COMMENT: The coach has transformed Les Bleus from a dysfunctional unit into one of the most exciting at the World Cup with some gutsy decision makingBy Robin Bairner in Fortaleza
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.
The loss against Nigeria, in which the players honoured Louis Braille by wearing shirts with their names printed in 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.
It culminated in the utterly humiliating spectacle at Knysna, when the World Cup squad of 2010 refused to train after reports that Nicolas Anelka had called Domenech a "dirty son of a b****" at half-time against 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***".
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.
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 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 their coach from embarrassingly dysfunctional into one of the most fluid and exciting squads in the tournament.
Deschamps has been eager 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.
If it had not been for Deschamps, who could have brought control to this group of players? Perhaps no one.
Even the revered figure of Blanc was treated with contempt by certain members of his squad. Perhaps only Zinedine Zidane is held in similar esteem to Deschamps, a man who led his country to World Cup and European Championship success in 1998 and 2000, respectively, and captained Marseille to the Ligue 1 title in 1992 - the youngest ever to do so.
Deschamps' career as a coach is proving to be just as impressive. Not only did he lead Monaco to the Champions League final, he enjoyed a brief but successful spell at Juventus and steered Marseille to their only league title in nearly 25 years.
Many coaches would have shied away from the problems that existed within the France squad. Many 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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