In an excellent piece with details exclusively obtained by L’Équipe, take a look at the inside track on Les Bleus’ path to 2018 World Cup victory.
Chapter 1 – 42 people around the table at Clairefontaine
They arrived on Tuesday May 22nd at around 6 p.m. – Clairefontaine awaited them, as they prepared to embark on a two month long adventure if everything went smoothly. On that evening, they were 21 people around the table. The 20 coaching staff members and N’Golo Kanté, the first to arrive, quiet as ever, glued to his chair as if not to bother anyone. The next day, they were 42. Raphaël Varane was excused, in light of his third Champions League Final with Real Madrid against Liverpool on May 26th. Twenty two players were present on the first day of the national team gathering, a godsend for the French coaching staff, who had not been this spoiled since the lead-up to Euro 2016. A sign of things to come? Maybe! In any case, Deschamps was not unhappy about this.
The coach knows how crucial the first few days of preparation are, and how they can be the national team’s Achilles heel over the course of the competition. Once everyone was present, the staff could pinpoint the physical work necessary and proceed to get everyone up to scratch, all while integrating football-related drills.
Nevertheless, the twenty players had an additional session of running drills — four sets of four minute runs at a 15 km/h pace to reinvigorate the team at this time of the season. “It’s harder than at Atletico,” sighed Griezmann. But it’s not because there’s intense physical preparation that he wasn’t smiling! In March, the Madrid-based striker promised that we would see the true Griezmann in Russia, and he planned to stand by his word – focused, then.
Chapter 2 – “It’s good that it’s over Antoine,” said Deschamps
At Clairefontaine, he very quickly felt comfortable. And very quickly found his buddy, Paul Pogba. These two spend quite a bit of time together and never passed up on the opportunity to fool around. One night, while watching the Euro 2000 final (2-1 France win vs Italy after a golden goal from David Trezeguet) in one of the rooms in the building, Pogba was taken aback by Deschamps’ performance. “The Coach wasn’t too shabby huh?” Then, he saw that he had the number 7 on the back of his shirt and asked, “Who has the number 7 for us?” Before even finishing the question La Pioche (Pogba’s nickname, literally meaning pickaxe) realised laughing, “Oh, it’s Grizi! You took the number 7 to be like coach!” The good sport that Griezmann is laughed.
The last few days of the month of May were also when Griezmann had to decide his future. Deep down, he knew he would extend his contract with Atletico, but he wanted guaranteed signings. So he decided to help the board out and play sporting director. Seeing as Thomas Lemar and Djibril Sidibé were under the same roof, Griezmann pestered them to join him in Madrid. He loves them and convinced them that if they joined, Atletico would have a whole new look! Sidibé’s case would have to wait till after the World Cup.
But for Griezmann? He said he would reveal his decision after their first match in Russia. He certainly kept his promise. The night before the France-Australia match in Kazan, a documentary was televised on a Spanish television network called, “La Decisión.” This whole dramatisation around his future made his teammates laugh, who went on to tease him afterwards. Deschamps, who knew what Griezmann’s future held in store, did not know about the video however!
The coach was not unhappy to see this hype around his star forward end. He even said so wittingly and casually, “It’s good that it’s over Antoine. The competition has now started and we are only focused on that.” Griezmann nodded in agreement.
The coaching staff assumed that their leader up top had added further weight on his shoulders with this story. It was time to let go of that weight because France needed him. The final friendly against the United States in Lyon on June 9th was not very reassuring and Deschamps did not want to see his team doubtful as they travelled to Russia. Before joining their families in the Groupama stadium lounge area, the coach spoke to the players firmly, all while remaining optimistic, careful, and determined, “We need to focus on our objective. Admittedly, we’re still lacking in certain areas of play, but we have time ahead of us. Don’t worry, I know we’ve had an intense physical preparation.”
Chapter 3 – Michel Fugain’s hits and Noel le Graët’s jokes
That result and those uninspiring performances didn’t affect the team atmosphere since the team first gathered. The social dynamic was being established. Steve Mandanda and Blaise Matuidi the wise ones, Adil Rami the jokester, Benjamin Mendy the MC, Kylian Mbappé the one who the others love to tease. There was also Ousmane Dembélé, who along with Presnel Kimpembe, act as DJs.
