ZInedine Zidane wants your job. Zinedine Zidane makes no secret of the fact that he wants your job. In fact, the normally taciturn Zinedine Zidane gives interviews to L’Équipe, openly promoting his suitability for the job and describing it as his “deepest desire”. “If it has to be done,” Zinedine Zidane said of her sacking and upcoming replacement by Zinedine Zidane, “it will be done.”
Most mortals would probably quail in the face of this most petrifying situation before finally surrendering to the cosmic inevitability and giving Zidane whatever he wants. But Didier Deschamps is built a little more robustly. You have to be that to become a world champion as a player and coach, to do this job for more than a decade and still be thirsty for more.
The other thing is that Deschamps has far more pressing issues in his inbox right now than a bare job challenge. On paper, the 2018 champions should be heavy favourites, becoming the first team to retain the trophy since Brazil in 1962. The raw talent of this generation of French male footballers could sustain not only a successful title defense, but a whole dynasty. However, the Deschamps team arrives in Qatar with doubts: some real, others invented, others occupy this existential French space of catastrophes that do not yet really exist.
On the pitch, preparations were challenged with the loss of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté in midfield and Presnel Kimpembe in defence. Fitness concerns have also dogged Karim Benzema, Lucas Hernandez and Raphaël Varane in recent weeks. That’s six of the XI that started at Euro 2020. Antoine Griezmann has barely played 90 minutes all year. Results were poor as France won just one of their six Nations League games and narrowly avoided relegation to League B.
Meanwhile, the nation is still puzzling over exactly what to make of last summer, which saw France produce some of the tournament’s most dazzling footballers, beat Germany and led Switzerland 3-1 in the last 16 after 80 minutes, and still sort of invented to lose. Suspicions remain that this is a side equally capable of brilliant streaks and wild meltdowns, a perception unsupported by Deschamps’ apparent indecisiveness about whether to play three or four at the back.
But actually the football itself is not the problem. The problem is everything else. An internal revolt led by Kylian Mbappé, who boycotted a planned promotional event in protest at the collective bargaining agreement on image rights, has finally been settled. An extraordinary blackmail case involving Pogba, who claims he was stopped at gunpoint by his brother’s associates and ordered to pay £11million, is still ongoing. Meanwhile, Noël Le Graët, the president of the French Football Federation, has been accused of sexual harassment by several female employees, which he denies.
You’ll find that none of this is really Deschamps or his players’ fault. But all of this seems to have led to a growing disconnect between French football and its audience. A recent Le Monde editorial criticized the national game, describing it as “a system living in a vacuum, operating with its own rules and its own values, in complete disconnection from the rest of society”. According to an RTL/Odoxa survey conducted in September, the popularity of the national team has fallen from 64% to 52% in the last year. Only 41% of the French have a “good image” of football.
For a diverse and athletically stunning world champion team, that’s actually amazing, and the results only partially explain the downturn. The squad themselves remain popular, as does Deschamps. It’s the building itself that seems to put people off: a game besmirched by power and money, outdated administrators like Le Graët who claimed in 2020 that racism in sport “doesn’t exist”, perhaps even the cold domestic dominance of Paris Saint-Germain and her checkbook.
And for all Deschamps’ success as a football coach, he has shown little inclination to be a spiritual leader. Earlier that summer, he looked gaunt and strained, devastated by his father’s death and openly admitted he “didn’t have the strength and energy” to offer his side. So where exactly is the authority in this team at this extremely critical moment? Where is your moral center? what do they stand for Who do they represent? In times of triumph these are questions that can easily be pasted over with paper. But in times of need, they feel doubly important.
The French public has a deep aversion to the World Cup in Qatar. About half believe players should refuse to participate. Most left-wing parties have called for a total boycott. Many cities – including Paris, Marseille and Lille – are refusing to host public screenings or fan zones. In the midst of this, the FFF was at odds with public opinion, which Amnesty International has severely criticized for its “deafening silence” on human rights.
None of this makes disaster inevitable. What it does is raise the stakes. If France gets off to a strong start, public opinion could well swing behind him. But a bad tournament can spark frustration and disgust that could plunge French football into a crisis. Deschamps knows that a semi-final is the absolute minimum requirement. Anything else, and he knows who’s coming for his job.