Born to lead: Deschamps restores harmony to fickle France

The coach has transformed Les Bleus from a dysfunctional unit into one of the most exciting at the World Cup with some gutsy decision making.
FORTALEZA, Brazil - On Monday afternoon France will play Nigeria for a place in the last eight of the World Cup, largely thanks to the contribution of head coach Didier Deschamps, whose steadying hand has contributed to an overhaul in his country's fortunes.

Much has changed in Les Bleus' camp since they last met the Super Eagles in June 2009, prior to a wretched South African World Cup campaign that yielded just one point and produced perhaps the most spectacular implosion ever witnessed in the finals of a major competition.

Raymond Domenech led the European side that bleak night in Saint-Etienne, when a goal from Joseph Akpala proved the difference between the teams. Domenech, perhaps better than anyone, has encapsulated the fickle nature of French football in recent years, with his bizarre acts including the exclusion of Robert Pires due to his star sign and his decision to publicly propose to his partner in the immediate aftermath of a woeful Euro 2008.

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The loss against Nigeria, in which the players honored Louis Braille by wearing shirts upon which their names were printed in the pattern of the code the great French innovator invented to allow the blind to read, was one of the greatest lows that France had suffered since winning Euro 2000 with David Trezeguet's dramatic golden goal against Italy.

It culminated in the utterly humiliating spectacle at Knysna, when the World Cup squad of 2010 refused to train, highlighting their disquiet with the enigmatic coach shortly after reports that Nicolas Anelka had called Domenech a "dirty son of a b****" at halftime during the preceding loss to Mexico.

This lack of commanding leadership was a cancer that remained in the national team to a lesser extent through Laurent Blanc's encouraging yet ultimately unsuccessful reign.

Indeed, French footballing history has been littered with such personnel problems. David Ginola, for example, was excluded from the national team after a ferocious spat with erstwhile coach Gerrard Houllier, while the mercurial Eric Cantona was another who rarely played for his country, having once referred to coach Henri Michel as a "bag of s***".

Deschamps, however, has found the formula to restore French harmony, and with it pride.

Many critics - particularly those in England - were baffled when Manchester City duo Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri were omitted from the 23-man squad, having failed even to make the provisional selection, regardless of the indiscretions of particularly the latter when with the national side.

It was a dicey strategy employed by the former Marseille and Juventus coach, yet his approach to team building has proven thus far overwhelmingly correct.

“I built the best squad, I did not pick the 23 best French players,” Deschamps said in the aftermath of his squad announcement.

“Samir is an important player for Manchester City but he has not performed that well with France. He is a starter at City, which is not the case with France and he has made clear that he is not happy when he is not [a starter], and I can tell you it can be felt in the squad.”

Had Nasri been present, it is not certain that he would have upset the balance of the side, yet his unwillingness to alter his attitude in the shadow of 2010, when he was again omitted, has proven his undoing.

Patrice Evra, on the other hand, has been more willing to change, and the Manchester United left back has established himself as a quiet leader of a team transformed by the coach from embarrassingly dysfunctional into one of the most fluid and exciting squads in the tournament.

Deschamps has been willing to front up to individuals whose attitudes had so hurt the France side, damaging the team’s performances on the big stage and alienating a fan base tired of watching players they saw as egotistical superstars consistently fail to achieve the sum of their parts.

Yet, if it had not been the 45-year-old, who could have brought control to this group of players? There is no leader of his parallel in French - and perhaps even world - football.

Even the revered figure of Blanc was treated with contempt by certain members of his squad, and perhaps only Zinedine Zidane is held in similar esteem to the man who led his country to World Cup success in 1998 before repeating the feat in 2000, having captained Marseille to the Ligue 1 title in 1992 - the youngest player to have achieved such a feat.

Deschamps' career as a coach matches such fine achievements on the field. Not only did he lead Monaco to the Champions League final, he enjoyed a brief but successful spell at Juventus and steered Marseille to its only league title in nearly 25 years.

Many coaches would have been loath to confront such problems as existed in the France squad and would have swept the issues under the carpet, only for them to surface just at the moment harmony was most crucial. Deschamps has not - and Les Bleus have been all the richer for it.

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