Deschamps the great director

Guy Hodgson talks to the French captain plotting the downfall of the Dutch tonight
Talk to Aime Jacquet, the French coach, about what kind of player he was and he will playfully mention Youri Djorkaeff and Zinedine Zidane. Then he will become serious. "I was a deep central midfield player," he says, "like Didier Deschamps."

Even then, Jacquet is probably overestimating his own abilities while down-playing his captain's. The coach won two caps, Deschamps has more than 50, and to describe his role as merely the security blanket the other midfield players can cling to when they go forward belittles his ability. Imagine Paul Ince without the rash challenges and you are somewhere near.

Deschamps is the organiser in the French team, someone who tidies up the place and allows others the environment to be creative. At Juventus his tireless running in alliance with Paulo Sousa stifles opponents and give Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero space. With France he is more restrained, hanging just in front of the back line, directing the flow.

A passage of play in France's Group B match against the Bulgarians on Tuesday exemplified his qualities. With an exquisitely timed tackle - a rare species at Euro 96 - he dispossessed Yordan Lechkov on the edge of the area but did not wait to admire the results. He raced upfield and seconds later was dinking a delightful pass to Djorkaeff that almost led to a goal.

In a matter of moments he stifled danger at one end and created it at the other. Yet watch him tonight against the Netherlands and the chances are he will go almost unnoticed. It is the players who appreciate him most, colleagues who find him quietly covering their mistakes and opponents who cannot understand where their playmaker has gone missing. He is usually in Deschamps' pocket.

The very fact he is captain is an illustration of his worth. Jacquet did not announce who would lead Les Bleus on the pitch until just before the tournament. Most assumed the high profile, highly skilled defender Marcel Desailly would get the job but instead the post was given to Deschamps. The made-to-measure Jacquet copy is also his voice on the pitch.

Off it, too, because talking to Deschamps reveals virtually no personal ambitions. The 27-year-old speaks about the team, their goals and their development, although his own playing career is sprinkled with achievement. He has won the Champions' Cup twice, with Marseille and Juventus, and is among the top 20 most capped French players of all time. In two years, the dream of lifting the World Cup on home soil beckons.

He sees Euro 96 as a dry run for France 98. "Our main problem is that we have no real experience of the major competitions," he said. "We failed to qualify in the last two World Cups so it would be great for the development of this team if we progress in the tournament. We need to be like Germany who know all about this sort of competition.

"The physical performance of our players, their stamina, is also a concern. All our players are playing abroad and gaining valuable experience at a very high level and hopefully, if we gell together, we will make a very good French team."

No talk of France can pass by without reference to the absentees, Eric Cantona and David Ginola. Jacquet's decision to omit them from his squad has set the parameters for the tournament and Deschamps is one of the few players willing to discuss the subject.

"The only pressure comes from journalists," he said, "who will say that France would have won the tournament if we had played them. It was a difficult decision not to pick Cantona and Ginola because technically, they are among our best players but that was the coach's decision. We are a united team. We don't question him. We just play."

So far the French have played within themselves. Occasionally they threaten to burst into full flower but then withdraw, giving only fleeting glimpses. There is depth to their talent, though, something that is reinforced by the fact that eight of their players will be in Italy next season.

Deschamps sees Serie A as the ultimate finishing school. "In Italy everyone is very professional in their preparation. It's something the French are learning and we're getting better. This team has a lot of potential. We could get to the final."

If they get past the Netherlands tonight they have every chance of doing so. Deschamps, the French catalyst and comforter, senses glory. Next week would be nice; in two years would be better.