France's superb showings at Brazil 2014 have been greeted by a wave of excitement back home, and also by more than a little head-scratching. After all, how did a side that laboured through qualifying suddenly become a well-oiled unit with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for goals, rattling in 26 and conceding three in eight games since their play-off opener against Ukraine? The euphoria of their second-leg success in that tie has been put forward as one explanation, while some have pointed to the absence of disruptive characters in the squad and the physical freshness of the players.
Perhaps each of those reasons have played a part, but one additional factor cannot be overlooked either: the motivating powers of coach Didier Deschamps. In France, everyone remembers how Deschamps took centre stage at half-time during the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ Final, the then captain rousing his colleagues in the dressing room, spurring them on to see home their 2-0 advantage before spotting Zinedine Zidane and addressing the man of the moment in more hushed tones.
Deschamps looks to have stuck to that winning formula as a coach, employing both dramatic speeches and quiet words of encouragement to get the best out of his troops. It has clearly been working, and he struck a note of genuine enthusiasm after Les Bleus sealed their place in the last 16 with a goalless draw against Ecuador. "It's a huge satisfaction for me and my staff," he told FIFA. "I'm proud of what the players have achieved. We need to appreciate this moment: when you look at the other matches, you realise that this is a very difficult World Cup. Some big nations have already been eliminated, but we're still here."
Team spirit and the mentality of the players are essential. That isn't what wins you games, but you can't win them without it.
His side's inability to break down Ecuador was perhaps the only negative in their final Group E outing, but Deschamps is not unduly concerned. "We lacked efficiency, but we had a lot of chances," he said. "We were very prolific in our games before that, and that was important. It would have been better to continue in the same vein, but that doesn't spoil our joy at having qualified."
Hot and cold
Crucially, that joy does not seem to have spilled over into complacency. If anything, Deschamps has made a conscious effort to keep his squad's mood in check since the start, having underlined the need "not to get carried away" in his press conference after France kicked off by downing Honduras 3-0. "For now, though, I haven't felt a sense of over-confidence, so I haven't needed to step in," he added. "But we can't afford to go to sleep either." Mixing hot and cold once again, it was classic Deschamps.
The former midfielder has also made a point of trying to keep all 23 players on their toes, which explains why he swapped out six regular starters for the Ecuador game. "I'm pretty happy with their performance, even if I think we could have played better as a team," he explained. "But it's important that as many players as possible are able to stay match-ready by getting playing time." That too could well be a lesson he learned in 1998, when France also rotated their starting line-up in their final group stage fixture.
Deschamps will now be hoping his methods pay off in their meeting with Nigeria, a side he is not taking lightly. "They will undoubtedly cause us problems on a physical level and they have forwards who can make the difference at any moment," he noted, while keeping his plans to unsettle the Super Eagles close to his chest.
Before his team touched down in Brazil, 'DD' told the press that "team spirit and the mentality of the players are essential. That isn't what wins you games, but you can't win them without it." Given that his charges topped their section with eight goals in three outings, the man who skippered the side to glory at the Stade de France appears to have won that particular battle. Only time will now tell whether France's current odyssey will end with even more thrilling echoes of 1998.