Didier Deschamps has led France to its second World Cup victory, twenty years after winning it as a player. For the first time since their World Cup win over Croatia, he spoke extensively to Le Parisien on Thursday on his team, the competition, the shared sense of happiness, criticism, and what the future holds in store.
On the morning of July 12th 1998, you knew you would become World Champion. Did you have the same feeling on July 15th 2018?
It would be pretentious to say that! But yes, I knew it before. It was like that. It was written. It was destiny. Of course, you actually have to get the job done. But I believe in one thing only: destiny. Our destiny was written. It had to happen, and it did.
Croatia also had a destiny to write…
Yes, but to each their own destiny. It’s also quite personal. My mother-in-law had spoken to me about this long before. She wanted me to be a World Champion, but she left us too soon. It’s a force from above. Even though I don’t want to come across as spiritual or religious.
In 1998, your strength came from your brother who passed away in 1987, who you thought about when you finally lifted the trophy.
You learn to live with and without it. These are painful life moments. Right before Euro 2016, I also lost my brother-in-law who was a football fanatic. Life takes people away from us, but it gives us unexpected forms of strength.
What did you feel when Hugo Lloris lifted the trophy?
A lot of pride. There’s nothing greater than your national team. France will be on the roof of the world for four years. It’s a great accolade. The memories and emotions remain, but the titles more so because we’re competitive athletes. It’s more difficult to win trophies with your national team than at a club level where there are more opportunities.
You only have the chance once every two years with your national team. In 2016, we let an incredible opportunity get away, even though we realise that it was a learning experience in hindsight. We were able to approach this World Cup differently. If I have to choose, then the World Cup is the most important one.
You lifted the World Cup as a player and coach. Are the feelings any different?
Of course. When you’re a player, you’re an actor on the pitch, and you’re implicated. My staff’s accomplishment is thanks to my players, which is why you can never take that away from them. It belongs to them. When it doesn’t work, the coach is responsible 95% of the time, but when things work, it’s the opposite. But it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m just as happy for them as I am for myself, if not more!
The Platini generation has been spoken about, as has the Zidane generation. From this point onwards, you are the embodiment of this generation. How do you explain this?
These are just titles… It’s because I’m their “guide” that it needs to be said. I also have a paternal side to me, with the good and the bad that goes along with it. It’s important tell one’s children, even if they’re not mine, what isn’t working, and what needs to change. There are people from different generations. It’s one group.
I’m proud to be with them. Proud to still be here after 20 years and to still be here now. The blue, white and red colours are sacred. They have to continue to transmit values and they understand that. I have a young one at home (22-year-old son named Dylan) who speaks like them, has the same interests. I am lucky in that respect. A coach has to adapt.
Did you plan on talking about your World Cup win in 1998 ahead of your game against Croatia?
On July 12th, I thought about our World Cup win because certain players reminded me of the anniversary of the victory against Brazil in the final in 1998 (laughing). You have to move with the times though. Nobody will erase what we did with that group, with Aimé Jacquet and the rest of the people present.
This year, it’s a whole other story, a whole other generation. This victory will be fully lived by the generation aged between 5 and 30 years old. It’s a new story, all without erasing the previous one.
Have you realised the incredible destiny you’re creating?
Yes, I have a professional destiny because life hasn’t always been easy. I’ve done everything to reach the greatest heights possible and to put myself in the conditions to succeed. When I get asked if I could go back to my player career, I say no. I wouldn’t do it again because I wouldn’t have been able to do as well.
Does your professional destiny help cope with life tragedies and difficult moments?
No, it doesn’t compensate for what I’ve experienced. These difficult moments are lasting. They remain. There have been such painful moments which remain… But you live with it. And it certainly gives you strength.
To what extent are you players different? They’re world champions now.
Because they’re world champions. They are not only players in big European clubs, but world champions. I’m the national team coach. I’m privileged. I read what Franz Beckenbauer said (“Welcome to the club”). I hope I’ll have the opportunity to eat dinner with him and Mario Zagallo who also won the World Cup as a player and coach. It’s a great honour to be amongst such a exclusive group of people.
You showed a form of calmness as a player. Is the national team coach role exhausting from a mental perspective?
Honestly? No. I was calm and zen during the competition. You want to know why. Because I’ve won this cup. I was totally immersed. I didn’t want to be distracted. I was with my group, my staff, who are important to my work. My staff was incredible. There was a true feeling of solidarity with my twenty staff members. I always slept at ease. Much better than in 2014. I didn’t end up tired.
Were you washed out psychologically?
No because I was able to recover. I managed to sleep, even in the worst of situations. I forget it and sleep. I didn’t even have to take any medication to sleep. I managed without biting my nails, even though I’ve been doing it for 45 years. I should have been stressed, but I wasn’t.
Is France an ugly World Cup champion?
Why? Because it looks like me? (laughing) These questions always come up after a competition. The champion is better than the others, simply put. The highest level, is being better than those you come up against. When you beat an opponent, it’s because they’re bad. And when an opponent beats us, you shouldn’t discredit them.
