TThis has already been a World Cup of records for France, who will be chasing a third title in less than a quarter of a century on Sunday. The captain, Hugo Lloris, celebrates his 145th cap against Argentina, three more than the previous record holder, Lilian Thuram. Olivier Giroud equaled and then surpassed the 52 goals for which Thierry Henry had scored Les Blues. Antoine Griezmann, one of the highlights of this tournament, has now played no less than 72 games in a row for France.
Then there’s Didier Deschamps, who will be attempting to win the World Cup for a third time to level with Pelé, the only other person to have achieved that; Deschamps, one of only three men, the others being Brazilian Mário Zagallo and German Franz Beckenbauer, to become world champions as a manager and player; Deschamps who, if France wins on Sunday, will have a legitimate claim to be considered the most decorated man in the history of the game; Deschamps, who only joined a football club at the age of 11, has certainly made up for lost time since then.
He had only just left his native Basque Country when he became a pensioner at La Jonelière, the sports center where Nantes housed its young players. He was then 14,400 miles from home. He felt lonely and scared, as the boys he was staying with, most of whom were much older than him, made no secret of their distaste for the wonder boy over whom a number of high-profile clubs had fought before the teenager’s family chose the club. Breton club.
For the first but certainly not the last time in his life, Deschamps had to fend off the bullies to impose himself; and if he succeeded, it was not only due to his willpower, but also thanks to a man 30 years his senior, Jean-Claude Suaudeau (“Coco” to all), a key player of José Arribas’ great Nantes- 1960s squad. who had just taken over the club’s senior team.
The age difference doesn’t seem to matter either. The older man was struck by his protege’s insatiable eagerness to learn, as well as his intelligence and natural air of authority, leading him to captain one of France’s top teams at the age of 19, at a time when many of Lesson canary were full internationals. The youngster, who looked out the window of a dormitory to see when Coco walked his dog, then quickly joined him, loved being taught by one of French football’s most eloquent teachers, the quasi-mystic who refined and perfected the jeu a la nantaisewhich, to quote its founding father Arribas, “was not a system, but a state of mind in which each player must trust his teammates and try to blend his own self into a whole”.
On the playing field, this translated – especially when Suaudeau became head coach of the team – into a style of play that bordered on the poetic. Suaudeau’s Nantes were delightful to behold, a living organism moving as one unit, as if passing through liquid air; and Deschamps, hard as it is now to fathom, was part of this work of art.
Yet Deschamps, product of the eco nantaise that he is, the spiritual son of Suaudeau that he could have been, would become one of football’s arch-pragmatists, comfortable with the idea that he would often have to deny his impulses and qualities in order to succeed. The midfielder Eric Cantona derided as a “water carrier” had started out as a prolific striker and, according to Suaudeau, could have played in any position on the pitch. But he found he could assert his authority in the game from midfield; so a midfielder that he turned himself into. Deschamps is the coach who, in his first managerial role, made Monaco one of Europe’s most attractive attacking sides, taking them to a Champions League final in 2004, only to be sacked just over a year later after his side lost three of the best players, Ludovic Giuly, Fernando Morientes and Jérôme Rothen, failed to qualify for the same competition. Lesson learned. “A manager only exists through his results,” he said.
This would have been anathema to Suaudeau, and perhaps even to the young Deschamps; but young Deschamps would not stay with his mentor long enough for Coco’s teachings to be turned into articles of faith. He was sold, like all the better ones nantais graduates was sold – Karembeu and Desailly and Makélélé – and ended up in Marseille. There his relationship with the owner, Bernard Tapie, was so unmanageable, contrary to what Cantona later suggested, that Deschamps – like Cantona – was loaned to Bordeaux and again had to fight frantically to regain his place at Marseille when Tapie was determined to get rid of him.
Deschamps won and became European champion in 1993. When he moved to Juventus a year later, a serious Achilles tendon injury forced him to sit out six months of his first season there and again he had to fight; and again he won, to the extent that his manager, Marcello Lippi, trusted him more than anyone else, including Antonio Conte, as his messenger on the pitch. While for Suaudeau, who describes herself as an educator, winning is “powerful but ephemeral”, for Deschamps, the born competitor, “pleasure can only exist in success”. Of course, the most revealing word here has to be “alone”.
The two men met again in 2012 at the invitation of France Football magazine, just as Deschamps was about to succeed Laurent Blanc as head of the French national team. In the presence of a man he still revered, The the lowered his guard as he seldom did then and never does now. “I know that progress also comes through failures,” he told his mentor, “but today football at a high level [‘le football de haut niveau’, an expression which pops up in all of his press conferences] is about winning. When I stopped playing, I asked myself, ‘Do I want to be a coach? And especially what kind of coach? Pass on what I know to the young people?’ After all I had been through, I couldn’t be satisfied with that. Impossible. I wouldn’t have been true to myself.” To which Suaudeau replied: “I never saw you as an educator. That’s because you’re not convincing enough. You are a fantastic winner, but not a convincing one.”
Still, Suaudeau’s lesson isn’t entirely lost on Deschamps, judging by the way he’s managed to steer an injured team to a second successive World Cup final before and during the tournament, with something that could almost go on in front of leave compared to France’s fun-free approach of previous tournaments.
He looks much more relaxed. He has been seen smiling. France has played with more freedom and imagination than in a real competition.
Deschamps has not clipped Kylian Mbappé’s wings to compensate for Théo Hernandez’s obvious defensive weaknesses. Griezmann shone in a versatile role that seems to be designed by his manager. In response to his player, who had said that “every game, every move is like a thank you that I send [the manager]Deschamps remarked, “I don’t have to love my players,” sounding like a gruff drill sergeant who has just received a nice Christmas present from his squads and can’t quite hide how happy he is by it all. “I’m not going to talk about loving my players… I don’t need to love them, I need to know them. A relationship of trust has grown with Antoine, as with other players who have played here for a long time.”
And what was it that Arribas said the foundation of the jeu a la nantaise used to be? “Not a system, but a state of mind where each player has to trust his teammates and try to fuse himself into a whole.” Perhaps the lesson has been learned after all.