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Deschamps: We’re not trophy candidates yet

Head coach Didier Deschamps of France celebrates
© Getty Images

Losing by the narrowest of margins to the eventual champions in the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals might seem frustrating, but for France coach Didier Deschamps, his side’s 1-0 defeat to Germany at Brazil 2014 had a silver lining. Given Les Bleus’ disastrous showing in South Africa four years earlier and their scratchy qualifying form, the run to the last eight of the world finals represented a big step forward.

The former midfielder, who helped France lift the World Cup Trophy on home soil in 1998, says that while the side are currently behind the top few teams in the world, he nevertheless has his sights set on UEFA EURO 2016, which France is preparing to host.

Attending a recent UEFA seminar for European national team coaches and directors of football* in St Petersburg, the *Tricolore coach spoke to ** about the conclusions he has drawn from Brazil 2014 and made his objectives clear for the upcoming European Championships. What have you learned from the conference for European national team coaches and directors of football? *What were the main tactical and technical trends that you noted at Brazil 2014? 
Didier Deschamps: **There was some quite attacking football. What was important to my mind was that the pace of play was pretty fast in every game, with players showing their ability to go on high-intensity runs time and time again. Skill is still the thing that makes the difference, but in a competition like that athletic performance data is important. I think the modern player has to be a very high-level athlete and be capable of putting in these high-intensity bursts of effort again and again.

Brazil 2014 was your first major international competition as a national team coach. What did you make of the experience?
I’ve played in the World Cup but there’s no doubt that being there as a national team coach is different because you have to think about a lot more things. Naturally, results are more important than anything else, but it’s also a human adventure because you spend six whole weeks together as a group, with the players and the coaching staff. And then you have an important job to do in selecting the team. It’s not just a question of what players have to offer on the pitch. It’s also very important to assess their ability to get on with each other over what is an extended period of time.

*Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Raphael Varane are just some of the excellent young players available to you. How impressed were you by them at the World Cup?
I don’t know if I was impressed, but it’s true that they’re young players. Nine out of the 23-man squad were under 25. The three of them all play for big European clubs, but it was the first time they’d played qualifying matches. It’s important to play in a major finals like the EUROS or the World Cup because it helps you mature faster as a player, and it will give them more experience and toughen them up. The players who appeared at the World Cup will have that bit more experience to draw on at EURO 2016.

We have to make sure that we’re even more competitive in two years’ time.

Are you happy with the progress the team is making? Where do you think they can improve?
Every team makes progress, mine included. The players are getting to know each other better, and as I’ve already said, I’ve got a lot of young players. You can’t pick up experience from one day to the next. You need time, and there are maybe some other young players who can come in for the next competition. The problem you face at the very highest level, like the World Cup or the EUROS, is that everything comes down to details: doing the right things at the right time, and the ability of the players to handle the occasion. The pressure is huge and if you have experience then it really helps you to cope with these kinds of events.

*You beat Spain 1-0 and drew 1-1 with Serbia in your first games after the World Cup. How pleased were you with those performances?
The Spain game was a big one for us because it was our first game back in front of our fans after the World Cup. The Stade de France was full and we managed to beat the Spanish, which was good for our confidence. That game also showed that we’re getting better in terms of our ability to impose ourselves a little more on the opposition. It was an excellent first game back for us. Three days later we were up against Serbia, playing on a difficult pitch against a side who are tough opponents on their home patch. I made a lot of changes, and it was a chance for me to give all the players some time on the pitch. We’ve got the EUROS coming up in two years and I want them all to get some match experience. It’s obvious that they need to start matches to get that.

*You’re already through to UEFA EURO 2016 as hosts but as part of your build-up you’re playing against the teams in Group I: Portugal, Denmark, Serbia, Armenia and Albania. How are you preparing for those games? *
They’re friendly matches and we won’t be playing anything other than friendlies in the build-up to the EUROS, though we’ve obviously got some high-profile matches coming up. We’ve played Spain and we’re going to play Italy, England, the Netherlands and Germany. Though we’re already in the finals, we want to finish top of our group, even if it doesn’t really count. They’re all different types of teams. We know a lot more about Portugal and Serbia, and Armenia and Albania are two teams who are both making progress. We’ve seen Albania win in Portugal. These matches should help us to prepare and be as competitive as possible in two years’ time.

Friendlies have a little less spice than competitive matches. Is that a disadvantage when it comes to preparing for a tournament?
There are good things and bad things. We know that we’ve got two years of friendly matches, but we decided with the President of the French FA that they’d be prestigious games in which we’d be taking on the best teams in Europe and the rest of the world. It goes without saying that it’s difficult to recreate all the ingredients of a decisive qualifying match in a friendly. Our objective isn’t in the short term, though. All these teams will be aiming to qualify for the EUROs. As for us, we have to make sure that we’re even more competitive in two years’ time.

France is now back to being a competitive team again but there’s a big difference between that and winning a title. Obviously, teams like Germany, the Netherlands and Spain are still ahead of us.

France fans seem to have got behind the national team again. Is that important for you?
Yes. The fans really fell out of love with the team after what happened in South Africa in 2010. The players’ performances on the pitch have caught the imagination of the French fans again. They enjoyed it and they wanted to get excited again, which is so important. It goes without saying that it’s nicer for the players to be loved than hated. It’s up to us, in every game we play from now on, to make sure the fans turn up in numbers, cheer us on and get behind this France team.

As a player you won the world and European titles in the space of two years, an achievement Germany are now hoping to match. Where do you think you are in relation to the new world champions?
They’re still a long way ahead. Before they won the World Cup, Germany either reached the semi-finals or the Final every time since 2006. That’s eight years, and most of the players who appeared in the Final in Brazil have been playing together for six years. That’s a whole lot of experience. France is now back to being a competitive team again but there’s a big difference between that and winning a title. Obviously, teams like Germany, the Netherlands and Spain are still ahead of us.

France won the European Championships in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998, both times on home soil. Can you see history repeating itself in 2016?
It’s possible, yes. That’s what we’ll be aiming for and everyone will be expecting it, but the European Championships are every bit as difficult, if not more so, than the World Cup. We’ll be coming up against the best teams in Europe, who did very well in South America. You have to remember that it’s the first time that a European team has won the World Cup in the Americas. So yes, that’s what our goal is going to be, but obviously there can only be one winner. It’s never easy, but we’re going to put the preparations in and try to perform to the best of our ability.

Hosting a major finals always brings pressure with it. Is it going to be hard for you to handle that pressure?
Yes, because the fans are getting very excited and the media too. There’s no reason why it should be something negative though, or something that’s going to inhibit us or drain our confidence. There is a lot of expectation, however, and that could have an impact on the players. We need to protect them as much as we can during our preparations. 

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