The Little Soldier
Didier Deschamps explains how leadership has always come naturally to him
You can think about the France national team in recent years as Before Didier Deschamps and After Didier Deschamps. Before: players fell out with each other (Euro 2008), refused to train (2010 World Cup), insulted coaches and swore at journalists (Euro 2012). “Gross incompetence and cartoonish dysfunction” is how the Wall Street Journal summed up France's 2010 World Cup campaign, which ended with Nicolas Anelka sent home early, the captain Patrice Evra rowing with the coach, the team going on strike and the French football federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes resigning.
After: Deschamps established a code of conduct, demanding that players respect the jersey and the national anthem, display an open and friendly attitude, stay genuine and humble and, in a section on how to handle the press, to remember that “your behaviour, attitude and words shape your image as it is replayed to the public by the media, which are an unavoidable and indispensable part of your journey. They mould the image that you show to the entire country, so be professional with them, too.”
Any players who broke the code out were out (hence the absence of Karim Benzema, who never played again under Deschamps after the bizarre plot emerged in which he was accused of blackmailing his teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape). This stance, and the manner of France’s play-off win over Ukraine, when they overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit with a 3-0 win at the Stade de France to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, helped the French public reconnect with les Bleus. The team improved their placing in each of the last three tournaments. Quarter-finals at the 2014 World Cup, beaten finalists at Euro 2016 and world champions in Russia 2018.
France’s 4-2 win over Croatia in the World Cup final ensured that Deschamps thus became only the second man, after Franz Beckenbauer, to win the World Cup as captain and coach. As a player, he was captain of every team where he was a regular starter, at Nantes, Marseille, Juventus, Chelsea and of course France, whom he skippered to success at Euro 2000 as well as in 1998.
At his first club, Aviron Bayonnais, he was made captain six weeks after joining. “He took charge without being authoritative – he would only use nice words – and the others listened,” remembered his first coach, Norbert Navarro. “In two weeks he went from the junior beginners to the Under-16s. And on the day of his birthday, October 15, I gave him the captain’s armband. A little boy of 11 with 13-15 year olds!”
Deschamps received his football education at the Nantes academy, famous in that era for producing Marcel Desailly, Claude Makélélé and Christian Karembeu. He left home when he was 14, competing with kids older than him for a contract. The Nantes coach Miroslav Blažević saw something in the young Frenchman who wore patched flared jeans and turtleneck sweaters knitted by his mother. Blažević appointed Deschamps as Nantes captain when he was only 19.
He was called up to the France team at 21, and was already a coach in spirit. “I remember [he was] a bloody nuisance on the pitch, giving orders, barking, ushering people about,” said his former team-mate at Marseille, Marc Libbra. “He has a go at you to bring the best out of you.”
I spent an afternoon in Monaco with Deschamps in 2017 to discuss the art of leadership. We talked about relationships, adaptability, his darkest moments as a coach and his managerial mistakes. He was confident, generous and open-minded – maybe even more so than you’d expect from someone who, back then, had not yet become the most significant figure in the history of French football.
Are you a born leader?
I think it’s in your genes. I don't know if it’s hereditary or not, but I think some people are born [to be leaders], others are happier to follow, to be led. You can feel it in the first years of your life, at school, and it develops little by little. But it’s not something you can consciously decide when you’re 10, 15 or 18. You can’t just say to yourself: “I’m going to be a leader.” Some people have that predisposition in terms of personality and after that the leadership comes naturally.
How do you define the term ‘leader’?
For me a leader is someone who listens and who is interested in others, and doesn’t just blindly follow instructions. I always had a desire to know why we were doing things in a certain way and whether that was the best way and where we were going next. I was always interested in having the answers to those questions and being able to transmit that; to pass things on and explain. Being a leader, particularly in sport, is about having time for others. And for you to be able to spend time with others, you must be in a situation where you don't have a problem with yourself. If you’re in difficulty with your own level and way things are going, then you don’t have that time for others. And once you've accepted the status of a leader, then my way of seeing things is you spend time with others, helping make sure everyone is pulling in the same way and doing all you can to ensure your team is on the right track.
Were you nervous when Miroslav Blažević made you captain of Nantes at 19?
There were guys who were 30 but they accepted my leadership. Blažević wanted to push me forward and give me more responsibility and even though I was one of youngest in the group, already if I had something to say, whether it was someone 20 or 30, I would say it – because it was always for the good of the team. Maturity is not a question of age. Some people will be mature at 18, some at 30 and some will never get there! I would never speak badly to people, and I still don’t today. But when I’ve had something to say I’ve always said it. The older guys at Nantes never made things difficult for me, never doubted my capacity to fulfil that role. And for me it came naturally.
