Didier Deschamps – Taking les Bleus to Brazil

France's national soccer team coach Deschamps attends a news conference at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis near Paris

On 20 January our friends at French Radio London aired an exclusive interview with France’s World Cup winning captain and current coach Didier Deschamps. His hopes for the upcoming World Cup, what the tournament means to him, his responsibilities as coach, his connections with English football… La Deche spoke honestly, openly and with good humour about a range of subjects, giving us an insight into the most decorated player in French football history.

You can listen to the interview, in French, here. But FRL have kindly given us permission to publish the interview in full, in English. Enjoy this special opportunity to get to know a French legend…

Didier Deschamps, les Bleus will be playing three friendlies leading up to the World Cup. Norway, Paraguay and Jamaica*. An easy question to start with. Why did you pick those opponents?

It’s important, for our preparation and for our friendlies before the World Cup, to play opponents with a similar profile to those that we will be meeting in the group stages. A European team, one from Central America and one from South America. We had other options, but it’s difficult to find opponents and to persuade them to travel to away fixtures. But I’m pleased to be able to face these three teams.

They are all teams that can be classed as beatable – we’re not playing any of the big boys?

You know, I wanted – and I told the FFF president this – to face opponents who were of a good level, but between those friendly matches we are going to do a lot of physical training. We will also have players who will be quite tired when they join us, and who’ll need to recharge their batteries. The important thing is to build up as much confidence as possible. So of course I didn’t want us to play the top teams in Europe or the world. Granted, the opposition could have been of a higher standard. But that would make it harder to put plans in place and to put ourselves in the best position for the coming tournament.

The other recent news was the Ballon d’Or. We’ve had the result and Cristiano Ronaldo took the honour, beating Lionel Messi. Is Franck Ribéry disappointed? Doesn’t he have good reason to be?

I was with him there (Ed: At Zurich, for the Ballon d’or ceremony), and before and after too. Of course it is reasonable to be disappointed, he is one of the three best players in the world. That is already something of which he can be very proud, a great achievement for him to be there. Rubbing shoulders with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But because he was successful with his club and his country, on both an individual and a team level – and as he was a matchwinner – he was the player who won the most trophies. But sadly for him, the criteria have changed in the last few years. Even though Cristiano Ronaldo is a worthy Ballon d’or winner, Franck Ribéry deserved it just as much.

The other recent news is Samir Nasri – not as bad as first feared [Ed: reference to his injury after a tackle by Newcastle’s Mapou Yanga Mbiwa] – there was talk of ruptured ligaments but it turns out he should be out for just eight weeks. Is that a relief for you, to be able to count on him?

Well him and the others. There’s always a risk of that – we’ve seen it with Theo Walcott for England who’ll be operated on and out for six months, and won’t be able to go to the World Cup. It happens, unfortunately. I hope that it doesn’t happen to any French players, that they’ll all be available and in good health. But there are lots of matches between now and our preparation period, so there is always the risk that one of them could be a victim of such bad luck.

Is he an important player for France?

He has been, of course. He’s had a tough period, he was out of the squad for several years. But he is having a very good season at Manchester City, so he is one of the players with a chance of participating in the World Cup.

So he’s not a definite then?

(Laughs) The definites, you’ll know who they are when I give you the list in May. No one is a definite today, except for me and my staff. As for the players, there are still several months to go, there is still a friendly against the Netherlands in March, for which the selection will be important, but the most important is the one in May.

It was Mapou Yanga Mbiwa who injured Nasri. Apart from other criteria, can an action such as that enter into your thinking, on the basis that it is reprehensible?

It is not for me to sanction him. He was sanctioned, perhaps not enough. But I know Mapou. But remember this is English football. One shouldn’t play down actions such as that, but [in England] a little more play and contact is allowed. I don’t think Mapou intended to cause harm. But contact happens, sometimes injuries can occur through bad fortune. It’s part of football – it’s a contact sport! But I’m not here to punish anyone, although of course it would be better to avoid such challenges – especially when it’s one Frenchman against another. But then there are so many Frenchmen playing in the English teams that they’re bound to come up against each other.

It’s a pity because Mapou was an important player for you, but now he’s not playing too often with Newcastle, whereas beforehand he was in the French team?

He was there at the beginning of the adventure, two years ago, when he was at Montpellier. He moved to Newcastle, he played a little to start with in his position, as a centre back. Then he played less, he’s been played at left back, at right back. So it’s become a little tougher for him.

Let’s move on to the main subject. We want to know, who is Didier Deschamps? You were touted to become a coach practically all your career. It was spoken about at Juventus, at Marseille, Didier Deschamps will become a great coach. Don’t you miss the day-to-day work [of a club coach]?

Today, no. It must be due to the fact that I came out of a three-year period at Marseille where we had a match every three or four days and the atmosphere at Marseille is “special”, so… I’d like to be able to spend more time on the pitch with the players. Because the most I’ve had them for the last two years is 10 days, during which there were two matches. So there’s that. There’s more freedom, but as a coach the most important thing is the pitch and the results. But I also have a role with the Federation – they can ask me to attend meetings – and I have to meet the press. So I still have a busy timetable, but it’s totally different to that of a club coach. When you’re a club coach, you think about football 24 hours a day and you are shattered at the end of the season. Here, the periods are shorter, intense – we’re going to have a longer one with the World Cup – and we have to approach it – especially me – with lots of energy. But life as a national team coach suits me, I’m really enjoying it. But of course we need to win matches. Because if we don’t win matches and meet our goals, then it’s all a lot harder.

You’ve often said that you don’t have certainties, only convictions. What are your convictions, as a coach, in terms of tactics, and technique?

Football isn’t an exact science so one’s certainties can be destroyed from one day to the next, one match to the next. As for convictions, for me it is about the quality of the player, to know them well on a human level too, with different playing systems too – even if I know which ones suit the players, their combinations, their affinities, their individual levels. Then there are the unknowns – that’s why a coach can’t have any certainties – a player can be injured, suspended, in a club where he is getting no playing time. So I am obliged to take quite a wide view, over a wide group of players. Whilst also thinking about the medium term – not the long term but the medium term – knowing that we have Euro 2016 coming up in France. And I’ve already brought in a few young players – to prepare them, but also because they are already competitive as they’re playing in big clubs, whether in France or abroad.

The World Cup and all the memories it holds for you – how are you finding your reconnection with such a magic competition?

There isn’t a better competition, when you’re a professional footballer and you’re wearing the shirt of your national team. Even if you play for a big club and play in the Champions League, there is nothing better than playing in the European Championship and in the World Cup. And as a coach, to be the national coach, it’s the same thing. All the great competitions are fantastic, but to have a World Cup in Brazil and all it represents in terms of festivity and its renown as the country of football – it’s a source of great pride to be there with the French team.

Do you speak about it with your teammates from 1998?

It comes up sometimes. We are a part of history! I don’t look to the future by looking backwards, but we did what we had to do. But for most of us – including me – I never had the chance to play in Brazil when I was still playing, so it’s a great privilege to be able to go to this World Cup in Brazil.

They’re scared of us – they have bad memories of you!

Yes, but that’s part of history too. Today, they are one of the favourites for the World Cup because they have a very talented, competitive team, with a whole country behind them. So to beat Brazil in Brazil, even if there are other teams touted as potential champions – which is not the case with us because we’re a little behind – Brazil will be a very tough opponent.

Which player would you say deserved to win a World Cup but never did?

There are loads.

Who did you have on your wall when you were growing up?

I didn’t have any posters. No, really. Well, the only one that I had was Fabrice Poullain because he played at Nantes, but he was rarely capped! [Ed: he won 10 caps.] But there are lots of great players who didn’t win the World Cup. Because you can win titles with your club, but only one team wins the World Cup every four years, so that reduces the chances of seeing many winners. But there have also been a lot of very good players who didn’t win any titles, because they were not in the right team at the right time, so you also need a slice of luck. But World Cup winners – it’s a pretty exclusive club. But it’s only 23 players every four years, so it’s not like in club football, where you can win lots of titles with lots of teams.

As a coach, is the hardest thing to create a group? Was something created in France vs Ukraine?

Yes, something happened. Of course, because they wrote their story. It was crucial for them and for everyone. Including for French football because we were carried there by amazing support from the fans. At the final whistle, there was a communion between the team and the supporters. We saw the players’ attitude, their immense joy. Seeing them spontaneously sing the Marseillaise and wave the French flag. These things bring pleasure. It is better than mere words, whether they come from me or the FFF president or the players. It is something to build from. But there are no guarantees: the last good result for France was reaching the final in 2006. Since then in competitions, whether the Euro or the World Cup, France have only won one group match – and that was against Togo in 2006. And 2006 was eight years ago. [Ed: France beat Ukraine in 2012 too.] So we can’t get carried away. We must have ambition, but we must also have lots of humility, as there are other countries which are better than us and which have legitimate aims to win the World Cup.