The Barcelona forward sometimes puts on Michel Fugain (French variety music singer famous in the 60s and 70s especially), and often played “C’est un beau roman, c’est une belle histoire” (A lovely novel, a lovely story). Upon hearing the melody of the song, Steve Mandanda burst out laughing and said, “So, you act like a rebel on the pitch but you listen to this kind of song?” Indeed, he likes it. Dembélé made even more of his teammates laugh when arriving to Istra when checking into their rooms, and noticing that he forgot his passport in the bus. The French could thank the bus driver for how considerate and thoughtful he was, who had made a detour after long minutes of driving to return it.
This kind of incident isn’t Deschamps’ cup of tea, but he knows that calling up such young players often comes with these kinds of mishaps. Managing to find the perfect mix of youngsters and experienced players is a challenge in and of itself. But these last two seasons have served that purpose: finding the players with attitudes that could harm the collective interest and harmony of the group during a tournament and weeding them out. From then on, Noel Le Graët who spent time with the team, during the World Cup in Russia observed these little incidents amused and happy.
The President of the French football federation loves discussions with the coaching staff during their dinners in Ista, and would even tease Deschamps with whom he gets along swimmingly. Before kick off, while Spain was in crisis mode after Julien Lopetegui’s departure for Real Madrid, Deschamps asked Le Graët, “And what if that happened to us, how would you react?” To which the French federation’s President responded, “I’ve already planned it out Didier.”
“Really?” “Well yeah, Sylvain Ripoli is already in Russia!” (French youth coach who had been observing France’s opponents.) Didier Deschamps’ assistant Guy Stéphan interjected with tongue in cheek saying, “You wouldn’t even consider me Mr. President?!” The room burst into laughter, surprising the players seated at the table on the other side who were not paying attention to their conversation.
Chapter 4 – “You didn’t do anything that I asked of you”
Maintaining this kind of atmosphere is essential. But as kick-off against the Aussies approached, Deschamps was confronted with his first major decisions, which will left some unhappy. The coach knew that’s how it works. It’s a reality that can’t be changed. The day before the game, the coaching staff made a decision to go back to a 4-3-3, to the detriment of Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud who were put on the bench as a result. Giroud played poorly against the US, but he wasn’t the only one. Plus, Deschamps often insists on experience being key during a World Cup, so by doing this, he sacrificed two of his most experienced players.
Both felt the effects of this decision. They did not understand why their coach did not inform them earlier. Deschamps spoke on this matter the next day, saying that it was not definitive, and that these players who have always been important, who will remain so, and will have their chance to prove themselves. Giroud and Matuidi understood that, and the match against Australia almost reaffirmed their importance in the team.
In the same vein, it put into question the positions of others. The 2-1 victory was not enough to satisfy Deschamps. Two days later, in Istra, a video session pushed some of the players into their corners. Most notably, the three up-top: Griezmann, Mbappé and Dembélé were the subject of intense scrutiny. The coach, in a critical tone, without raising his voice, laid into them: “You ran eight kilometres fewer than your opponent. You pressed them in a disorderly fashion. You didn’t do anything that I asked of you.”
Pogba responded saying, “We didn’t understand all of your instructions.” Deschamps responded amused, “You didn’t understand them? They were simple! Run, press them as a team, and track back.”
He then came to Dembélé, and criticised him for not being able to get past any of his opponents when on the ball, and who didn’t track back sufficiently. For Griezmann, it was his lack of explosiveness. Mbappé didn’t make enough quick runs. “Speed is your main attribute Kylian, you’re not using it.” muttered Deschamps. The changes were made immediately.
Chapter 5 – The moment Matuidi saw his match rating in the elevator
Before making the changes for their game against Peru on June 21st, the coach had another conversation with Matuidi. He told him he would be a starter and that he intended to play him on the left in a 4-4-2 in order to have a balance. He added that he planned on keeping this system, which would allow him to reposition Griezmann in a role that would suit him best behind the striker against better opponents.
For the coaching staff, this decision paid off, even though some only noticed the Juventus midfielder’s technical deficiencies. Upon returning to their Istra hotel at night, Matuidi was in the elevator with Guy Stéphan who had just loaded the news on his phone. The French assistant coach said he was given a 3 in L’Équipe’s match ratings, but reassured Matuidi, “In our eyes, you did the match we asked of you.”
