PARIS // France coach Didier Deschamps admitted that leading his side to the World Cup finals in dramatic fashion in their play-off against Ukraine on Tuesday ranked as one of his finest achievements in football.
Les Bleus defied expectations to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit and advance to next year’s finals in Brazil with a remarkable performance at the Stade de France, triumphing 3-0 on the night.
It was the first time that any nation had recovered from a two-goal first-leg loss in a European play-off to qualify for the World Cup, as Mamadou Sakho and Karim Benzema hit the target before Oleg Gusev’s 72nd-minute own-goal decided the tie, and Deschamps was keen to savour the moment.
“I have lived through some great moments in my long career,” said the 45-year-old, who skippered France to victory in the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 during his playing days, while also captaining the Marseille side that won the 1993 Champions League.
“To take France to a World Cup is fabulous, especially after the first leg, where the result was not favourable.”
Deschamps was thrown into the air by his players in the centre-circle of the Stade de France at the end of the game, bringing back memories of the 1998 World Cup final, but he was determined that all the credit for the result should go to his team.
“We had to turn it around and the merit goes to the players evidently because what they did was great,” he went on. “I told them beforehand that we needed two great games. We failed in the first one but the second one was tremendous.
“We have achieved our objective so I am extremely satisfied for the players, my staff and for all of French football too. The presence of France in Brazil was very important.”
There had been widespread speculation that Deschamps would step down if his side became the first French team in two decades to miss out on qualifying for a major tournament, but instead the victory was followed by an announcement that he would be extending his contract through to 2016, when France will host the European Championship.
Deschamps refused to discuss his side’s prospects at the World Cup in any depth, but he did accept that going to Brazil will serve as an important experience for the young players in his side ahead of the Euros.
“You don’t go to a World Cup just to take part, but it will also help us prepare for Euro 2016,” he added. “For the moment we are there and that is the most important thing.”
Meanwhile, goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris also praised the manner in which the French side bounced back from a disastrous performance in Kiev on Friday which had left them staring at an agonising World Cup exit.
“After the first leg, everyone still believed. We were well beaten there but we bounced back and played like real men,” said the Tottenham Hotspur ‘keeper, who had few saves to make in a match dominated by the home side.
“This was a historic night but now we have a World Cup to come and we need to make sure we perform well there.”
For the beaten Ukraine coach Mikhail Fomenko, the sensation was a very different one. His side saw their 12-game unbeaten run ended at the worst possible moment, although he was applauded by the Ukrainian media at his post-match press conference as he stated his intention to continue in the role.
“I am really sorry for the result but the fact we got this far is already something positive,” said Fomenko, who took over at the end of last year.
“I can’t say (France’s performance) was a surprise for me because I know they are very strong and a top-level side. They wanted to satisfy their fans so they gave that little bit extra.”
The European play-offs were rounded out by Croatia holding off feisty Iceland with a 2-0 victory. Mario Mandzukic scored in the 27th minute before being sent off 11 minutes later and Darijo Srna sealed it with a second strike for the Croatians just as the second half began.
Greece, holding a 3-1 advantage over Romania after their first leg in Athens, cruised to a 1-1 draw to seal a 4-1 aggregate victory and passage into the World Cup, as well.