Didier Deschamps the mastermind of very own French revolution
Self-effacing coach has turned a divided squad into cohesive unit to banish bitter taste of 2010 low ebb
Published 04/07/2014 | 02:30
From anarchy to the edge of ecstasy. Four years after a spectacularly humiliating World Cup meltdown, France are contenders for the ultimate prize.
They enter today's European derby with Germany exuding a confidence that sits comfortably on the shoulders of their manager Didier Deschamps.
"Maybe we'll make a new page of history," said Deschamps. "We'll try and make it as pleasant as possible."
He has achieved something already by helping to erase the unpleasant memory of the last chapter in his nation's World Cup story.
Deschamps presides over a squad that have arrived in Rio de Janeiro as a solid group, a completely different entity to the rabble that embarrassed themselves in South Africa.
France imploded to the extent that their players were entitled to wonder if they'd have enjoyed a better summer by not qualifying.
The atmosphere was poisonous.
Latent tensions reared their head under the haphazard guidance of Raymond Domenech and the nadir was reached in Knysna, their version of Saipan, when the players rebelled against the French Federation (FFF) after it sent home Nicolas Anelka for calling Domenech the 'son of a whore' at half-time in the defeat to Mexico that left them on the brink of elimination.
It all unravelled in front of the cameras at a public training session which the players boycotted.
Patrice Evra, the skipper, was on the hunt for the mole who had leaked the story and argued publicly with fitness coach Robert Duverne.
Remarkably, they succeeded in demanding that Domenech read out a letter on their behalf articulating their anger at Anelka's expulsion.
Evra was banned for five games and the federation reshuffled its blazers. Domenech's replacement Laurent Blanc succeeded in steadying the ship, but Euro 2012 ended on a sour note with Samir Nasri hurling verbal insults at the media following their exit at the hands of France.
"An intolerable reaction," according to the new FFF President Noël Le Graët.
More pertinently, Nasri was excluded for that match amid murmurs of his destabilising influence in the dressing room.
Deschamps, who assumed control from Blanc, has prioritised a healthy team spirit and that's why his exclusion of the Manchester City midfielder is recognised as clever management. It helps that Evra, the public enemy after leading the 2010 revolt, is very much in his corner even if Hugo Lloris has the armband.
The fiery full-back is a strong character and their relationship dates back to Deschamps' decision to sign him for Monaco. In France, their bond is viewed as significant in terms of knitting together the dressing room.
Last week, the Manchester United veteran appeared in front of his country's media for the first time in two years and, finally, he was able to inject some levity to his South African reflections.
"I still haven't found the traitor," he smiled. He confessed that he'd struggled to cope with the burden of the captaincy in that fraught period. "I took my role a little too much to heart and I was eaten," he mused.
Deschamps had that responsibility in 1998 as he skippered his generation to glory on home soil.
The 45-year-old was famously described as Zinedine Zidane's water carrier by Eric Cantona during his playing days, an insult that the target has since embraced as a positive.
"Well, I was the water carrier," he said in 2011, while manager of Marseille.
"I never pretended to be a Messi or a Zidane. I wasn't a great player, but I played in great teams. And great teams are not just created by the architect but also by bricklayers and hod carriers."
It offers an insight into the philosophy that has guided his construction of a side that can now harbour ambitions of going all the way in an open year. He favours a midfield which blends the talents of the skilful Yohan Cabaye, the powerful Paul Pogba and the combative Blaise Matuidi.
Further up the park, Deschamps has found it a little harder to hit on the perfect formula and will have to decide where to accommodate Karim Benzema and whether it's worth including Olivier Giroud with the incisive Mathieu Valbuena sure to figure and the lively Antoine Griezmann pressing for inclusion.
They are good problems to have and, in the context of Germany's health and injury concerns, France have recovered well from the gutting pre-tournament loss of Franck Ribery. Deschamps, who can be prickly on a bad day, was in chirpy form as he looked ahead to this test.
There was modesty too, when the diminutive silver-haired coach was asked about the secret behind his reform of a battered group.
"November 19," he replied, the date where his embattled charges bounced back from a 2-0 defeat in Kiev to sweep Ukraine aside by a three-goal margin and avoid an exit that would have placed an entirely different spin on the impact of his tenure.
"That's what changes everything," he stressed. "Yes, there were other major elements before and after that, but it's that game which made it possible for us to reach this stage."
Deschamps has already extended his contract to Euro 2016 where, as hosts, France will have a different kind of pressure. Still, the regenerative aspect of this adventure has rekindled the interest of a public wearied by recent traumas.
Before they departed for Brazil, the staff of Adidas France staged the burning of a bus that was a replica of the vehicle where the players hid from disgusted supporters in Knysna. "It's the symbol of the millstone that hung around the neck of the French team," explained Guillaume de Monplanet, the head of the kit manufacturers' Paris branch.
The stunt garnered publicity, but it's the actions of the players on the pitch that have really succeeded in igniting passions. In this winner-takes-all showdown with an old foe, they can send out a message of real meaning.