Sure, we could have done better. We didn’t always control games… But from the start, I made the choice of young players. Amongst the 14 who played their first major competition, it goes without saying that they’ll be better in two or four years.
How did you become World Champions?
Through merit and the quality of the players on the field. Not through some holy spirit. My main pride is having built this group. There’s a collective force with this team. This force is also present with the opponent. But when at the same level, the team who wants it more or who gives the most makes the difference.
What would you like to say to those who claim Belgium or Brazil played better than France?
Maybe so… We played an excellent Belgian team who caused us a lot of difficulty. Too bad for them. This World Cup was special. I noticed it right from the get-go. It didn’t always favour the teams who had the most possession. To quote Guy Stéphan (French assistant coach) I would say our team was precise like a surgeon. It’s the truth. We managed to hurt them.
How did you react to this criticism?
I didn’t hear them. I knew they came up. I think they came up more often during the first part of the tournament. But it’s part of the job. I didn’t want to hear it. I can laugh now considering how far we made it. Others believed in us, others not. Over time, it accumulated, and I received a lot of messages, including a lot of people going back on what they said. I’m not here to settle scores with people. I respond politely. I know who the honest people are.
Did you hear from any of your 1998 teammates before the competition?
Of course. Some players even came into the dressing room on the night of the final. Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc, Lilian Thuram, Jean-Pierre Papin. I was happy to see my players honour them. Zizou sent a message before and after the final. I saw Thierry Henry during the semi-final. I kept in touch with Aimé Jacquet during the whole competition.
And Christophe Dugarry?
Let’s be serious. When you overstep your boundaries and there’s no respect on a personal level… It’s not only him that I done with. Dugarry said that I was taking France as hostages. It goes beyond basic reason. He can say what he wants, he has his radio show. We’ve lived things together, so I know that in terms of spirit, there’s better out there.
Whatever, it’s ok though. I’m almost 50 and I don’t pretend around people anymore. I’ll gladly see most players. I’ve met with Laurent Blanc over lunch along with our wives. I’ve seen Lilian, Marcel, Lizarazu, Franck Leboeuf, Diomède… If I were to run into Dugarry, I wouldn’t even say hello. To each their own path. That’s very clear.
Was the match against Peru the Eureka moment?
Yes because we had a rather uninspiring performance which didn’t correspond to what we were expecting in terms of implication and determination. Especially considering how demanding a World Cup is.
Against Peru, I remembered our match against Colombia (3-2 loss for France) and said to myself, we need to use this. And it really did help us because I think we realised that we would be more implicated and determined against Peru.
Destiny was written for us to get a very South American style World Cup with Argentina and Uruguay afterwards. But Peru was the game which shifted everything. After the game in the dressing room, the players all said, “So are we not a team?” Some countries didn’t come together as a team and kept missing the target, until the moment where it just wouldn’t hit.
In the TF1 Documentary, during half time, you were always calm and zen. Did you ever have moments of doubt?
No, I always ask myself questions, try to find answers, talk with my staff, exchange with them. There is also little room for doubt. The worst of things is that when you’re a coach, is to eat your guys alive. How can you talk or send a message if you’re always faced with doubt? It’s not credible.
You could have had doubts in your room on your own!
No! I think first, and the answers come, sometimes later on though. I look one way, then the other, but when I’ve decided, I’ve decided. I put myself in a situation in which I give myself a deadline to make decisions. I always look ahead when deciding. I’m the only one who takes these decisions, and I decide later on. If I’m not relieved, then I don’t know if it’s the right answer.
Paul Pogba really stood out in this TF1 documentary. He came across as mature, charismatic, and open to conversation. Do you agree with this?
Paul didn’t surprise me because I know how he is. He always thinks about the team. Obviously, I’ve spoken extensively with him because he’s endearing. I believe he listens. I do my best to help him omit certain things, even if he makes his own decisions. I found it smart for him to try to create a normal relationship with the media, instead of being seen as someone in their own world.
How does he show his leadership?
For the younger players, he’s an example. He played in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and Euro 2016 in France. He’s part of a transitional generation. We often say and repeat that the team lacks leaders and personality. But no, they showed that during the tournament!
There’s one player who stood out during the tournament, and that’s Benjamin Pavard. He’s become a star with quite a surprising career path.
He deserves it. He thanked me for it, but it was all him. I laughed and told him, “Apart from me or Guy Stéphan, your parents are the ones who watched you play the most!”
How do you explain his popularity?
He’s very reserved. He’s not very big on the media, and is in a club in Germany, Stuttgart which is not like Bayern. He doesn’t like to be focused on too much, but he’s always there. He’s nice, humane, but he’s has great self-confidence! He once told me, “I’m not scared of anyone, I’m fear nobody!” To which I responded, “Listen, you’re allowed to think that, but don’t say it all the time, it could be useful!”
He’s like that. Lucas Hernandez is a bit different even though they’re the same age. He plays like he’s 30 years old. They are warriors on the pitch and have changed a lot of things. N’Golo Kanté is also very liked. It’s rare to see a discreet player like him be so liked… He’s not into the media coverage. He always smiles, is always doing well. The team loves NG. He’s a big ball of sunshine.
