Wednesday , October 5 2022

France’s toughest opponent at Euro 2022? Themselves. Will coach Corinne Diacre’s stern methods finally pay off?

Be you a longtime follower or a newcomer to women’s football, you have probably heard that France are one of the favourites to go all the way at the 2022 Women’s European Championship (watch LIVE July 6-31 across ESPN networks in the U.S.).

A team overflowing with talent, France have reached the knockout stages of the past eight major tournaments (Euros, World Cups and Olympic Games) it has qualified for, all while domestic powerhouse Lyon have conquered Europe time and again, winning the Champions League a record eight times. Although Lyon are augmented with players from around the world, the club has long been a home to the majority of France’s best and brightest footballers.

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With all the quality in the side, the question lingers: when will France finally make good on their promise and win a major international trophy? Each new tournament brings about a new hope that is swiftly replaced with aching disappointment as Les Bleues bow out early and empty-handed.

With talent not an issue — particularly not since the arrival of striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto — other concerns come to the fore. Long-simmering infighting, political power struggles and off-the-pitch drama present problems that could again threaten France’s bid at the Euros — starting July 10 in a group with Italy, Iceland and Belgium. Possessing one of the finest attackers in the world in Katoto, this might be the best France team ever seen, but a win is far from certain — and anything other than three points could send the team into a spiral.

Finally, a goal-scoring striker arrives in Katoto

At the 2011 Women’s World Cup, an unfancied France shocked and delighted in equal measure as they danced across pitches in Germany. The team, the first crop of women who had graced the halls of Clairefontaine as teens, brought back forgotten memories of the victorious French men’s team from 1998, and with little surprise as that generation of talent had been so visible and inspiring for those women wearing familiar dark blue shirts.

There were instant comparisons too: Marseille-born Louisa Necib with her silky first touch could have been Zinedine Zidane’s long-lost sister, while defensive rock Laura Georges appeared to be cast in the same mould as Lilian Thuram. In a time when French men’s football was under a dark cloud, the women brought joy to those who watched them, and fast began to promise a new era in foot francais.

Yet, when push came to shove at the 2011 World Cup, the 2013 Euros and all the subsequent majors that followed, the goals always seemed to desert the Les Bleues at the vital moments. Up to now, France have rarely stumbled during qualification, but there has seldom been a confidence or winning mentality within the talented team.

As stars like Necib, Camille Abily and Sonia Bompastor have come and gone, retiring with no national team honours, the team have still remained a perpetual favourite for pundits and fans alike ahead of summer tournaments. With the team routinely relying on goals not just from the midfield but from defender Wendie Renard — and Georges before she retired — the emergence of Katoto has solidified the tag ahead of this summer’s Euros, giving rise to hopes that France may finally be in position to win a trophy.

An unrivalled goal-getter, Katoto possesses a one-track mind in the box, and her determination separates her from those who’ve worn the No. 9 for France over the years. The Parisian is the type of striker that former managers Bruno Bini or Philippe Bergeroo would have given their left arms for at the 2011 or 2015 World Cups.

Hence, it’s why Katoto’s omission from Corinne Diacre’s squad for the 2019 World Cup raised so many eyebrows — even at 20 years old, the centre-forward was one of the most menacing in Division 1 Feminine. As it was, with even more expectation on Les Bleues as hosts who had watched their male counterparts lift the trophy in Russia the previous summer, the team came undone as it routinely had every other summer for eight years.

Arguably peaking in their first game of the 2019 World Cup against a dismal South Korea side, Diacre’s team had at least managed to capture the public’s imagination in that opening match, but the side could not fulfil the promises it had silently made at the Parc des Princes. A return to Paris three weeks later brought about the abrupt end to France’s challenge as they bowed out to the United States, a lack of goals plaguing the team.

Cutting ties with top players

“I’m vigorous — that’s typical of me. Often, I’m told I’m very strict. We never laugh around, we never joke; everything is very calculated, there’s no exceptions. The girls are very unhappy and you can see that on the field.”

Diacre’s words were dripping with sarcastic ennui as she faced the media ahead of France’s round-of-16 clash with Brazil at the 2019 World Cup. In those fleeting moments, she held the room in the palm of her hand, journalists all sharing in the joke. The France national team coach, known for being something of a Miss Trunchbull, had painted the caricature of herself and, whilst her side were winning, everyone could laugh — yet fast-forward to the present and her words take on a different tone.

