RIO DE JANEIRO — French Coach Didier Deschamps tries to stay alert. Early in the World Cup, he halted a practice session and alerted FIFA officials when he suspected a drone plane was hovering over players’ workout.
“We don’t want an intrusion into our privacy,” he said.
As this tournament was just getting underway, the 45-year-old coach sat on a dais and seemed to know the question was coming. When a British journalist finally asked about France’s recent troubled history on the field — particularly its 2010 World Cup debacle — Deschamps didn’t even bother putting on headphones to hear an English-to-French translation of the question.
“I haven’t understood everything . . . but I heard ‘South Africa,’ ” he said, “and you shouldn’t mention South Africa. We are now in another World Cup. We are in Brazil. We are not going to be judged by what we did four years ago.”
His team promptly spent the next two weeks making the same case. The result: Just two years removed from complete organizational chaos, France enters Friday’s quarterfinal match against Germany with as much a shot at winning this tournament as anyone.
France is barely recognizable from just a few years ago. Only four players on this year’s squad were in South Africa. The turnover has reached every corner of the program, with all new coaches, staff, players — and very few lingering bad memories.
“As far as we are concerned, we live [in] the present, the present moment” said goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, one of the few holdovers. “. . . We want to write our own history, obviously.”
Deschamps knows a thing or two about rebounding programs. During his playing days, the French failed to even qualify for the 1990 or ’94 World Cup tournaments. But in 1998, with Deschamps serving as team captain, France was not only in the field, it hoisted the championship trophy on its home turf.
Less than a decade later, Les Bleus began an embarrassing nose dive, one that kept finding new, unchartered depths. France lost the 2006 World Cup final after Zinedine Zidane, perhaps the most talented player the country has ever known, was red-carded for a foolish head butt.
In 2010, Coach Raymond Domenech got in a confrontation with one of his players, sending Nicolas Anelka home. The rest of the team showed its displeasure with a mass revolt, skipping a training session. Days later, they were all ousted from the tournament, scoring just one goal in three games and failing to get out of group play.
Then with Laurent Blanc serving as coach, the team spiraled further out of control at the 2012 European championship, plagued by infighting. Blanc stepped down and France turned to its former captain, Deschamps, to resuscitate the program. He had just two years to summon a near-miracle.
Deschamps boasted that he tried to assemble the best team, not necessarily the best collection of individual players. With a tough qualifying draw and players still learning to play together, France barely made the World Cup field.
On Thursday at the historic Maracana stadium, following his team’s final practice session of the week, Deschamps was asked about his program’s fast turnaround. “November 19 was the key,” he said matter-of-factly.
Prodded to elaborate, Deschamps explained the stakes were laid bare last November in France’s qualifier against Ukraine — “To qualify or stay at home?” — and his newly assembled squad answered the call, posting a 3-0 win.
“That’s what changed everything,” he said. “There were other major elements before and after that made it possible for us to reach this particular state, but the history of my players, the history of my staff and myself has changed totally since November 19.”
They’ve played four friendly matches and four World Cup contests since that day. They haven’t lost, outscoring opponents 25-3. Forward Karim Benzema, 26, has been one of this tournament’s most outstanding players, notching three goals and two assists in four games, and Lloris has posted three shutouts in goal.
“Of course, France is a team on the very top,” German midfielder Toni Kroos said. “We know what is coming our way. We know that they have top players. They have shown a performance of a team which perhaps wasn’t the case before.”
France hasn’t yet faced a challenge quite like Germany, which won Group G with seven points and topped Algeria, 2-1, in its round-of-16 matchup on Monday. The two nations last faced each other in a friendly in February 2013 — a 2-1 Germany win — but they also squared off in one of the most memorable and deplorable matches the World Cup has seen.
In the 1982 World Cup semifinal, German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher barreled his shoulder through Patrick Battiston, knocking the French player unconscious with a broken jaw and two missing teeth. The match went into extra time, and with the score tied at 3, it resulted in the first penalty shootout at a World Cup, which Germany won, 5-4.
Deschamps has been careful this week, not allowing his players to think past Friday’s tough match, but he also making sure they don’t dwell on the past.
“History is what is has been,” Deschamps said, “and tomorrow we’ll write a new page in history maybe. We’re try to make it as pleasant as possible.”
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