You know the World Cup better than most. You’ve won it. You’re now going to the World Cup as a coach. Are you going there to win it, with the same mentality as before?

I’m going there to win the first match, to start with. That is crucial. Then I’ll move on, with my staff and my players, with lots of ambition. We don’t know what could happen. We need to win matches and then, yes… go as far as possible. But the first objective is to win the first match. (Smiles.) Then, I don’t need to tell you, we need to win the second, the third. But [the objective is] to qualify for the second round, finishing within the first two of our group.

You often said, when you were with a club, that your ambition was to win the Champions League. We find it hard to believe that you’re not dreaming of winning the World Cup. 

Only one team a year wins that too. Of course I have the ambition to win it as a coach too. For the moment, I’ve managed to win some trophies too. It all depends on being in the right place at the right time. World Cup-winning coaches only come along once every four years. And when you look at the other countries in our way….

(We interrupt him) You’d like to be among them though?

Yes, of course.

How do you sell that to the…

You don’t sell it. I think that the players are already competitors. The role of the coach and his staff is to ensure that everything is geared towards one collective goal, even if individuals are important. To have one common objective, and to be able to live together for several weeks, managing the human side, which has always been complex and difficult, between those who play, those who rarely play, those who don’t play at all, or may not do so. But the 23 players who will represent France in Brazil are in a privileged position and have a duty to all those who have travelled over, or are in France in front of their TVs, who identify with them. Then the aim is to go as far as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes you can have a great match but not win, so there is an element of luck too, but you also make your own luck.

Even those countries that have very little chance of winning the World Cup still arrive with the desire to win the competition.

Maybe not to win it but to have a great tournament, to go as far into it as possible. Of course, even a country that cannot, on paper, be considered as one of the favourites, can have those ambitions.

How does one come up with their list of players for the World Cup? A World Cup without a couple of surprise inclusions isn’t a proper World Cup! There are always one or two and there are quite a few knocking on the door this year – Schneiderlin, Griezmann, Thauvin…

I know that that is part of the excitement. But I’m not here to spring surprises. I’m not thinking that I’m obliged to surprise people. I’ll take the players – I know them all well but the door is always open – but remember that to let one in I have to push one out too. The list can only be 23. But there is still time, I don’t know what could happen. There are some whom I’ve picked, some whom I’m following. Before making a selection I make a pre-selection, a good 50 or so players, every position covered four or even five times. There is of course a hierarchy, which can evolve, based on what they’re doing with their club, on their potential, on their past, those who have already been in squads with me – whom I know better on a human side on top of as a player.

When you announce your list, will it be 23 players who are going to the World Cup, plus seven stand-bys, or will you announce a list of 30?

I have two obligations according to FIFA, which apply to all the coaches. They are that on 23 May we must give a list of 30 players. And the deadline for the list of 23 is 2 June. Other than that, it’s a question of me working out with my staff what is the best solution – or at least the least bad.

You saw the trauma of 1998 and the six players who left by taxi [Ed: six players – Letizi, Anelka, Lamouchi, Laigle, Djetou and Ba were those who were cut from Aime Jacquet’s 1998 pre-selection]. Does that enter into your thinking?

Of course, it is one of the things that I will reflect on.

Does Djibril Cisse still have a chance?

On principle, every French player who is playing well has a chance. I’m not closing any doors, but I have some players who have been with me for two years, who have given me reason to be happy with them and, again, to let one in, I have to let another go. So when I say – and I said this before we qualified through the play-offs – that I have around 20 of the 23 in mind already – that could mean 16-17, it could mean 21-22 – but there aren’t 10-15 places still available, if those who I’ve picked before, who have pleased me, who have helped to reach their goals, are in good health and competitive.

Do you think that you are the right man to keep this “difficult” generation on the right track? Are you not scared of scandals, of having to read out a letter announcing the players’ strike, of a new episode of that type?

The management of the human side has always been difficult. Perhaps the new generation has  evolved, has changed, has different interests. It’s connected to the evolution of technology – everything now going through the internet tends to isolate people more, rather than to encourage communication. Of course there’s a chance that something could happen under my watch. But we keep referring to it, and whilst no one can erase what happened in 2010, it’s impossible to look forward and to do everything possible to ensure that things go as well as possible, if we keep saying “yes but look what happened two years ago, four years ago”. That’s part of history now, but the important thing is to look forward and to perform as well as possible.

