France missed an opportunity to lift a major trophy on home soil when it fell to Portugal in extra time two years ago. Les Bleus haven't forgotten that feeling.
MOSCOW — Listening to a Didier Deschamps press conference is a bit like watching his team play a game. It’s likely not going to be much fun. They each reveal only what they must in order to get through it. Pragmatism takes precedence over personality. Sticking to the script is preferable to improvisation.
It was interesting, then, to hear France’s manager—who will try to become the third man to lift the World Cup as both a player and head coach when Les Bleus meet Croatia in Sunday’s final—veer so dramatically in time and tone when asked about the celebrations sparked by the semifinal win over Belgium.
Deschamps said about an hour after that match concluded that he’d already seen some pictures of the thousands gathered on the Champs-Élysées. And of course it reminded him of the iconic images that followed France’s World Cup win two decades ago. But then within seconds, he was focusing on defeat. His train of thought went straight off a cliff.
“But the timing [of those 1998 celebrations] was after a victory in the final. This was a victory in the semifinal,” Deschamps said. The synapses likely then fired as follows: And it’s the potential celebrations on Sunday that we really care about. Naturally, those happen only if France wins in Moscow. And we may not win. After all, we lost a final just two years ago. At home, against an inferior team missing its best player. That loss shouldn’t have happened. It still stings. And I can’t help but talk about it.
“It’s a huge privilege to reach the final of the World Cup,” Deschamps continued. “I was there two years ago with my staff. It was so painful, that we really want to taste this victory tonight, because it’s not nothing to win the semifinal of the World Cup after losing the final of the Euro. This is sports. We have this [opportunity] to give happiness to people and to share this with the French public.”
But, he added, “Finals have to be won, because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago."
If amends must be made, then the only thing that might compensate for losing the European Championship title on home turf is to win the biggest prize of all. Perhaps one needed to happen in order to produce the other, for the France team that Deschamps brought to Russia is different from the one that fell two summers ago to sluggish, shorthanded Portugal at the Stade de France.
Regardless, rebounding isn’t easy. Perhaps some final losers have thought to themselves, “We were so close—just one game away—let’s go to the next tournament with the same players and the same approach.” Perhaps others think, “We weren’t good enough, let’s make changes.” Neither has worked.
Les Bleus are here to win the World Cup, but they’ve already accomplished something unprecedented. No European side has lost either the World Cup or Euro final and enjoyed a return trip to the other competition’s title game just two years later. Teams have won and made it back—Deschamps's France did it in 2000, and Spain went to three finals in a row in 2008-12. But they had momentum, and obviously an enormous amount of talent. Maybe the trauma of losing is just too great. It obviously still weighs on Deschamps.
No one appears to have identified the right balance between change and continuity that France has come so close to cementing. The manager has stressed a bit more of the latter. It says something about his disappointment with that night at the Stade de France against a mostly Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal, during which the hosts took 18 shots, that he overhauled so much of his roster. It also says something about the absurd depth of talent at his disposal.
Only nine of the 23 men who won silver two summers ago came to Russia. Eight of the 14 who played against Portugal, including five starters, were left out. The French team that’s 90 minutes from a second star is considerably younger. In fact, it was tied for the second most youthful squad in Russia (26 years of age, on average) with England, ahead of only Nigeria. Of the 24 teams that contested Euro 2016 in France, Les Bleus were in the middle—13th at 27.8 years.
Kylian Mbappé, 19, is the obvious face of the new cohort. But there’s also been a significant overhaul in front of veteran goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, where Raphaël Varane (25), Lucas Hernández (22) and Benjamin Pavard (22) have shut out Uruguay and Belgium in successive games alongside with 24-year-old Samuel Umtiti, who was on the Euro ’16 team.
When unveiling his World Cup roster in May, Deschamps said, succinctly, "Less experience, more ambition."
There’s also now a generation of players who know only Deschamps as the French coach. He’s been on the job since the summer of 2012. And they may be more comfortable with (or resigned to) his system and its demands. It’s an approach that requires technical excellence but which minimizes risk, asking players to focus first on shape and cohesion and then, when the opportunity allows, on a foray forward. France is 5-0-1 at this World Cup, and the only game it didn’t win was one it didn’t really care about. Yet it ranks only fifth in goals scored, fifth in shots and 12th in possession.
Look at two of France’s biggest names, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, for an illustration of the power of Deschamps’s preference for collective chemistry. Pogba’s game has stressed connection and coverage at this World Cup, while most of the fireworks have been left to Mbappé. Would Pogba be willing and able to defer? Yes, and his solid two-way performances alongside N’Golo Kanté are a big reason France is a game away. Griezmann is one of Europe’s most celebrated scorers. Yet he’s been more of a playmaker and facilitator this summer, which aren’t necessarily the easiest roles for a marksman to embrace.
Doing those things wins trophies. It did for Portugal two summers ago, and it did for Deschamps personally in 1998 and 2000. An older quote that’s been recycled here in Russia was the manager’s response to being called a “water carrier” as a player.
“I have carried a lot of water in my time,” Deschamps reportedly said. “But those buckets have been filled with trophies.”
If it doesn’t break you, it makes you stronger. There is no more star-studded team in interational soccer, and its willingness to carry water sounds like something that’s been in the making since that night in Saint-Denis two years ago.
"We did what the coach asked of us,” Lloris told reporters after a conservative, set-piece-reliant semifinal performance that was ripped by Belgium’s players. “We were competitive in every aspect of the match, and we finally scored from a set piece. It was hard to take two years ago, and we do not want a repeat of that."
Ensuring a different result has been partly about moving on, as the squad turnover suggests, but also about refusing to forget. Deschamps hasn’t put it out of his mind, obviously, and his diligence and demand that France’s stars prioritize the collective remains a constant reminder. France’s issues are rarely about talent. They’re about temperament. And Pogba, perhaps the face of Deschamps's “Un pour tous, tous pour un” philosophy, is a humbled believer.
“We are conscious of the situation. We do not want to make the same mistakes like two years ago. We want to work for it, to give everything we have to take this cup home," the midfielder said this week. “I think at the Euro we thought it was already a done deal. The mentality was not the same as now. I cannot lie that when we beat Germany [in the Euro semi] we thought that was the final. I know the taste of losing a final. I don't want it to happen again.
“For us, we are not the favorites,” Pogba continued. “We stay as we are from the start of the tournament. We have no doubts. We play together. That's our strength. We are chasing something and will do everything to succeed."