This article also appeared on Guardian Sport.
As Patrice Evra stormed from the training pitch and his teammates hid behind the curtains of their team bus, winning the World Cup seemed a very long way away. Any semblance of togetherness had evaporated – not for the first time. France have long been blessed with talent but rarely harmony, as shown by the debacle in South Africa in 2010. Didier Deschamps recognised this when he came into the job in 2012 and, throughout his six years in charge, he has placed the importance of squad harmony above nearly everything else. Anyone who threatens that unity is cast out immediately. France have won the World Cup because of their talent but also because Deschamps’ devotion to spirit has allowed their talent to flourish.
France’s trip to South Africa in 2010 was catastrophic. Florent Malouda was left out of the drab, goalless opener with Uruguay after he had squared up to the obdurate and often incomprehensible coach Raymond Domenech; the French Football Federation expelled Nicolas Anelka after he refused to apologise to his manager, having verbally abused him at half-time in the 2-0 defeat to Mexico; and hundreds of fans watched at an open training session as Evra came close to blows with fitness coach Robert Duverne and the squad refused to leave the bus in protest. It ended in farce, with Domenech bizarrely reading a statement from the players to the press outlining their fury at how Anelka had been treatment.
Domenech, already scheduled to move on after the tournament, left behind a fragmented and fractious group. The scandal transcended football and became a national disgrace. When Laurent Blanc took charge post-South Africa, he dropped every member of that 23-man World Cup squad for his first game in charge, a 2-1 defeat in Norway, as a largely symbolic punishment.
Although France eventually qualified for Euro 2012 comfortably, French football’s self-destructive streak wasn’t far away. In a meeting with the FFF hierarchy in 2011, Blanc was surreptitiously recorded making comments that were interpreted as being somewhere between clumsy and racist. Blanc appeared to bemoan academies in France for focusing on young players with strength and speed rather than technique and intelligence while asserting that these players tended to be black.
“They really train the same prototype of players: big, strong, powerful,” said Blanc. “What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks. That’s the way it is. It’s a current fact. God knows that in the training centres and football schools there are loads of them.” The implication was that black players are supposedly physically superior but mentally inferior, although Blanc was “outraged” by that interpretation. Blanc’s comments fed into a political climate tinged by anti-immigration rhetoric and long-running issues of race surrounding the national side.
In contrast, the 1998 World Cup winners were seen as a unifying force in truly representing France’s broad ethnicity, a team that was often referred as “Black-Blanc-Beur” (Black-White-Arab). Didier Deschamps, the captain of the 1998 team, took over from Blanc after the team’s underwhelming exit from Euro 2012 at the quarter-finals. Central to his handling of the team has been maintaining unity and banishing any notion that the squad could become cliquey or divided. The continued exile of Karim Benzema is the most obvious example.
Surprise in England at the exclusion of Premier League-based players Alexandre Lacazette and Anthony Martial was not mirrored across the Channel. Deschamps picked the group he thought would be harmonious on and off the field rather than simply calling up the 23 best players available. In hindsight, the only genuinely surprising exclusion, that of Adrien Rabiot, now seems wholeheartedly justified given his oddly entitled and puerile reaction to being left out, the midfielder even refusing to be on the standby list.
As a result, the atmosphere resembles that of a club. It is an almost clichéd aim for an international coach but one that few of them ever achieve. Deschamps’ ability to mould his squad socially as well as tactically into a tournament-winning side should not be undersold. The way Benjamin Mendy and his fellow substitutes poured on to the pitch and piled on to Kylian Mbappé as he finished a flowing counter-attacking move against Argentina showed the togetherness in the squad.
Nevertheless, a balance has had to be stuck. Deschamps’ squad is not without egos and arguably a greater achievement has been convincing those players who might be seen as a little more spotlight-seeking to sacrifice for the team and play a more facilitatory role than they are used to for their clubs. The criticism Paul Pogba has received since returning to Manchester as he has struggled to fit into a more defensive, disciplined role has proved utterly irrelevant in Russia.
Pogba has not shown the swashbuckling exuberance he displayed when emerging at Juventus but he has finally evolved into the dynamic, dictatorial general José Mourinho has been looking for at Manchester United. Similarly, Antoine Griezmann happily adopted a deeper playmaking role to leave Kylian Mbappé at the sharp end of the France attack. Pivotal in the knockout stages, Griezmann’s man-of-the-match award in the final was thoroughly deserved.
This change in attitude, even since Euro 2016, was highlighted by Pogba before the final on Sunday. “I am not going to lie. At the Euros, we thought that it was already done.” he confessed. “We told ourselves we had won already after beating Germany; that was the real final for us. We don’t want to make this mistake again. We will approach this match differently.”
Another parallel with 1998 is that this team truly represents French ethnic diversity. Seventeen of the 23 in the squad were eligible to play for at least one other country and now, as was the case 20 years ago, they have the chance to act as a unifying force in country that continues to work through social issues. As Blaise Matuidi elaborated last week: “The diversity we have in this team is in the image of our beautiful country. We proudly represent France. For us, that’s superb.”
France started slowly, with Deschamps seemingly wanting to fit his best players into an unwieldy XI, but he quickly reverted to type and prioritised finding a balance, which has been the cornerstone of his successes with Les Bleus. No individual was more important than that balance or unity. As the World Cup wore on, Deschamps was able to mould an effective, if pragmatic, unit that supported and played for each other.
But the true winning formula has been espoused by the coach for some time. It is one that unpins both his World Cup winners, the 1998 team and France as a nation: liberté, égalité and fraternité. “We have good players in our team but that is not all.” explained Benjamin Mendy last night. “We are a true family. There was an incredible feeling from the off. Thanks to everyone. Allez les Bleus!”
by Adam White