Do you feel a big difference between the squad that won the World Cup, the Euro, the Confederations Cups, and this squad – not so much the one from South Africa, but this one which you will hopefully lead as far as possible. Do you feel a marked difference, in terms of personalities?

Personality is generational. In football, in the media. You’re youngsters too. There are qualities and faults in people of your line of work too. Football is exempt from all of that. What football has which other areas don’t is a very strong media exposure, and today everyone knows everything. And although it was always there, there are issues to do with money, when in France and elsewhere people are experiencing financial difficulties. And that connection with money can cause conflict.

So now we’re going to talk tourism! You travelled a lot, as a player and a coach. When was your first trip to London?

I was certainly there in 1996. I’m not sure whether I went there before, for a European match. Nantes didn’t play any English teams, Marseille I don’t think so either.

And not as a tourist either?

Before, no. I didn’t have much time, I played lots of matches, I needed to rest, to see my family, to take holiday. And normally when you go on holiday you want some sun – even though London is a very pretty city! (Laughs.)

So the first time was for Euro 96. What were your first impressions, of the country?

Well we were tourists but a special kind, we spent all our time in the hotel, the airport, the match. So we moved around according to the venues of our matches. I don’t remember them all but I remember playing at Newcastle. So we moved around a little but there is no time, even with two days’ break, going from the hotel to the training ground to the press conference to the match, there really isn’t the time to see what is happening.

Were you able to sense a special kind of fervour?

Yes, it’s something specific to England, with children, with youngsters, with all the family present, going to the stadium together, a great atmosphere. And today they’re lucky to have great stadia, with great pitches, which is not the case in all European countries – especially not ours!

Three years later, 1999, you joined Chelsea. What were your first impressions, of Stamford Bridge, of the supporters?

It confirmed it all for me. Even though it was the beginning, everything was becoming more professional, foreign managers coming in. But it wasn’t the Chelsea of today. But what marks England out – firstly there is no specialist press, even though they still cover football. So before and after matches we’re left alone, there are no obligations – there is just the match. And the people come to the match, they support their team – that’s already different, having come from five years in Italy where – it didn’t happen often, but it happened – we lost a match and [in England] the supporters come and say “unlucky, next time”, whereas in Italy that would never happen. So it’s a different culture and mentality. But, what you appreciate is that in a city that is very exposed to the media, you are left alone. Whether a footballer or an actor, everyone hangs out together, it’s very cosmopolitan, and it gives you freedom and tranquillity.

I just want to end with a couple of questions on London. Was it a year – and a city – that you enjoyed?

Yes, although I lived a certain distance away – I was closer to the training ground at Harlington. But it’s a fabulous city, you can do what you want, at whatever time of day, you have access to everything. Paris is Paris, but London is a very pretty city.

Did you have any particular places, areas, restaurants, that you especially liked – that you could recommend to any listening ex-pats?

(Laughs.) There are so many nice areas. I didn’t visit everywhere, but the heart of London, with Harrods in the middle and with all the restaurants – from all different countries too. But the quality of life is very enjoyable.

Do you ever come back?

I’ve come back two or three times. To watch matches, look at players playing in England. My assistant too. But it’s not necessarily in London, even though there are lots of teams in London.

Your name came up in connection with the manager’s jobs, at Chelsea and especially at Liverpool, which you turned down. Was that because you were particularly connected to Marseille, or because it wasn’t the right offer?

No, it wasn’t a question of the right or wrong offer. It was very flattering for me, I met those in charge, who have changed since. But it was just a few days before the start of the pre-season with OM, after a very good first season. On a human level, it wasn’t possible for me to leave the club, the players I’d brought in, those who were going to come. It wasn’t the right moment. But Liverpool is one of the legendary European clubs. Even if my name was then mentioned in connection with other clubs – not all the rumours were true. To join a club, both parties must be in agreement and also available. I was under contract with Marseille, so it was too complicated.

*Les Bleus preparation for the World Cup: 

  • France – Netherlands, Wednesday 5 March – Stade de France
  • France – Norway, Tuesday 27 May – Saint-Denis (Stade de France)
  • France – Paraguay, Sunday 1 June – Nice (Allianz Riviera)
  • France – Jamaica, Sunday 8 June – Lille (Stade Pierre-Mauroy)

Follow @FrenchRadioLdn and listen to the Sports FRL show, featuring @Paulbas, @OlivierSclavo and @Louisbierlein, every Monday at 7pm, UK time.

Thanks to Jeremy Smith for translating the interview. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremysmith98.


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