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Didier Deschamps, the ‘water-carrier’ who reigns over the French national team

·7-min read

France start their Euro 2021 campaign on June 15 with a tricky clash against Germany as they seek to build on their 2018 World Cup triumph. It augurs well for Les Bleus’ fans that their longstanding manager Didier Deschamps not only guided France to that famous victory, but also lifted both the World Cup and Euro trophies as captain. FRANCE 24 takes a look back at Deschamps’ glittering career.

Deschamps burst onto the scene as the defensive midfield fulcrum of the renowned Marseille team that became the first – and so far only – French club to win the Champions League in 1993. At just 24, he became the youngest ever captain to guide his team to club football’s top prize.

Deschamps raked in trophies after transferring to Juventus in 1994 – winning the Champions League again in 1996, as well as three Serie A titles, two Italian Supercups and a Coppa Italia, before his club career fizzled out with a lacklustre 1999-2000 spell at Chelsea and a similarly diminished final season at Valencia.

It was Deschamps’ international playing career that earned him the place in the footballing pantheon – despite an inauspicious start as Les Bleus passed through a slough of despond, failing to qualify for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups while crashing out of Euro 92 in the first round.

It looked like Les Bleus would turbocharge themselves out of the doldrums at Euro 96, by centring the team around captain Eric Cantona, the most gifted striker of his generation. Then Cantona’s erratic temperament blew up in 1995 when he kung-fu kicked an opposition fan in the stands in response to an insult. The French talisman was suspended for a year.

This was Deschamps’ moment. Cantona had dismissed his defensive midfield skills as those of a mere “water-carrier”, tackling and intercepting to pass to strikers. But it was to Deschamps that France’s then manager Aimé Jacquet turned when he sought to remould the side in Cantona’s absence. The focus shifted to younger talents like Zinédine Zidane – and Jacquet picked Deschamps as the captain to guide them. Les Bleus surged to the Euro 96 semi-finals – their best tournament performance in a decade.

France ’98 and Euro 2000 glory

Then came Deschamps’ greatest moment of glory, the 1998 World Cup. Tournament hosts France tore through the group stage and knockout rounds before thumping the Brazilian favourites 3-0 in the final. Zidane was the star throughout, spearheading the midfield diamond. Deschamps was the linchpin that held the team together, blocking opposition manoeuvres and driving the French attack forward with penetrating passes.

Deschamps played the same role – as the midfield fulcrum who powered France’s play and the captain who powered their morale – in Les Bleus’ victorious Euro 2000 campaign. By this point he had mastered the art of creating attacking momentum from deep in the pitch with impeccably timed and placed passes.

France faced a major group stage setback, losing to the formidable Dutch. But Deschamps played a major role in rallying this young French side – featuring fresh talents including Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord in their first international tournament – allowing them to overcome Portugal in the semis and Italy in the final.

Deschamps retired from the international game after this triumph made him the second footballing captain in history to have won the Champions League, the World Cup and the Euros after Franz Beckenbauer.

Club management successes

Unlike some players who go into management at the top – including his former teammate Zidane at Real Madrid – Deschamps started off making second-rate clubs punch above their weight. He took charge of Monaco, at that point a Ligue 1 also-ran, in 2001. Under Deschamps they won the French League Cup in 2003, before a remarkable run to the Champions League final in 2004 – in which they beat Real Madrid and Chelsea before Jose Mourinho’s Porto took the trophy in the final. Deschamps was honoured as Ligue 1 Manager of the Year 2004.

The former “water-carrier” played a similar role with Juventus in 2006-07. A match-fixing scandal had briefly impoverished the Torinese titans and demoted them to Italian football’s second tier. Deschamps guided them to Serie B victory before leaving amid a fallout with the club’s management.

Deschamps returned to France in 2009, taking the helm at his former team Marseille. OM, as they are known, had become a far cry from the world-beating team of the early ’90s. But Deschamps won them their first Ligue 1 title in eighteen years in 2010 – before taking them to their first Champions League quarter-finals since their famous 1993 victory in 2012. The same year, OM won their third consecutive French League Cup. However, their Ligue 1 performance had faltered as they finished 10th, and Deschamps stepped down.

World Cup glory – again

Deschamps was out of contract at the right time. Laurent Blanc resigned as Les Bleus manager after Euro 2012. The 2010 World Cup debacle still cast a shadow over French football – and Deschamps dispelled it by moving Les Bleus on to another generation, centring the squad around players like Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba. France reached the quarter-finals, stopped only by the eventual champions Germany.

Euro 2016 took France closer to their former glories. On home soil, Les Bleus romped through the group stage and knockout rounds – including impeccably performed revenge over Germany in the semi-finals, with a Griezmann brace. But Deschamps’ France lacked that killer instinct on the big occasion, losing 1-0 to Portugal in extra time, in a nervy final akin to Bayern Munich’s 2020 Champions League win over PSG.

Two years later, in the 2018 World Cup, it initially seemed that this lack of killer instinct had set in earlier. Slow and cautious in the group stages, France eked out thin victories over minnows Australia and Peru before settling for a goalless draw against Denmark.

But once France entered the group stages, Deschamps’ tactics suddenly became the special sauce needed to make the French attack work. In particular, his controversial choice to put two defensive midfielders – N’Golo Kanté and Blaise Matuidi – either side of the box-to-box midfielder Paul Pogba in a three-man midfield made for some stodgy play in the group stage.

Then in the knockout rounds, the presence of these two anchormen liberated Pogba to become the transformative midfield maestro he had never quite become for Manchester United. Even more so, Kanté’s and Matuidi’s defensive acumen and astute positioning liberated France’s wunderkind Kylian Mbappé to give free rein to his youthful energy and creativity, making him the breakout star of the World Cup.

These factors helped France slap down some of the most dynamic teams in the modern international game, sweeping past Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Luis Suarez’s Argentina and Eden Hazard’s Belgium – before thumping the tournament’s devilishly effective wildcard Croatia 4-2 in the final. Deschamps’ controversial tactical approach received the supreme vindication.

This time, French football’s former “water-carrier” has made an even more controversial choice. Before the 2018 World Cup, Deschamps said he was “selecting only players who could gel as a cohesive unit”. That meant Karim Benzema was still out. Deschamps had excluded him from Euro 2016 due to his alleged role in a blackmailing scandal. At the time, Benzema, who is of Algerian family origin, accused Deschamps of “bowing to a racist part of France”. Deschamps rejected the accusation, and recently told journalists he has “not forgotten” what Benzema said. But the 33-year-old striker is on France’s Euro 2021 teamsheet.

Benzema has racked up 192 goals in 383 games for Real Madrid. But Deschamps’ squad showed they are a formidable force even without Benzema in the pre-Euro friendly against Bulgaria on Tuesday. Dominating play, France romped to a 3-0 win. Griezmann scored the first goal – and like Pogba, Kanté and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, his presence as a veteran of the 2018 World Cup victory shows why many pundits see France as the favourites to win Euro 2021.

Benzema went off injured in the 39th minute. Olivier Giroud – who enjoyed little playing time for Chelsea last season and was likened to a “go-kart” by Benzema last year – replaced him and scored two late goals with consummate skill.

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