Deschamps exposes fissures in French edifice

Captain's discontent fuelled by criticism from within dressing-room suggests not all is well with Les Bleus.
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Win or lose, the Stade de France will witness tonight the beginning of the end of the greatest team in the history of French international football.

Win or lose, the Stade de France will witness tonight the beginning of the end of the greatest team in the history of French international football.

Two of the players who have most epitomised the new toughness, professionalism and selflessness of the Jacquet-Lemerre era - the captain, Didier Deschamps, and the central defender, Laurent Blanc - will be playing their last international games.

Although there is no shortage of replacements - Patrick Vieira, Frank Leboeuf and several young pretenders - the France squad which defends the World Cup in 2002 will have a different chemistry and a different character.

Deschamps and Blanc (with Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit) were the backbone of the team which won France 98 and Euro 2000: they symbolised the capacity for labour and team-work, which had eluded more talented but less successful France teams of the 1950s and 1980s.

Their departure has been generously - and hypocritically - saluted in the French press this week (to the exclusion of any examination of the qualities of " les hommes de" Kevin Keegan). The press tributes have been hypocritical because Blanc, 34, and Deschamps, 32, (Deschamps especially) were the targets of frequently unfair criticism in the French press - mostly in the great sports daily L'Equipe - before both competitions. To the romantic diehards in the French sports box, they symbolised the kind of perspiring, uninspiring players favoured by Aimé Jacquet, to the exclusion of the Ginolas and Cantonas.

Deschamps, 103 caps for France, including 55 as captain (both records), is as acerbic off the field as he is on it. He is not the kind of man to forget such slights. He gave two interviews this week (neither to L'Equipe) in which he explained his reasons for retiring from international football, despite signing a new, four-year club contract with Valencia. He was stopping, he said, because he could never imagine such a "strong feeling" again as the victory over Italy in the final of Euro 2000.

But his intentions were confirmed, he said, when he went home to the Basque country to find his mother "in tears and saying to me 'Didier, never again'." All his family, he told France Football, had been wounded by the constant articles suggesting that he no longer merited a place in the team; that he was "pinching" someone else's place.

"Whose?" he asked. "Can you tell me that?" In the first, public crack in the façade of the Musqueteer image of Les Bleus - all for one, and one for all - Deschamps went on to blame several un-named members of the France squad for feeding the press campaign against him.

"I know the names of my team-mates who spoke about me off-the-record and I'm going to have it out with them before I leave. These players have not understood what it means to be in a national squad... especially when, from what I've seen on the field, they are hardly beyond reproach themselves." Deschamps went on specifically to exclude from this criticism the Arsenal midfielder, Patrick Vieira, seen by many as his natural successor. "Pat's behaviour has been "perfect", he said. So had that of the younger players, such as Sylvain Wiltord and Nicolas Anelka.

So who in the Bleus had it in for the captain? Implicitly, from Deschamps' remarks, it was some of the senior players, such as Zinedine Zidane and Christophe Dugarry and Lilian Thuram. The team spirit in the all-conquering home dressing-room may not be entirely positive tonight: there is perhaps a chance for les hommes de Keegan after all.