Didier Deschamps understands that history remembers winners. Those who prevail can even frame how the past is viewed, but they can't distort it. In 1998, Les Bleus were a footballing machine: functional, efficient and ultimately victorious on that rambunctious night in July when a blue wave swept across Paris, spread to the banlieues and then into the hinterland to unify a divided nation. Outside of France, they were, however, perhaps the worst kind of champions " triumphant, but not loved.
All these years later, that's the accusation leveled at Deschamps again. His team is too pragmatic. Kylian Mbappe? Boom! Paul Pogba? Boom! N'Golo Kante? Boom! And even the long-time exile, Karim Benzema! Boom! They are the Avengers of football, an ensemble of superheroes whose qualities surpass those of mere subterraneans. Yet amid all the mayhem and chaos of the last World Cup, at a tournament that at times didn't make sense, France played a dull, almost stifling, brand of football that extracted any sense of beauty and poetry from the game. After years of setbacks and low points " an opening defeat against Senegal in 2002 and the mutiny in South Africa " France were kings of the global game again.
But where were the bravura and the panache? And the pirouettes and flicks bestowing some elegance to the game? France never played any of the exuberant football that it should have been capable of given the class and depth of its squad. It's an observation that applies to Deschamps' heydays in the French shirt as well.
Captain Deschamps embodied his team. He combined intelligence, hard work, positioning and anticipation to become his team's water carrier. A liaison between coach Aime Jacquet and the team, he steered Les Bleus throughout the tournament. His position and style of play were huge assets, but he never quite enjoyed the acclaim and iconic status both Lilian Thuram and Zinedine Zidane achieved with their sumptuous strikes in the latter stages of the competition. In the end, for the briefest of moments, Deschamps did tower over his teammates, and even Jacques Chirac, when he stood on the rostrum and lifted the World Cup, with the flashlights glittering away at the Stade de France.
Two years later, Les Bleus were slightly more sexy. Zidane was in resplendent form, notably against both Spain and Portugal, in a tournament that enchanted and when modern pressing wasn't prevalent yet. A brilliant number 10 with little regard for defending, Zidane delighted with pinpoint passes and dribbles that bamboozled opponents. A line lower, Deschamps, a defensive bedrock, also carried the team. Again, other players got the plaudits with David Trezeguet netting a dramatic golden goal in the final against Italy to win the World Cup-Euro double, a first since Germany in the 1970s.
Major finals remain the pinnacle of the game, even if club football, with its operatic narratives, congests the calendar. With limited time to work with their squads, international coaches need to be pragmatic: shape a competitive team in a minimum number of days. Russia however was different. Somehow, prudence was cast aside and the result was a four-week long roller coaster ride of unpredictable and exuberant elite football. Except for France. They were involved in high-scoring thrillers and full-back Benjamin Pavard's splendid strike was the goal of the tournament, but Deschamps' team always vexed those who longed to see France interpret the game more expansively and expressively. The attack supplemented defense. N'Golo Kante's importance exceeded Mbappe's. Deschamps demanded balance and harmony, moulding the team into an image of himself.
That's what great coaches often do. Brazil's Mario Zagallo became the first man to win the World Cup as a player and a coach. In 1958, he shuttled up and down the left wing to transform Brazil's 4-2-4 into a 4-3-3, the system he'd employ to build, arguably, the greatest team ever. Deschamps' side doesn't belong in the pantheon of the gods, but in many ways he has also transformed them into a living iteration of himself.
It was enough to triumph in Russia. His squad remains frightening and formidable, equipped to deal with the strains of an exhausting, Covid-19 ravaged club season. Hardened and experienced, Deschamps proved he thinks of the greater good only " that Les Bleus are everything, that they represent the zenith and that everything must be sacrificed on the altar of Nike, the goddess of victory. He forgave both Adrien Rabiot and Benzema, the Madrid striker lending even more firepower to the French attack.
It could lead to success again at Euro 2020. Deschamps, the arch pragmatist, won't mind the public opinion or perception of his team. All that matters is victory and to partake in the gallery of the greats.