Column: At World Cup, inexperience can be a winning formula
KAZAN, Russia (AP) When Kylian Mbappe broke the Internet with a World Cup performance unmatched since Pele, the coach who made it possible fittingly set a record, too.
The 4-3 victory over Argentina that earned France a quarterfinal against Uruguay was Didier Deschamps’ 80th game in charge of Les Bleus. The reason why it seemed the perfect occasion for the coach to eclipse Raymond Domenech’s mark of 79 games with France is that in this match, perhaps more than any in the Deschamps era, his young players rewarded his trust and smart choices.
Although contracted to 2020 with the national team, a drumbeat of calls for Deschamps to go would have started had France crashed out with its luxury squad collectively valued in excess of one billion dollars.
A big reason that didn’t happen is because Deschamps has deviated from the recipe that won France the World Cup in 1998, when he was its captain. That team was more seasoned, with an average age of 28 when it lined up in the final against Brazil. Deschamps’ squad in Russia, on the other hand, is one of the youngest at the tournament and is making a compelling argument that coaches should place great faith in youth more often.
Like Alex Ferguson when he unleashed teenagers David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes at Manchester United, Deschamps sees that young players can shoulder big responsibilities and that their inexperience doesn’t have to define them. Properly encouraged, they can be trusted with far more than bit-roles. That was the short-sighted predicament faced by then 19-year-old Lionel Messi at the 2006 World Cup, left on the bench when Argentina lost to Germany in the quarterfinals.
Ferguson’s baby-faced United team forced TV pundit Alan ”You can’t win anything with kids” Hansen to eat his words when it then went on to scoop up trophies. Like Ferguson, Deschamps has a thick skin and doesn’t lose sleep over criticism. Still, let it no longer be said that he lacks imagination. Because Deschamps has made football nitroglycerine with the combination on France’s right of Mbappe, 19, and right-back Benjamin Pavard, 22. Handle with care!
Both World Cup debutants, Mbappe and Pavard got all three of France’s goals scored in open play against Argentina. France’s other goal was a penalty from Antoine Griezmann, already a veteran at age 27 whose major tournament experience told as he soaked up the pressure of opening the score from the spot to a thunder of whistles from Argentine fans. Griezmann and other older members of the team, like Olivier Giroud and Blaise Matuidi, both 31, provide necessary seasoning. Still, with an average age of 26 and young players grabbing global attention, France is an advertisement for the power of youthful insouciance.
Mbappe’s two goals made him the youngest player since 17-year-old Pele in 1958 to score at least twice in a World Cup knockout game. First fielded by Deschamps in March 2017, as a substitute in World Cup qualifying, Mbappe says the coach’s Yoda-like message to him from the outset was, ”Do, try, do, try. When it doesn’t work, do it again. Try.”
Armed with that vote of trust and with his own outsized self-confidence, Mbappe not only keeps trying but oozes fun . Running at defenders, darting this way and that, Mbappe in attack mode is an awesome sight, as the world is discovering but which fans of France’s Ligue 1 have known since he first flowered with Monaco in 2015 and, two months past his 17th birthday, dethroned Thierry Henry as the club’s youngest scorer.
Pavard’s volleyed goal was an even stronger example of how Deschamps is being repaid for picking players inexperienced at this level. Ferociously struck with a downward slicing motion that made the ball spin like a planet as it curved into the Argentine net, the goal screamed youthful exuberance. It showed that France has mental strength, too, pulling the score back to 2-2. From there, Mbappe took over, with his two goals in four minutes.
Deschamps’ first-choice right-back in Russia, Pavard represents more of a gamble than Mbappe, even though he is older. Signed by Stuttgart in 2016, when the German club had been relegated to the Bundesliga’s second tier, Pavard was unknown to many France fans before Deschamps plucked him from obscurity and first tried him out in a friendly against Wales last November.
Only at the World Cup did Pavard get his first taste of competitive football with France, earning his 7th, 8th and 9th caps as a starter in the first two group-stage games and the round of 16 against Argentina. He and Mbappe have quickly gelled, frequently combining.
The last defender to score at the World Cup for France was Lilian Thuram, with two goals against Croatia that got Les Bleus to the final in 1998. In the starting lineup that beat Brazil 3-0 to lift the trophy, Zinedine Zidane was the youngest, at 26. Deschamps was a few months short of his 30th birthday.
Mbappe wasn’t even born. His club, Paris Saint-Germain, thinks it got a bargain when it acquired him from Monaco for 180 million euros ($209 million). On this evidence, it may be right. Either way, forget the idea that inexperience is necessarily a burden.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup