This article is part of the Guardian’s 2019 Women’s World Cup Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organizations from the 24 countries who have qualified for France. The Equalizer, as part of the network, will profile each of the 24 countries.
Four years after the Canada tournament, in which Les Bleues crashed out at the quarterfinal stage against Germany on penalties, France are back in the competition and aiming to win it. Neither the Olympic tournament in Rio (2016) nor the Euros in the Netherlands (2017) were a success for the captain Wendie Renard and her players.
Despite the fact that the core of the national team is formed of players from Lyon – the best team in Europe in recent seasons – France have not gone past the last eight in any of the recent major tournaments. One main reason for that is the lack of efficiency up front in key games but, under the coach, Corinne Diacre, they have worked hard to rectify that. By mid-May they had scored at least one goal or more in 19 of their 21 most recent games.
The team has a great mix of creativity and solidity in all areas. Defensively, France are a strong unit with Renard and Griedge Mbock forming a great central partnership, as they do on daily basis at Lyon. Amel Majri, in the left side, is also good at initiating counter-attacks.
The midfield is led by the hard-working Amandine Henry, who was named captain by Diacre, replacing Renard. Henry, known for her powerful shot, is often paired with Elise Bussaglia, at 33 the oldest player in the squad and who has been playing international football since 2003.
Up front, Diacre is spoiled for choice. Eugénie Le Sommer, Valérie Gauvin, Kadi Diani, Delphine Cascarino and Gaëtane Thiney offer France different pairings with Lyon’s Le Sommer and Cascarino able to play as wingers. Thiney can be the playmaker or a supporting offensive midfielder. Montpellier’s Gauvin has won a place in the starting XI thanks to her aerial skills, combativeness and physical strength, while PSG’s Diani is another option as a central attacker. She never disappoints.
Diacre’s coaching style is very similar to that of Didier Deschamps, even down to the words she uses in press conferences and with the players. She, like Deschamps, has opted to select the squad she thinks has a best chance to win the World Cup rather than the best individual players. Barcelona’s experienced midfielder Kheira Hamraoui has not been picked for the tournament and the D1 top scorer, Marie Katoto from PSG, will not be there either.
Diacre has a very strong squad at her disposal but how the players react to the pressure of being the hosts and one of the favorites may be decisive to how far they go in the tournament. A nation expects.
A former captain of the French national team before starting her career as a coach, Diacre is also known for being the first woman to coach a men’s side in France (Clermont Foot) in Ligue 2 for three seasons. She was appointed France coach in September 2017 and, under her guidance, Les Bleues have played 21 games (as of April 2019), only losing twice against Germany (0-4, 0-1) and once against England (4-1 at the SheBelieves Cup in 2018). After more than a year of experimenting with new players – with some great results along the way, such as the 3-1 win against the United States – Diacre knows exactly which players she can trust and how she wants to play.
Born in Lille 29 years ago, the French captain Amandine Henry has established herself as a natural leader with Les Bleues. She was a key player with Lyon for almost a decade before joining the Portland Thorns in 2016.
Henry is now back at Lyon after a short stint with PSG. Considered one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, she is a great motivator and her experience in the competition and her capacity to score from anywhere will be needed if France are to win the tournament.
Did you know?
The midfielder Elise Bussaglia is a teacher by profession and, before signing her first professional contract, she was working with young kids in education. While at PSG in 2011, she taught at a primary school and she is also a tutor for young athletes at the INSEP (National Sport Institute). She has already said that she will go back to teaching once she retires from football.
Brief history of women’s football in France
Women’s football in France started before the first World War, but the very first games were actually played during the war. For some decades, doctors were telling women not to play football and it was not until the 1960s that the women’s game was revived in France.
It started in Reims with the launch of a club, Stade de Reims, when their men’s side – who had had success in Europe – was on the verge of relegation. A national league was created in 1974 and a national team followed. But France did not play in a European Championships until 1997 and their first World Cup came in 2003. The current league has 12 clubs, professional and amateur, and has been dominated by Lyon since 2006.
Lyon have won also five Champions Leagues and are seen as the best club side ever in Europe. D1 games and national team games are shown live on TV and attractive salaries are now common among the top four clubs, Lyon, PSG, Montpellier and Paris FC.
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Delphine Cascarino. Aged 22, the Lyon right winger (and twin sister of Paris FC defender Estelle) has improved tremendously in recent times. She received her first call-up by Diacre in 2018 and slowly but surely she has evolved from being a substitute into a strong contender for a starting place. Her speed and ruthlessness in front of goal are her best weapons.
What is the realistic aim for France and why?
The ambition is to win the tournament, especially as it is being played on home soil. Anything less than a place on the podium would be a big disappointment.
Registered female players
In June 2018 the French Federation (FFF) released the following figures: 169,312 affiliated women (125,412 players; 35,000 officials; 8,000 coaches; and 900 referees). However, the number of affiliated women has increased significantly (+15%) since the men’s side won the World Cup in Russia. The target of the FFF was to reach 250,000 by the time this summer’s World Cup starts.
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