French want Deschamps to repeat 1998 feat
Hopes are high that France's 1998 World Cup-winning captain can coach them to the title
The French are dreaming of a repeat of 1998 and there's nothing Didier Deschamps can do about it.
He slyly sidestepped every question with the grace of an opening batsman, but his nation are starting to expect.
The coach, like the skipper before him, must concern himself with inflated hopes. Sweet dreams are made of this.
Now France have qualified with little difficulty for the knockout stages, the only thought is how far they can go.
Images of Dechamps lifting the World Cup as skipper in Paris are indelible and inescapable.
"I cannot think about 1998," he laughed, his genial manner befitting a coach who topped the group and now faces the comparatively easier opponents of Nigeria in the last 16.
"I look forward, yes, but I cannot look that far forward. I enjoy what we've achieved. But the focus now is Nigeria."
Not among the French faithful it isn't. The standing ovation at the final whistle was a collective statement of intent; a sign of the confident times.
Deschamps can manfully try and keep a lid on it, but he's pushing against a growing belief among Les Bleus. Surely he shares the supporters' renewed optimism?
"Of course, let the fans be happy," he told me. "We didn't win this match against Ecuador, but I sense their confidence. It's not my role to tell the fans to cool down. It's up to us to keep going, keep it up and sustain this euphoria."
In that moment, his incomparable competitive steak peeked through. The last time France won their first two games in the group stages was 1998. Their captain didn't compromise then. He doesn't now as coach.
So the question came again. He gave his nation an unforgettable present 16 years ago. He can possibly deliver again.
His key players are rested, there are no injuries or suspensions and the draw is relatively kind. The stubborn spectre of 1998 loomed large in the press conference.
"You can all talk about 1998 and the fans can talk about 1998," he said, smiling. But there's no point in going that far. I have only one thing on my mind now and that's Nigeria.
"We've got to be careful. So many great countries have already been eliminated. So we will concentrate solely on the next game."
Deschamps almost convinced himself. He certainly didn't persuade anyone else in the room. His words didn't match the mischievous smile.
He has no intention of following Spain, Italy and England through the exit marked "underperforming European powerhouses" any time soon.
The notion goes against the psychological grain.
"My job isn't to compare generations. That's your job," he said. "If you want to say this squad has greater midfield depth than 1998, then that's up to you.
"My only job is to make the Round of 16, but I will say we have a very competitive midfield."
Deschamps couldn't help himself. Every time he churned out a sanitised soundbite, he usually followed with a competitive caveat.
He won't compare eras, but he has an accomplished midfield. He's only thinking about the next game, but he intends to ride the wave of euphoria for as long as possible.
The French coach is not accustomed to falling off mid-ride.
He demands unswerving obedience to the common cause. His intolerance of individual intolerance has guided Les Bleus towards a brighter, united future.
"What I have seen since the first day is a sense of togetherness," he said. "There's a spirit to do the right things which has been a great pleasure to me. There's a common will to fight together and go as far as possible. My role is to bring all these elements together."
The sense of deja vu was unavoidable. He offered similar platitudes as captain back in 1998.
The more he claims things have changed within the French camp, the more they stay the same.
Didier: We needed changes
SEEING RED: Ecuador's Antonio Valencia (far right) was sent off for a challenge on France's Lucas Digne, which left the latter lying on the ground and requiring treatment.
France coach Didier Deschamps admitted this morning (Singapore time) that his decision to make sweeping changes prevented Les Bleus from performing at their best in a 0-0 World Cup draw with Ecuador.
"When there are changes, it does have an impact on the cohesion of the team," he said after the draw at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro that saw France progress to the last 16 as winners of Group E.
Deschamps made six changes to the team that hammered Switzerland 5-2 last Friday, including bringing in Morgan Schneiderlin for his first international start in place of the banned Yohan Cabaye.
The draw against an Ecuador side, who played most of the second half with 10 men after Manchester United's Antonio Valencia was sent off, sealed France's qualification, but their performance was nothing like the spectacular showing against the Swiss.
"I could put out the same team every time, but then it would be pointless having the other players here," added Deschamps.
"I have confidence in all 23 players and we needed to find the right balance between preserving some who have played a lot of games and making sure that others who we may require later on are in good condition.
"It takes away some of the fluidity and we were less dangerous in the first half. After the red card, we had a bit more space and some good moves but were not as clinical in front of goal as usual.
"Maybe this result will calm some people down. The World Cup is the highest level and we can't win every game by three goals."