Has this concept of leadership changed since you were a player?
Leadership is similar today as it was 20 years ago, despite changes in society. There are changes to the way you work, because football is more a subject for marketing and showbiz [than it was], so you have social networks and more media. But it doesn't change your basic ways of leading, the qualities of a leader, the way to lead a group. When I was a young player there was one guy in charge: the manager would do everything. Now that has changed, as you have the team around you. In the past, it wasn’t easier for that one guy, it was just a different media landscape. And the manager would say: “We will do this,” and that was it, there was no discussion. These days, you need to have a team around you, where you give responsibilities to different people because you don’t have the time to do everything yourself, you don't have the time to hear everyone’s concerns or their feelings of injustice. That would eat up so much energy. You wouldn't have freshness to be at top of your game so you have to find the right balance.
But the players have changed, and that must make a difference.
It’s much more complex today. That’s not just in sport, that’s in society at large. Mentalities have changed. These days in any professional sphere, an 18 year old wants everything and he wants it straightaway, because he feels strong; they have mastered new technology, which gives them a certain advantage and power over generations above them. And these days an 18 or 20 year old has no qualms of wanting to take the place of those who are 30 or 40, who have experience. These days in sport, you see 18 year olds moving abroad, changing clubs: in my generation, you would wait! These days there are no borders, kids feel strong, confident and they have a desire to explore and to conquer. These can be good things but can there be a bad side as well; their whole environment has changed around them, so there is an entourage that plays a large part, so many outside influences. They could be people in the family, friends, who don’t necessarily have great objectivity, then agents and advisors in different domains and their interest is a financial one. The coach finds himself confronted with all these things. Our job is to be tough, to try and put them on the right path, but if the player’s cousin or brother or father or friend says, “No, no, your coach is an idiot, he doesn't understand, you’re the greatest, do what you want…”
What is the negative impact of a bad leader?
There’s good and bad leadership. In sport you can have what we can call a negative leadership: that can also be someone with a certain influence over the group. In general, it’s someone who doesn't have an opinion. And this kind of guy, if he’s an important player in the team and he’s playing, then everything is okay. But the day he’s not in the team, he can attract all the other players who are having problems towards him, and create a bad vibe – and I’ve known people like that. But a real leader, even in tough times on a personal level, is still there with the idea of leading the group upwards and onwards - and of being a relay for the coach and the staff.
How do you describe yourself as a leader?
I don't do things today the way I did at the beginning of my career as a manager. I had a certain vision when a player, and I would say to myself, “When I am a manager, I won’t do it that way.” But then sometimes you find yourself doing stuff you would never do or say. For example, experience is important when a player but even more so when a manager. The more you’ve been through, the better you will deal with it. It helps especially to know not what to do. When I get up, I never say, “I know.” What I say is, “I know that I don’t know. And that I can still learn.” It’s hard to define my method, to pick out my ways of doing it. It’s more about who I am, where I am, my roots and my personality. And I wouldn't have the pretension to say this is “my way”. There are always some key words that I revert back to again and again. Be demanding. Have trust. And put yourself in the situation where you have given the maximum possibility of reaching your goal. Giving yourself all the tools and preparation possible, it’s quite something to get all that.
Do you find it difficult to drop players?
Management is all about choosing, which also means dropping people, and that’s the hard part of the job. But it’s something I’ve never shied away from. With experience, I have also learned how to take a step back and distance myself much more than at the beginning. I used to take everything to heart – these days I place myself above all that. It's water off a duck’s back. Then I protect myself and put myself in my bubble. These days I won’t waste energy on a battle I may not win.
What do you look for from the leaders in your own team?
My job is to see who has the authenticity in a group. I have to be able to feel who can represent the other guys. It’s all about choices, of players, and about men as well. So the job is to identify those people and get them to pass on the important messages on how the group should be together with their internal rules and respect for a certain way of doing things; if I need to intervene, I will – that’s my job – but if I need to do that about something going on outside the pitch, then it means something is not working right, so there’s a problem. Sometimes you have struggles in a group and they can sort it themselves. If I have to intervene then the problem has got to a certain level already. You can never have too many leaders in a group, because even with lots of strong personalities, one will still emerge. It's a natural selection, it’s evolution, you can have six strong figures but they can’t all be the one with the final word. It doesn't prevent them from having an important role – as long as they don't devour each other.
