 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 semi-finals.
Although ranging in age from 19-year-old Mbappe to veterans in their thirties 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.
There has not been a peep of complaint from players who have seen little or no action . The likes of defender Adil Rami, unused, and winger Florian Thauvin, who got a few late minutes against Argentina, have been models of good humor, dishing out encouragement. Bench players have celebrated goals as if they scored themselves. Regular starters have had nothing but good things to say about the contributions to morale and in training of uncomplaining teammates.
“We’ve got on so well that I could spend another month with them, because it’s gone so smoothly,” said center-back Samuel Umtiti, who has played every game bar one and scored the semifinal winner against Belgium. “We’re always laughing. There is always something to do.”
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 up front.
“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 or anything of interest that could make waves, draw headlines, risk provoking opponents or distract from the team mission.
He is plenty animated on the touchline when he needs to be, bawling instructions with still-audible traces of his sing-song southwest France accent and congratulating players with big hugs. But 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.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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