PARIS (AP) — France coach Didier Deschamps has been successful wherever he's played and coached. In attempting to turn the national team back into the force it once was, his work so far can be described as encouraging.
A draw in a World Cup qualifier at world champion Spain in October was followed by a win at Italy in November. The spirit showed in those games boosted French hopes that Deschamps has instilled the belief sorely missing in recent years, when the team was haunted by its past glories and plagued by off-field problems.
Under Deschamps, France is looking like a competitive, disciplined force again.
"It's about being competitive. What I say to the players is 'Give yourselves the means to go as far as possible,'" Deschamps told The AP in an interview at the French Federation's Paris headquarters on Tuesday.
"Understanding it is one thing but it's about making it happen. On the pitch, off (the pitch). When you do everything you can, there are no regrets," he added. "(But) when things go well, human nature means people have a tendency to let themselves go. But, no, you have to keep improving."
His predecessor, Laurent Blanc, was also credited for transforming the team following the 2010 World Cup debacle, where France crashed out in the first round and the players embarrassed the country by going on strike at training. The team had improved enough when it entered last year's European Championship to be tagged as a dangerous outsider.
But France fell apart on the field and in the dressing room in the final group game against Sweden, missing an opportunity to avoid Spain in the quarterfinals, and went down without a fight in a 2-0 loss to the defending champions that exposed Blanc's tactical limitations. The negative manner in which France approached that game, and the expletive-laced rant midfielder Samir Nasri aimed at a journalist afterward, exposed a team lacking confidence and composure.
As soon as Deschamps took over he made a statement of intent with a pledge to be uncompromising in his management, regardless of the talent of the player.
Nasri has not played for France under Deschamps, and neither has winger Hatem Ben Arfa or midfielder Yann M'Vila, who snubbed Blanc and striker Olivier Giroud by refusing to shake their hands when he was substituted against Spain. M'Vila is banned from the national team until July 2014 for leading a party of players to a nightclub while on international duty for the under-21 team shortly before a crucial playoff. Deschamps felt let down as he had sent M'Vila down to the under-21s to help him learn about responsibility by setting an example to others.
"It's not always about picking the best players in each position, it's about building a group to help you reach your objectives," Deschamps said, which is where he differs from Blanc's insistence of picking the most talented and trying to instill discipline in them.
Deschamps has no time to educate players; he thinks they should already be prepared.
"When you're playing at the highest level and in big competitions you have to have high standards on a daily basis," he said. "When you're a competitor you bathe in those high standards."
France's federation suspended four players after the 2010 World Cup and two after Euro 2012 — M'Vila and Ben Arfa were also reprimanded over their behavior.
"Players must be very attentive to what they do and say. It's not a constraint, it should be part of their lives as a footballer," said Deschamps, casually dressed in grey jeans and a black sweater, and relaxing in a big leather chair as he occasionally glanced up at a sports show on the massive widescreen television in his office. "You must have a framework, everyone must stay within it. I don't want clones, where everyone is nice. They have different personalities but they have to stay within that (framework)."
Deschamps is happy with his current squad and suggests there will be little change in terms of personnel. Happy, too, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as captain — even though the Tottenham 'keeper is not one for motivational speeches.
"He's not a big talker but he fulfills the role of captain very well," Deschamps said. "He's a great competitor, he's shy and reserved, but not on the pitch."
Keeping Lloris as captain was one of the rare common points between Blanc and Deschamps.
While Blanc spoke with eloquence of playing with flair — and had some impressive results against Brazil, Germany and England to back up those claims — Deschamps, who coached Marseille to the league title in his first season and guided unheralded Monaco to the Champions League final in 2004, is a pragmatist who steers clear of ideals.
"Results are the most important thing, then you can always improve how you play. We've got seven points, and we've completed a part of the journey pretty well," Deschamps said, looking ahead to the table-topping clash with Spain in March, with both teams level on points. "Spain are the best team in the world. They caused us problems, as they do to every team in the world, but we shook them up."
Giroud's last-gasp header helped France end Spain's run of 24 straight qualifying wins. It was the kind of dramatic, emotional high French fans have longed for since David Trezeguet's golden goal winner in extra time against Italy in the Euro 2000 final secured the last of France's three major trophies.
Deschamps, captain at Euro 2000 and two years earlier when France won the 1998 World Cup, felt it just as keenly.
"We experienced the same emotions as those watching on television or inside the stadium," he said. "It triggered something off, people were thrilled. We have to keep hold of that and cultivate it. You could see (the unity) on the pitch. They experienced something and that must be built on."
Deschamps hopes next month's friendly against Germany provides a tough rehearsal for the Spain clash.
"It won't be easier for us at Stade de France, but we have to believe," he said. "How do you beat Spain? They're the best team individually and collectively. You have to be at your best and hope they're not, and then there are little things that need to work in your favor. Everything has to come together."
Even a pragmatist like Deschamps knows that sometimes you need a slice of luck.