Do you learn about each player as an individual and respond to his unique motivation?
Everyone has their own personality and that’s where my back-up staff comes in. There are all sorts of discussions happening in a squad and I need to know what’s being said. When I was manager in a club, I picked three leaders. In sport there are three domains of leadership: physical leadership, technical leadership and psychological leadership. With that you represent the whole group. Why three? Because having an odd number means that in a discussion we can never end up with a draw, and I like that. With the national team, I have gone for five. It’s important for me to have one of the younger guys there to listen and to pass things on. Those players I have chosen, it’s not one-way for me to pass on messages, it’s a two-way thing. Their job is to bring back stuff to me from the group. When they feel the need to talk to me about something that’s important for the group. Speaking and passing on messages is part of management. But for me being a good manager is very much about listening. Listening and hearing are two different things. Your role is not just to give orders, it also to console, to encourage, and to listen.
So you take care of the group, and the group takes care of the individuals?
Man-management has become extremely important. Your choices are human investments: you have to put in time in, to get to know all of them better. They have different lives, personalities, cultures, backgrounds, even views on life. So you have to be able to tune in to their station. The role I have as national team coach is about having a moral contract. I don't pay these guys, their club does, which is why I’m talking about a moral engagement. It’s about creating a link based on trust. The human relationships these days have become almost as important as what’s on the pitch. Being a manager is about recognising talent and knowing how to use it in the right context. You need to spot that thing which tells you, “He’s the guy who can bring me what I need here.” It’s all about your exchanges, chats, but not necessarily sitting down in an office. It can be on the training ground, a word exchanged here or there. What I realised very early is that even when you have doubts, the player must never feel it. You have the right to have doubts. You can have doubts. But you have to be very clear about this. The players must never feel it or see it. So it’s about what you say and how you say it: the words you use, the way you use them, and the message that puts across. The way you project your message.
What mistakes have you made?
I don’t want to name names but in my first year at Monaco, I failed to identify the leaders I needed. If you make a mistake when choosing those leaders, then things become very complicated. Never make promises. What may be true one day may not be the case or the day after. It happened in the past and then you have to go back and justify and explain, you don't want to be in that situation. Also knowing when to praise, when to give a pat on the back and that’s something I haven’t always known how to do. People forget how important that is.
What was your toughest moment as a coach?
I had a really complicated situation to handle between our 2014 World Cup qualifying matches against Ukraine. But that’s where I found the true meaning of my role as national team manager. That’s where I really felt that I was there for a reason. In tough times of crisis, that’s when you dig deep and find what’s inside you. You have to find different ways of reacting. I found messages [for the players] about how we were going to succeed, what we were going to do. Obviously we can’t always win. Things happen in matches, we can’t control everything. But positivity: my starting-point is anything is possible, to always see the positive possibilities in front of you. My temperament is never to give up. I had to go deep down into my resources and find the answers. With my staff, I remained in my bubble and found the solutions. In sport, I return to a phrase from my youth – c’est dans le succès que tu fais la plus grande connerie – in success, you make the biggest errors. I find that true: success makes you euphoric and can lead you to make bad decisions. But in difficulty, at times of failure, that’s when you learn the most about yourself.
Is it easy to stay calm at these moments of intense pressure?
Now I always try to have a little distance between myself and my decisions. In the past, I was too wrapped up in everything. Some half-times I look back on now, I didn't give myself that time, I charged into dressing room and said things… Now I take three or four minutes and let my temperature come down. Not that it’s good to say everything in the same tone of voice. There are times when you need to raise your voice to express things.
Do you enjoy the job the more you do it?
It’s a pleasure, but over and above pleasure is my passion for football. I’ve had the privilege to make my passion my job. Very few can say that. That passion has given me a freedom I have today which is priceless. I have what is almost absolute calmness in that respect. I’ve always been aware of the good fortune to be where I am. I know I’m a privileged guy. I haven’t always succeeded but I’ve always done my best. One of my great pleasures, an immense pleasure, is preparing my pre-game briefings. It interests me greatly. It’s always interesting to go looking for something, some buttons to push, to find different words, different ways of motivating. When you work for a club, you do that every three days and it’s tricky and takes up a lot of energy.
How do you feel once the game is over?
These days, at the end of games, I feel drained. I need a day to recover as well. When you play, you have the adrenaline but as a manager it’s not the same energy, it's a lot of psychological energy. But my batteries get recharged really quickly!
This interview is adapted from Ben Lyttleton’s book Edge: Leadership Secrets from Football’s Top Thinkers (HarperCollins), which is out now.