Eric Cantona once said Deschamps "will never be anything more than a water carrier. You can find players like him on every street corner.” For a water carrier, Deschamps carved out quite a career: UEFA Champions League titles with Marseille and Juventus, five league and two cup championships with Marseille, Juventus and Chelsea.
He captained France to its first World Cup title in 1998 and second European Championship title two years later. Tired of the criticism about his declining play, Deschamps retired from the national team in 2000. "I have a wife and family," he said. "I don't want them to have to suffer."
After one final season at Valencia in Spain, Deschamps ended his playing career and has never looked back. Kylian Mbappe, who wasn't born when France won the 1998 World Cup, says Deschamps has never won brought holding the World Cup trophy at the Stade de France.
“You have to live in your own times," Deschamps said after France's 1-0 win over Belgium on Tuesday. "I never, never, never mention my own history. Some of them were not born but saw pictures. It belongs to a lot of French people that lived through it but not the young generation. I’m here to write a new page in history, the most beautiful page. I’m not saying I’m not proud of what we did 20 years ago. Nobody will be able to erase it. But we can’t look back and see what is in the rear-view mirror.”
For Deschamps, it is always about moving forward. Following each win at the World Cup, he has cautioned that his team -- the second youngest at the World Cup -- has "une marge de progression" ("room for improvement"). The comparisons between the current team and the 1998 team are inevitable, but Deschamps is more motivated by what happened two years ago when France lost in the European Championship final at home.
French soccer was at a low when Deschamps took over in 2012. There was the player revolt and strike at the 2010 World Cup and strife that led to more suspensions after Euro 2012. France almost didn't qualify for the 2014 World Cup -- it needed to rally from 2-0 down to beat Ukraine in a playoff -- but since then, it has been one step forward after another.
Les Bleus reached the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, where they lost to Germany. Two years later, they beat Germany, 2-0, in the semifinals of the Euros but lost to Portugal, 1-0, in overtime in the final. That memory tempered Tuesday's victory over Belgium.
“I was there two years ago with my staff," said Deschamps.
There are parallels between the 2018 World Cup team and the '98ers, coached by Aime Jacquet, who came under heavy criticism from parts of the French press for his under-performing team. It was a team loaded with stars -- Zinedine Zidane at the height of career, Thierry Henry just starting out -- but it lacked the panache of the great Michel Platini-led teams of the 1980s.
Deschamps says Jacquet had a big influence on his coaching career, teaching him how to handle a team when things are going well -- and things are going bad. It is to Deschamps' credit that he has taken a young team -- six starters against Belgium were 25 years old or younger -- and his players have bought into his mission.
The videos posted after wins show Paul Pogba, Presnel Kimpembe and Ousmane Dembele having all kinds of fun on the plane rides back to their base, but Deschamps has maintained one of strictest lock-downs of any national team in Russia. For more than a month, the team has been isolated at the Hilton Garden Inn Moscow New Riga in Istra with almost no access to family and friends.
“I feel very proud for my group," said Deschamps on Tuesday night. "We have been 49 days together. There were a lot of things, a lot of difficult things. Everyone can take credit.”
Deschamps learned how to run a team from his experience in 1998 when the French were holed up in Clairefontaine. That camp was the subject of the classic soccer film "Les Yeux dans les Bleus," an inside look at the run to the title. The circumstances were much different than today -- France was the host. One of the most memorable scenes from the film is of the team bus ride from Clairefontaine to Stade de France and crowds that lined the streets to watch it go by. Thousands of Frenchmen celebrated back home on Tuesday night, but only 2,500 French fans attended the semifinal in St. Petersburg.
The comparisons between the 1998 and 2018 teams extend to the field. Deschamps and Les Bleus came in for criticism for the team's disappointing showing in the group stage, which followed a run of poor results in tune-ups -- 3-2 loss to Colombia in March and 1-1 tie with the USA in June. Deschamps was accused of becoming paranoid. In response to the publication of his starting lineups ahead of time in L'Equipe, the national sports daily, security guards were placed on the rooftops of homes surrounding the team practice field.
At times, the French style can leave you wanting more. Deschamps' team-first approach has everything backwards. The forwards defend, and the defenders score the goals. The new star is Mbappe, but he dishes out his moves in small portions.
In the knockout phase, Les Bleus have turned things on. They came from behind to eliminate Argentina, the 2014 runner-up, in the round of 16, and they shut out Uruguay and Belgium in the next two games with convincing wins. All Uruguay and Belgium had done before then was go a combined 9-0.
No one should doubt that France is on the march to Moscow.