Kylian Mbappé wasn’t playing at the highest level a year and a half ago, and he’s World Champion today. Do you consider him your golden boy?
It’s makes sense considering he was twelve years old a year and a half ago! More seriously, he knows he’s capable of things other players are not. He’s smart and attentive. I tell him he does things well, but people say that to him all the time.
I’m here to tell him what he’s missing, but that’s only 5% of his game. It’s for his own good though. He listens and corrects these things. In 1998, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry were the same age as him, but they also didn’t have the same role. He’s already a great.
Have you ever coached anyone as good as him?
I’ve played with great players. I’ve also coach some yeah. But with him, it’s not just his ability. It’s his age, what he’s capable of now, and what he’ll be capable of in the future. There’s room for improvement. I’ve always said it, I’m happy that he’s French!
Against Australia, you didn’t hold back on him…
Yes, and that wasn’t the only moment. At one point, I said to him, “You’ll be the most booked player by the end of tournament, stop misbehaving like that.” He still managed to get two yellow cards.
Why so mean?
His actions on the pitch also embarrass the opponents. He needs to be careful to not change. Being humiliated is never pleasant, so he shouldn’t seek it. I told him, “You’re lucky that I’m not your opponent, because otherwise I would destroy you, and believe me, I would only get one booking!” Against Uruguay, he needed to be careful.
They knew they were eliminated. They could have caught him, and ended his World Cup. That’s why I took him off. These are little flaws, with elements of entertainment and disrespect. The opponent will see it as a form of provocation, but one needs to be careful with these things.
Do you cope with the music the players put on in the bus?
It’s amazing, I love it, even if I don’t understand everything. It’s varied. They have songs from the 1980s. One day, I looked at Guy Stéphan and said, “I’m worried, they’re gonna request something from me!” (laughing) They played Michel Fugain, Michel Sardou.
Did you touch Adil Rami’s moustache?
Yeah, it’s quite hard! It’s scary, it feels like a bat. Tiger brigade style. I don’t know if it’s lucky though, you’d have to ask Adil.
What did you think about the picture of Emmanuel Macron after the first goal in the final?
He was really into it! The emotional side of things is irrational in football. Someone could reach the greatest honour in their respective field, and it wouldn’t have the same emotional significance as football does. I’ve experienced it first hand! He loves football. Thankfully, we made to the semi-final, otherwise he wouldn’t have been here.
Adrien Rabiot refused to be a standby player. You chose Steven N’Zonzi over him, and he had a great World Cup…
I know why I didn’t pick Adrien. I knew that I would need Steven, but to fulfil Adrien’s role, I had other players ahead of him. Without discrediting what he did at club level, for the national team, all he had to do was watch the games, and see he was used. And I’m disregarding the statements he made. Otherwise, there are plenty of players who didn’t return to the team.
Could he return to the national team with you at the head of the squad?
I’m not saying no to not come across as definitive. But what really disappointed me, was his attitude towards what the shirt represents. Even if I acknowledge that he wasn’t the only person responsible for this.
If he were to apologise, would it make things better?
It’s up to him. He’s part of a generation that has difficulty apologising. That’s how it is. I won’t make this a case against him. I understand the huge disappointment of not being there. But to overstep that boundary in regards to me and his teammates… It doesn’t take anything away from his quality as a player, but it’s unacceptable.
Players surround themselves with whoever they choose, people who advise them, be it good or bad advising. There are too many entourages nowadays.
Do you realise that he may be in the national team when people think about the national team’s achievement later along the line?
I don’t think about that. It’s not about risks. I’m the way that I am, and respect my commitments. I do my best to reach my objectives. It’s also a matter of respect and trust vis-à-vis my president. I don’t think about myself. I didn’t even ask myself the question.
You said that your defeat in the Euros led you to World Cup victory.
We’ll find out in two years. You need to be careful because in sports: when you win big, you can also screw up big. Someone said this to me a while ago. The day-after is always difficult. I’ve experienced it first-hand. It took me six months to find my feet after 1998.
What remains from this World Cup win and the French people’s excitement?
All I know is that we made them happy. Even if it was only for the slightest of moments. We never and will never claim to have the solution to social problems people face on a daily basis. We’re in a bubble, we’ll always be envied, money will always be brought up. But today, they’re proud to be French just like we are. We’re attached to this blue shirt.
This win has a special taste after the tragic events France has endured during these last few years…
Considering how we’ve been harmed and the ever-present threat, the French needed to go to the streets and celebrate. It’s something which has influenced European fans’ decisions to not travel, while South American fans had no issue. We can never forget what happened. Football has been affected by this.
Your team was able to provide happiness…
It’s a privilege. We can make kids, parents, and grandparents happy! If you can make people happy and give them joy…
Do you think about defending your World Cup four years from now in Qatar?
I don’t think that far ahead. I’m still here for two years, that’s already quite good. We won’t have this World Cup taken away from us, but there will be another one in four years. My contract ends in 2020, and that’s good as is. I’m not worried about my situation. I wasn’t worried before the World Cup either.