Timing right for France to make impression on big stage
France has an opportunity to translate dominance at the European club level to success on the World Cup stage.
With a highly experienced and skilled team, host France will be among the favorites at the women’s tournament kicking off next month, and that suits coach Corinne Diacre just fine.
She is happy shouldering high expectations, and reaching the July 7 final in Lyon is the minimum goal set by the French Football Federation. While the United States and Germany have won five World Cups between them, France has never reached the final.
This was also the case the last time France hosted a World Cup, and that tournament ended with Zinedine Zidane leading the men’s team to victory in 1998. Zidane has since extended his own legacy by becoming a successful coach, leading Real Madrid to three straight Champions League titles.
Diacre, who chatted with Zidane at France’s training camp earlier this month, has champion players of her own.
Seven, in fact, from the Lyon team that recently crushed Barcelona 4-1 to win the women’s Champions League for the fourth straight year and sixth time overall.
Among the seven are imposing center half Wendie Renard and midfielder Amandine Henry, who also captains Les Bleues. The buzz from another Lyon triumph is spilling over onto the national team and Diacre is eager to nurture that as much as possible in training.
“We are surfing on this Lyon wave because they have brought another title along with them,” Diacre said. “They bring us so much joie de vivre. It’s down to us to do the same as they did, and go all the way.”
France’s Group A opener is against South Korea on June 7 in Paris.
Before that game, Diacre has two exhibitions and she hopes one or two fringe players push for inclusion against South Korea.
“If there are still one or two players who can put a bit of doubt in my mind, so much the better,” Diacre said. “I’ve got 14 players who are in contention to start.”
France also faces Norway on June 12 in Nice and then Nigeria on June 17 in Rennes. Initially, Diacre’s team is likely to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Montpellier’s Valerie Gauvin at center forward.
Gaetane Thiney, who has scored 58 goals in 154 international appearances, will likely be behind Gauvin, flanked by Lyon’s prolific Eugenie Le Sommer on the left (74 goals in 159 appearances) and Paris Saint-Germain’s Kadidiatou Diani on the right.
With 20 goals in 108 appearances, Renard is the undisputed leader of the back four, and like Henry, holds iconic status on the team.
But that’s more because of their achievements at the club level, and Henry wants to reach the pinnacle of the women’s sport.
“When I discovered the France team it was in ’98, when France won the World Cup,” the 29-year-old Henry said. “I said to myself: ‘Wow, this is so good. I also want to win trophies.’”
Like many others back then, she was mesmerized by Zidane’s skills.
“Especially since he played in midfield and then I started out in midfield,” said Henry, who made her international debut at 18. “I didn’t really try to imitate him, but the aura he gave off was so special.”
Henry thinks her time may have come.
“Winning a World Cup would be huge, and there’s no bigger dream than winning in your own country.” she said. “When I sing (the national anthem) La Marseillaise, I want to cry. You are representing the elite of your sport. ... A lot of people would love to be in our position.”
Marie-Antoinette Katoto probably would.
The 20-year-old PSG striker was the French league’s top scorer this season and was voted the French league’s best young player.
Diacre felt Katoto had underperformed under pressure and was not going to do well enough in big games.
Those who have followed the 44-year-old Diacre’s career probably weren’t surprised. She is resistant to pressure.
Five years ago, Diacre took charge of second-tier team Clermont, becoming the first woman to coach a men’s team in a competitive match in France.
Now her task is becoming the first to lead Les Bleues to World Cup success.