Zinedine Zidane wants your job. Zinedine Zidane is making very little secret of the fact that he wants your job. Indeed, the normally taciturn Zinedine Zidane is giving interviews to L’Équipe nakedly advertising his suitability for your job, and describing it as his “deepest desire”. “If it has to be done,” Zinedine Zidane has said of your sacking and imminent replacement by Zinedine Zidane, “it will be done.”
Most mortals, when faced with this utterly petrifying state of affairs, would probably quail at length before ultimately surrendering to cosmic inevitability and giving Zidane whatever he wants. But Didier Deschamps is built a little tougher than that. You probably have to be in order to win World Cups as a player and coach, to do this job for more than a decade and still thirst for more.
The other thing is that Deschamps has far more pressing issues in his inbox right now than a bald job challenge. On paper, the 2018 champions should be strong favourites to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to retain the trophy. The raw talent in this generation of French male footballers could sustain not simply a successful title defence but an entire dynasty. However Deschamps’s squad arrives in Qatar beset by doubts: some real, some confected, some occupying that existentially French space of catastrophes that do not really exist yet.
On the field, preparations have been assailed by the loss of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté in midfield and Presnel Kimpembe in defence. Fitness worries have also pursued Karim Benzema, Lucas Hernandez and Raphaël Varane in recent weeks . That’s six of the XI who started at Euro 2020. Antoine Griezmann has barely played 90 minutes all year. Results have been poor, with France winning only one of their six Nations League games and narrowly avoiding relegation to League B.
Meanwhile the nation is still puzzling over what exactly to make of last summer, in which France produced some of the most scintillating football of the tournament, beat Germany and led Switzerland 3-1 after 80 minutes of their last-16 match, and still somehow contrived to lose. The suspicion remains that this is a team equally capable of brilliant streaks and wild collapses, a perception not helped by Deschamps’s apparent indecision over whether to play three or four at the back.
But really, 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 agreement over image rights, has finally been settled. An extraordinary blackmail case involving Pogba, who claims to have been held up at gunpoint by associates of his brother and ordered to pay £11m, remains ongoing. Meanwhile Noël Le Graët, the president of the French Football Federation, has been accused by a number of female employees of sexual harassment, charges he refutes.
None of this, you will note, is really the fault of Deschamps or his players. Yet it all seems to have fed into a growing disconnect between French football and its public. A recent Le Monde editorial was scathing of the national game, describing it as “a system that lives in a vacuum, that operates with its own rules and its own values, in a complete disconnect from the rest of society”. The popularity of the national side has fallen from 64% to 52% in the last year, according to an RTL/Odoxa poll taken in September. Only 41% of French people have a “good image” of football.
For a diverse and athletically breathtaking world champion team, this is actually quite astonishing, and results only partially explain the downturn. The squad itself remains well-liked, as does Deschamps. It is the edifice itself that seems to turn people off: a game besmirched by power and money, outdated administrators such as Le Graët who claimed in 2020 that racism in sport “does not exist”, perhaps even the cold domestic dominance of Paris Saint-Germain and their chequebook.
And for all Deschamps’s success as a football coach, he has shown little inclination to be a spiritual leader. Earlier this summer he looked gaunt and drawn, rocked by the death of his father and openly admitting that he “didn’t have the strength and energy” to offer his side. So at this most critical of junctures, where exactly does the authority lie in this team? Where is their moral centre? What do they stand for? Who do they represent? In times of triumph these are questions that can easily be papered over with ticker-tape. But in adversity they feel doubly significant.
There is a deep antipathy towards Qatar’s World Cup among the French public. Around half believe that players should refuse to participate. Most of the left parties have called for a total boycott. Many cities – including Paris, Marseille and Lille – are refusing to host public screenings or fan zones. Amid this the FFF has been jarringly out of kilter with public opinion, heavily criticised by Amnesty International for its “deafening silence” on human rights.
None of this makes a calamity inevitable. What it does is raise the stakes. If France get off to a strong start, public opinion could well swing behind them. But a poor tournament has the potential to unleash frustrations and revulsions that could engulf French football in crisis. Deschamps knows that a semi-final is the bare minimum requirement. Anything less, and he knows who will be coming for his job.