As then-captain and midfield maestro Amandine Henry had told Canal+ in November 2020: “I saw girls crying in their room, I personally happened to cry in my room, because I wanted to experience this World Cup, but it was total chaos.” The quote can be found, among other places, in one of the nine separate entries of Diacre’s Wikipedia page under the “controversies” subheading, the section alone portraying one side of a coach who possesses little time for delicacy or sentiment.

The 47-year-old had clashed early in her tenure with the national team when she stripped long-time captain Renard of the armband. It was to be just the start of the ructions the manager would have with the Lyon contingent in her squad. Subsequent fallings out with Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer would follow. Long-time goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi said she would retire from international duty as long as Diacre is in charge.

Diacre has repeatedly spoken of the need for her squad to be united, a collective, and as such her supporters will say it’s perfectly logical for her to cut out players she perceived were too focused on the individual or whose egos she deemed too big. Perhaps it explains opting to bring in Paris FC forward duo Clara Mateo and Ouleymata Sarr rather than simply recalling Le Sommer. Yet, throughout her spell as coach, her comments have routinely failed to add up, talking of players being out of form whilst their club performances suggested otherwise.

The coach’s decisions and brisk comments have routinely drawn criticism at home, with many pundits suggesting she denies players call-ups as punishment — those in the squad who’ve spoken out swift to feel her reprisal. Throughout the testimonies, those who’ve been coached by Diacre talk of a reactionary manager who punishes her players for minor or unspecified infractions.

Left out in the cold by Diacre this year, there was little surprise when Henry was left out of the squad for Euro 2022. Likewise for Lyon teammate Le Sommer, who had at least been allowed to break the national team goal-scoring record before seeing her call-ups dissolve. Diacre has argued that 32-year-old Charlotte Bilbault could offer things in the middle of the pitch that Henry could not, yet for those who have seen the depth of Henry’s game or watched as she has returned to form this season — including leading Lyon to a Champions League trophy in May — this reads as a half-baked excuse.

Repeatedly those in the game have called on Noel Le Graet, the president of the French Football Federation, to relieve Diacre of her position, but Le Graet has remained faithful to the coach. Last year, he acknowledged some disagreements between former players and the coach, but assured: “Faith in Corinne is starting to pay off.”

The most talented France team ever

The PSG front three of Sandy Baltimore, Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani is likely to feature heavily at the Euros, with Baltimore and Diani interchanged with Lyon duo Delphine Cascarino and Melvine Malard, each attacker offering up something a little different. The thought now is very much that this France team will finally be the one that doesn’t struggle for goals, the caveat that its hauls in qualifiers and friendlies are still just a pre-tournament footnote and not an indication of the summer to come.

If, that is, the attack showcases the best of PSG, the defence is built on the Lyon centre-back pairing of Renard and Griedge Mbock anchoring the team (and likely to chip in with a goal or two), and exceptional young full-back Selma Bacha deployed on the left.

The team comes into the tournament on a 13-match winning run and has been beaten only once in its past 28 outings: a 2-0 loss to the USWNT. But as the history books have taught us, that counts for naught.

Yet, the culture around the team remains a sizable question mark, not least with former Lyon coach Reynald Pedros who said: “Players returned to their clubs very psychologically affected. They go to the France team out of obligation, not out of pleasure. They go to the French team with a pit in their stomach.”

With the France team appearing jovial in 2019 only for some of those players to be frozen out, it’s hard to get a clear read on them now and not cynically question what is said by players who are in the fold. But what we do know is that the PSG front three do enjoy playing together — there is a clear camaraderie there, just as we know Renard and Mbock’s club partnership has been benefiting France for years.

The players may have come and gone as the reins have been passed from one to coach to the next, but the pedigree around Les Bleues has certainly not diminished since their breakthrough in 2011. The question of, “if not now, then when?” is one that has followed the nation for over a decade. But whether the strength of the club partnerships will be enough for France to finally vault over their biggest hurdles and win the Euros, or at least, show up with the steely determination that’s been lacking, remains to be seen.


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