Football: Desire still strong for Deschamps

European Cup semi-final: The man called a `water carrier' by Cantona will have a key role at Old Trafford tonight
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The Independent Online
FOR DIDIER Deschamps, this is a time of records. Last week, winning his 83rd and 84th caps against Ukraine and Armenia, he set a new French mark, eclipsing the one established by Manuel Amoros, a member of the great side of the early 1980s. And tomorrow night at Old Trafford, all being well, the little midfield player will surpass Alain Roche's record of 65 appearances in the European Cup when he takes the field with Juventus to face Manchester United in the first leg of their semi-final tie.

Nine months ago, Deschamps captained his country to victory in the World Cup, receiving the medal of the Legion d'Honneur and a permanent place in his nation's roll-call of heroes. Since then he has celebrated his 30th birthday and watched his club endure their rockiest season in years while somehow managing to stagger into the last four of a competition whose final he and his colleagues have graced for the last three years.

And, even as Deschamps prepares to fight for the right to appear in a fourth consecutive final, the gossips are beginning to suggest that this will be his last season in the black and white stripes of Juventus, whom he joined from Marseilles in 1994. Contracted until 2001, at a salary just short of pounds 1m a year, he is currently in negotiation about whether to stay in Turin or spend the remainder of his career, which he estimates at another three seasons, elsewhere.

Among possible destinations are Athletic Bilbao, who are said to have offered double his present salary and are also presumably able to appeal to his Basque origins. Marseilles, with whom he won two French championships and the European Cup of 1993 (later annulled after the Bernard Tapie match- fixing scandal), are rumoured to be interested in luring him back to the Stade Velodrome. Monaco and Chelsea - managed, of course, by an old Juventus team mate - have also been mentioned.

"Anything's possible," Deschamps said last week. "I could stay or I could go. Five years at Juve, that's a long time, and yet it's not."

The only certainty, he said, is that the recent change of coach, from Marcello Lippi to Carlo Ancelotti, would not influence his decision, and nor would the matter of whether or not the club qualifies for the European Cup next season. "I just want to keep on winning," he declared. "I haven't spoken to anyone about it yet, even to Ancelotti, because I know that he's got other problems, to do with the playing situation of the team."

Born in Bayonne, in France's rugby heartland, Deschamps played first for a local club, Aviron. At 15 he joined Nantes, where he played alongside the young Marcel Desailly. After four years he went to Marseilles and then spent a single season at Bordeaux before returning to the Velodrome, where he was part of a squad that included Jean-Pierre Papin, Chris Waddle and Basile Boli.

Deschamps has another European Cup winner's medal (from 1996, against Ajax), an Intercontinental Cup medal, a European Super Cup medal, one Italian Cup winner's medal, two Italian Super Cup medals and three Serie A championship medals to show for his time in Turin, but he is the sort of player whose achievements inspire respect rather than affection. Zinedine Zidane will be the one to take the historic place of Michel Platini in the hearts of Juve's fans; for Deschamps there will be the sort of appreciation accorded to the doer of unglamorous but necessary tasks.

What, exactly, does Didier Deschamps do? That's easy. He patrols the centre circle, always available to receive a pass from a defender or a wide player under pressure. His function is to transfer the ball as quickly as possible to someone who can make the best creative use of it - and usually, in the case of both Juventus and France, that means Zidane.

He doesn't score goals - there are only 17 to his name in 381 First Division games in France and Italy. His passing is rarely of the sort that takes out a couple of defenders or prompts a forward to move into an area that no one else had seen, but it has the virtue of briskness and accuracy. He was probably insulted when Eric Cantona, stung by being left out of the French team, called him a "water carrier", but successful teams almost always contain such a figure. In Brian Clough's European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest team, for instance, it was John McGovern - an unglamorous player of crucial importance to the smooth functioning of the team, fetching and carrying without complaint. Similarly, Brazil's 1994 world champions depended on the special qualities of Dunga, a player absolutely devoid of vanity.

Such players do more than anyone to maintain the shape of a team in times of stress - a virtue prized by the best coaches, and usually appreciated more by their fellow players and their club's season-ticket holders than by casual observers. The time he starts worrying about his image, Deschamps has said, will be the time he knows the end is near.

Ball-winning is among Deschamps' tasks, but it is not high on the list of his priorities since Juventus's defenders, operating a zonal system, do most of the tackling and intercepting. He is nevertheless a significantly abrasive character who has raised many hackles through his fondness for waving an imaginary red or yellow card to draw the referee's attention to some supposed infringement - and he may even have been among the inventors of this distasteful modern habit, although he seems to have curbed the instinct lately.

The absence of Zidane from matches for both club and country has demonstrated Deschamps' weakness - an inability to compensate by adapting his own contribution. Zidane's suspension from the match against Paraguay during the World Cup finals proved that the captain lacks the creative instinct needed to fill the void - in fact, as France's plight grew more desperate, Deschamps was chief among a group of players who seemed reluctant to receive the ball and try to break the stalemate. Against Ukraine and Armenia in recent days, and against Empoli on Saturday, Zidane's knee injury still drew no constructive response.

Deschamps himself makes no secret of the awe with which he regards Zidane. "He's the opposite of me," he told L'Equipe recently. "He's the young genius who's been touched by grace and skill since the cradle. Some people were lucky enough to play alongside Maradona or Platini. And I can say: `I had the good luck to play with Zidane, for Juventus and for France.' Isn't that something?"

Inevitably, he puts his own success down to a professional attitude and a continued appetite for hard work. "Each time I take the field," he said, "it's as though I'm playing for my place. These days, I know that I'm not going to be judged on a single performance. But I still push myself as hard as I did in my early days, analysing my own performance and reflecting on what's happened - because, in football, the wheel turns quickly. And it's also a question of being honest with myself. `He's won the lot, so he's not trying any more' - that's something I never want to hear said. Of course, sometimes I have a bad match, but I've never cheated and I've always given my maximum. I want to be able to look myself in the face."

He won't rule out the possibility of leading the defence of the World Cup in three years' time, but at the moment his sights are fixed on captaining his country to the finals of Euro 2000. "As long as the passion is still there, and as long as I still have the desire to train every day, I'll continue," he said. "But I'm not going to carry on just for the sake of it. One thing's for sure, no one else is going to make the decision for me."