The round of 16 qualification was already guaranteed after two matches, so squad rotation was an option. But in Moscow, where the third game took place on June 26th against Denmark (0-0), and where the players’ families would arrive, not everything went according to plan.
In the hotel, the French team was split across two floors, which Deschamps did not like. What he disliked even more was that some of the players allowed their wives to stay in their rooms, past the permitted time. A reminder of the rules in place would result in this kind of incident never happening again. Especially once they found out their opponents for the round of 16 matches. Les Bleus were finally up and running.
Chapter 6 – Rami waking up the whole hotel with a fire extinguisher
Before facing Messi’s Argentina in Kazan (4-3) Pogba, who had gradually transformed himself into a real leader for this team, spoke up in the dressing room, “We have to leave our balls on the pitch. I don’t want to go home, I want to go back to Istra and eat pasta.” The 2018 phrase “I want to go back to Istra and eat pasta” is the equivalent of the 1998 one, “we live together, we die together.” That’s the motto that Steve Mandanda repeated before the France-Uruguay quarter-final match. But just before that game, Les Bleus almost had a major incident.
Since arriving to Russia, they had expressed their constant boredom when they weren’t training or receiving treatment, especially while the Brazilians, Belgians or Colombians had days off. Two days after their win against Argentina, Deschamps, who was quite touched by his team’s spirit in that game, gave them free time one night. A dozen players went to Moscow (around 50 kilometres away from Istra) to a restaurant which turns into a nightclub.
When they returned, some hoped to continue the party in their hotel. Adil Rami took a fire extinguisher and triggered a war. The hotel alarm went off waking everyone up, and the hotel staff asked the players and staff to leave the building for security reasons, while the firefighters arrived. Deschamps was not pleased to say the least. Rami understood. The next morning, the Marseille defender apologised in front of the whole group, and ended on a funny note saying, “At least I stopped on time!” The audience burst out laughing.
Chapter 7 – When Cavani asked them to win
Noel Le Graët wasn’t there to be woken up. After their win in Kazan, Jean-Michel Aulas flew Le Graët by private plane to Saint-Brieuc before returning to Lyon. The President of the French football federation was set to return to Russia for the quarter-finals in Nijni Novgorod, for which Blaise Matuidi was suspended, and for whom Paul Pogba had strong words when addressing his teammates. “We have to win for Blaise! The match against Argentina can’t be his last from the World Cup,” insisted the Manchester United midfielder, with the emotional look from his teammate leaning against the wall in his tracksuit and entrance pass around his neck. Les Bleus would win it for Blaise. And for themselves too. At the end of the game Edinson Cavani, who was out because of an injury, came to the dressing room to congratulate them after the match. “Go all the way now!” the PSG forward said to them. But in order to go all the way, they would have to beat Eden Hazard’s Belgium first.
Chapter 8 – “He (Kanté) didn’t even break a sweat” – Raphael Varane
During his pre-match talk, Deschamps seemed to have ridden himself of any wariness. “Don’t let go guys. We’re strong and united. We’ll go all the way,” he said to his players. Followed by Paul Pogba who said, “We’re a family. We’ve made people happy. Now we have to make them proud.” At half-time, all was left to do. But the coach remained focused. Without getting angry, he asked for more technical precision in offensive transitions and hammered into their mind, “We need to keep up the pressure!”
The final whistle, six minutes after added time, was a liberation (1-0). No end in sight. After coming back to the dressing room, Pogba, with a stern look, repeated, “It’s not over, it’s not over.” Then, he noticed N’Golo Kanté gaining a more relaxed look on his face. Laughing, Pogba repeated to his tireless teammate, “He can play again, he can play again!” Raphael Varane approached him, touched his forehead and laughed, “He didn’t even break a sweat!” The small Chelsea midfielder was established as one of the two mascots of the team, along with Benjamin Pavard nicknamed “Jeff Tuche” (alluding to the French film character, a working-class white man with curly hair from the North of France).
Both had songs in their honour in the dressing room and both were loved unanimously in the team. Both exemplify the humility of this team and the serenity displayed in the toughest of times during these last two months. They symbolise the overflowing joie de vivre of a group determined to get that star. After that night against Belgium, there was one obstacle left. One obstacle to overcome five days later to reach that euphoria to end such a great story.