PARIS — France coach Didier Deschamps has a half-billion dollar dilemma. In Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Paul Pogba, Deschamps has three of the top-five most expensive footballers of all time at his disposal for the World Cup in Russia, talents more valuable than the jeweled Faberge eggs Russian czars were so fond of.
The downside: Sky-high price tags also generate high expectations and Deschamps suspects some of his young players may lack the experience to cope when things get tough under football's brightest spotlight.
"To react well," the captain of France's 1998 World Cup-winning team says, "you have to have been through it before."
Fairly or not, how France and its eye-wateringly expensive trio fare at the June-July tournament will serve as a yardstick for the logic or lunacy of football's transfer market. A French surge, say, to the semifinals or beyond, with Pogba running the midfield and Mbappe and Dembele shredding defenses with speed and insouciance, would help make sense of the massive sums their clubs shelled out for young stars who, despite their obvious skills, still have much to prove.
A French flop, on the other hand, could make Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Barcelona look like spendthrifts. Those who argue that the player market has lost rhyme and reason, that PSG and other wealthy clubs are over-spending football into an inflationary bubble, will be able to crow if Pogba ($116 million), Dembele (up to a possible $175 million) and Mbappe ($216 million) find themselves on early flights back from Russia, having proved unable to make the difference for their country on the biggest stage.
Which helps explain why, when he sat down with a small group of journalists, including The Associated Press, for a wide-ranging and relaxed 70-minute discussion about the World Cup on a spring afternoon last week, Deschamps slipped almost immediately into fireman mode, trying to tamp down talk of France being a tournament favorite.
"Honestly, I think several nations are ahead of us," he said, citing Spain, Brazil, Germany and Argentina. "The France team is competitive but it is very young."
In the top-floor room at the French Football Federation's Paris headquarters, with a photo of the 1998 World Cup winners, including a proud-looking Deschamps, hanging on the wall, it quickly became apparent that as much as he is enthused by his squad's prized young players, he also is aware that they could prove to be its Achilles heel.
"They're 19, 20, 21 years old. I know that your point of view from the outside is colored by the fact that lots of French players have impacted the transfer market, have commanded very high prices, and because of that France is portrayed as the favorite," he said. "It's all well and good that they have signed for big clubs but they're not all leaders in those big clubs. They play. The competition is intense. They are still doing their apprenticeships."
At 25, Pogba has most experience in the trio of French 100-million euro-plus stars, having played in the team that reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2014 and the final of the 2016 European Championship, losing to Portugal. Deschamps says Pogba is still trailing the weight of his then-world-record transfer to United in 2016. "It's always there. We're very demanding of him, sometimes too demanding. He's always expected to be decisive."
The average age of Deschamps' squad that lost to Colombia and beat Russia in World Cup tune-ups in March was 25, and half of the 20 outfield players — including Mbappe and Dembele — have yet to play in a World Cup or European Championship. Back in 1998, France's starting XI against Brazil in the World Cup final was both older — average age 28 — and wiser.
"Many of us were close to our thirties," Deschamps recalled. "We played in the biggest clubs but we were also leaders in those clubs."
In a tight blue shirt that hugged his wiry frame, Deschamps still looks as fit at 49 as when he was breaking up attacks and feeding the ball back to more creative teammates for France — a role that earned him the moniker "the water carrier." But despite his 103 matches for Les Bleus, 51 of them as captain, he said he doesn't talk to his players about the 1998 victory that filled French streets with millions of people because he doesn't feel that it means anything to them, not least because some were mere newborns at the time.
He spoke with tender understanding for young stars thrown into football's deep end, who have "not had time to learn and also to structure themselves. Everything has gone very quickly for them, sometimes too quickly."
It also was clear that they and their entourages are handfuls at times, too.
"There's a lot more people. The families are very involved," he said. "They can have counsellors for this or for that, people who speak to them on a daily basis. I don't doubt their competence. But they have their own interests and that interest is financial. From there, it's always easier to tell players, 'You're the most beautiful, you're the best. He's a brute, it's his fault,' even though that's not always the case. But there you go. I want to see the good side of the new generation."
On the pitch, inexperience can translate into mistakes under pressure, "less serenity, more weakness. You're less available. Instead of passing forward, you pass backward," Deschamps said. "It's fragile. It breaks down quickly."
He spotted such signs when France lost its way against Colombia last month after a high-energy start, throwing away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2.
"I felt it on the bench, that things were starting to tip, that we were losing the thread. We started to get annoyed with the referee, with each other," he said. "That scenario happened several times in our qualifying path to the World Cup. As soon as things start to get a bit tense, we look less serene and carefree."
Given two or four more years, "I'm convinced that the young players I have today, who are around 20 years old and, some of them, under 20, will be better," Deschamps said.
But the World Cup is just weeks away.
"I have no time. But you need time," he said. "You can't just click your fingers."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester