Football: Leader of the high ground - Dynamo Deschamps has yet to put a foot wrong

Exclusive: Chelsea's prestigious signing is determined to bring blue skies. By Alex Hayes

WHEN CHELSEA secured Didier Deschamps' signature last month, everyone knew they had backed a natural leader, a born winner. But few, including the club's hierarchy, would have realised that he was set to be the first World Cup winning captain to grace England's top flight since the late Bobby Moore played for West Ham post-1966.

Great players have come and gone since then, but no previous cross-Channel arrival - including that of Eric Cantona when he had nowhere else to go - has been quite so significant. Indeed, Deschamps' willingness to ply his trade in the Premiership is a measure of how far English football has progressed in the last few years. And, unlike King Eric, this little prince has no royal airs.

"I hope that my coming here is important for English football," said the diminutive Frenchman at Chelsea's training ground in Harlington, west London, on Thursday, before hastily adding: "But it is not really for me to say that as a foreign player."

In many ways, that response best sums up Deschamps' character. Here is a man who is fully aware of his worth, yet remains thoroughly modest. "I think Didier is an example to players who want to succeed even though they maybe haven't been given a special gift from God," said Franck Leboeuf, his new team-mate in SW6. "He worked very hard to be a successful footballer. He's won everything in the game and has a great attitude. The way he plays, the way he lives: we can all learn a lot from him."

Eric Cantona may famously have dismissed him as little more than a water carrier, but in the eyes of most he is more of a central cog. "He's the charniere centrale [pivotal figure]," Leboeuf added. "He knows his job is in the shadows and involves lots of tackling and ball-winning, but you can't have artists everywhere. You need players who work for others and nobody does that better than Didier."

And this summer, Didier decided he wanted to work for Chelsea. "Staying at the highest level was my first priority. I needed a change, a new adventure. When I saw that Chelsea had the best trump cards to challenge for the Premiership and the Champions' League, I signed."

It is almost surreal to hear this most Continental of players singing the praises of L'Angleterre. Yet Deschamps insists his compliments are genuine. "English football has definitely evolved. There are many more foreign players, and foreign coaches have provided an extra touch of technique. It's no longer the football of 10 years ago. Yes, the game is still physical, but it's more tactical and technical than before."

Talking of foreign managers, was Gianluca Vialli the magnet in attracting him to Chelsea? "We played together for two years at Juventus, so we know each other well," Deschamps acknowledged. "In fact, Luca was crucial to my early development in Italy. He's a great competitor, and someone I am looking forward to playing under. But I did not come here for any one particular reason. There were many factors." Not least the fact that Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly, two French international colleagues, were already at Stamford Bridge. "With the three of us here, the club has a French feel and that has definitely helped me settle in and adapt," he said. "Especially Marcel, who I have known for over 15 years now."

Deschamps and Desailly first met as teenagers in the Nantes football academy which has a long history of grooming some of the best French talent. The Eighties produced Maxime Bossis, Jose Tourre, and D & D. While the Nineties have seen the emergence of Reynald Pedros, Christian Karembeu and the aptly named Patrice Loko. "My years in Nantes formed me and gave me all the foundations to be able to evolve and be where I am now," Deschamps said. "It was then that I honed my mental and physical skills. Having started there at the same time as each other, Marcel and I often joke that we have been reunited at Chelsea. Hopefully we can continue our successful careers here."

Few players are more garlanded in France, let alone Europe, yet Deschamps has no intention of resting on his laurels. Many sections of the British press questioned his hunger as well as the motives behind his move. But the man himself remains unperturbed. "I was happy in Turin. I had two years left on my contract and both the manager and the board were desperate to keep me. It was me who decided to make the change." Indeed, Deschamps has yet put a foot wrong in a 15-year career.

First there was the brave decision to pack his knapsack and move from his native Bayonne to Nantes in 1983, aged just 15. Then, having spent six years at the club under the guidance of the former Croatian national coach Miroslav Blazevic and then Jean-Claude "Coco" Suaudeau, Deschamps moved to Marseille. After all the hard work, it was time to reap the rewards. During his five-year spell on the Canebiere (including a six-month loan to Bordeaux), in the incredibly successful yet ultimately fated Bernard Tapie era, he won three league titles and the European Cup (though the 1993 championship was annulled following the infamous Valenciennes bribery scandal).

With OM now in serious financial strife and facing relegation to the second division, Deschamps was off-loaded to Juventus in 1994. In his first season there he helped the Turin giants lift the Scudetto, thus ending a nine-year barren run. More silverware followed: the Italian title in 1997 and 1998, the Champions' League, the Intercontinental Cup and the European Supercup in 1996; two Champions' League finals were lost in '97 and '98. If the form guide is to be followed, then, Chelsea must be in line for their first title since 1955.

"It is true that up until now I have made the right decisions," he explained. "But you only know afterwards whether you were correct in signing for a club. You need a bit of luck, too. You know, not to arrive when a club is about to go through a lean patch."

The west Londoners need not worry. Having signed a three-year deal (estimated to be worth pounds 30,000 per week), Deschamps clearly believes Chelsea's star is in the ascendant. Not yet 31, the man they call Little Big Boss still has a good few years ahead of him. For The Blues and Les Bleus. "We need a bit more consistency and a pinch of luck," he said referring to Chelsea's chances in the Premiership, "but there is no reason why we can't win the title. They got close to Manchester United last year and we'll be pushing hard to win it this time. That's the one the fans really want." Not that a good run in the Champions' League would go amiss. Having competed in four finals, it is a competition he knows well. "Playing in those games, against the best Europe has to offer, is the apogee for any footballer."

Internationally, the No 1 priority is to qualify for Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium. Although that is far from certain, as Roger Lemerre's world champions at present lie second in Group Four, after suffering a couple of setbacks at the end of last season (a 0-0 draw with the Ukraine and a 3-2 home defeat by Russia). "We have had a bit of a dip in form but we still have the potential to succeed," he said. "Not until we've actually made it to the finals and competed, will I re-assess my position. If we do well and the squad is still hungry, then I might continue. Obviously, I would love to defend the Cup in Japan. Retaining our title would be the perfect way to retire. But this is all speculation. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

The immediate future is considerably clearer. "The most important thing is that I find a house so my family can get settled. After that I want to learn the language and the culture." Deschamps junior, Dillan, whose godfather is none other than Desailly, is three and therefore not quite ready for school. "But when he's old enough," Deschamps senior pointed out, "he will go. It will be great for him to learn English."

Come next May, will he be fluent enough to say "Champions of England and Europe"? He would be talking the Chelsea fans' language.

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