This article is part of the Guardian’s Women’s Euro 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 16 countries who have qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 6 July.
Take the Mona Lisa. Its sublime appearance hides a structure in pain, a varnish cracked to the point of not shining as it should. This observation applies to the French team, in all its ambivalence, fabulous and alarming at the same time. Its radiant aspect is the sporting side, while the repulsive reverse is the reality of the dressing room.
On the first part, there is nothing to complain about. The French qualified for the Euros without conceding a single goal. In a solid and efficient 4-3-3, they scored 44 goals in eight games, for seven victories and a draw, in Austria. Even better, Les Bleues have won their 14 matches played since April 2021 with a loss only coming in a friendly against the USA. With a convincing victory in the Tournoi de France, in February, beating the Netherlands and Brazil along the way, they arrive in England as credible favourites for the Euros. “We’re aiming for the final, at least,” says Corinne Diacre, the coach.
However, the team has been hit for years by internal tensions. Lyon’s players are historically in conflict with Diacre. Eugénie Le Sommer, France’s all-time scorer, and Amandine Henry, the former captain, have not been called up despite Lyon’s recent Champions League triumph.
The level of tension is even higher than in 2019, during the World Cup at home, when “players were crying in their room”, mistreated by their coach, as Henry revealed to Canal+. In November 2021, the assault of PSG player Kheira Hamraoui, which led to the custody of teammate Aminata Diallo (released without charge), also divided the dressing room.
Sarah Bouhaddi, former first-choice goalkeeper for France and Lyon, retired from international football because of the unhealthy situation. She sums it up like no other. “I could bet my life that the French team will not win the Euros if Diacre remains in charge.” Guess what? Diacre is still there.
“Dragon”, “the chief warrant officer”, “Cocovirus” … The nicknames given by Les Bleues prove that Corinne Diacre has managed to arouse resentment since her appointment in 2017. On the one hand, the merit of this former great defender (121 caps) is praised for becoming the first woman in the world to coach professional men over at least one season. That was at Clermont, in Ligue 2, between 2014 and 2017. But since then, she is best known for her ease in creating conflicts, by her attitude described as “dictatorial”. “We are not here to laugh,” she repeats. Recently, she has been trying to soften her image with a smile and a calmer tone.
Marie-Antoinette Katoto. It’s crazy how fast things can change. In 2019, Diacre decided not to select Katoto for the World Cup in France, something of a shock as the striker was had scored 30 goals in 29 games with PSG that season. “Marie-Antoinette is not present enough in the big events … with what I saw in training she absolutely doesn’t deserve to be a starter,” said Diacre in attempted justification. A conflict arose, once again. Three years later, the same coach has decided to organise the whole team around Katoto, unstoppable this season (46 goals in 44 games) and more assertive in the dressing room. She will be the favourite for the Ballon d’Or if France win the Euros.
Ella Palis. This is the unusual story of a player who is not even a starter at her club, Bordeaux, but who convinced Diacre in record time. Palis earned her place in the squad by shining as a defensive midfielder in a 1-0 win over Slovenia in April. A fan of N’Golo Kanté, “who is on every ball”, and Marco Verratti, “at ease in small spaces”, the 23-year-old is poised to take the place of Charlotte Bilbault, who also deprived her of playing time at Bordeaux. Palis is already wearing the mythical number 10. And nobody sums up her polyvalent profile better than she does. “I like to project myself forward, bring offensive solutions and why not try to shoot from afar?”
Wendie Renard. An icon of women’s football, an icon for little French girls born outside metropolitan France, also an icon often cited as an example by Emmanuel Macron. Renard is so many things at the same time. Born in Martinique, the French captain had to overcome the fact that her father died of cancer when she was eight, and she moved to France permanently at the age of 16. Her success (15 league titles, eight European Cups with Lyon) has transcended sport. Even her opponents on the pitch recognise her extraordinary qualities. “Renard is a great example of not just staying on top, but always trying to improve,” Chelsea player Millie Bright told fifa.com. “She’s an incredible leader and often makes the difference in big games.”
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The repeated presence of the French team in the final phase of major tournaments is quite recent. Les Bleues qualified for their first Euros in 1997, then waited 12 more years to get through the group stage. Since 2009, the golden generation of Henry, Le Sommer and Renard has reached another level, with an exciting game. But this group has always remained a magnificent loser, playing well but losing early, with a mental strength that remains to be found in big tournaments. We are still waiting for the French team to pass the quarter-finals. The problem is that the era of that generation seems to be over, and the new one has not yet reached maturity.
Realistic aim this summer
Given a difficult draw (probably Sweden or the Netherlands in the last eight) and the toxic atmosphere in the dressing room, the journey could end at the quarter-final stage once again.
Théo Troude writes for France Football. You can find him here on Twitter