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VIVE LA REVOLUTION

Formidable France face off against Australia in World Cup quarterfinals, just months after chaotic build-up

Formidable France face off against Australia in World Cup quarterfinals, just months after chaotic build-up
Wendie Renard of France is congratulated by head coach Hervé Renard after the team's 2-1 victory over Brazil at Brisbane Stadium in Australia on 29 July 2023. (Photo: Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images)

In February it seemed France would not have their best players at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. After many stars quit the team over disagreements with the previous coach, new mentor Hervé Renard has come in to restore order and self-belief.

France and revolutions are historically two peas in a pod. There was the famous French Revolution in the 18th century, a time of great societal upheaval and challenging of the status quo.

Then there was that infamous player mutiny by the French men’s soccer team in 2010 South Africa, which curtailed the World Cup campaign of the Europeans and saw them finish bottom of their group, without a single win – despite being finalists four years before.

The standoff was between then head coach Raymond Domenech and the senior players in the team, over an altercation between the coach and striker Nicolas Anelka.

The heated exchange resulted in Anelka being banished from the camp. His teammates stood by him. The result of it all was an embarrassing group-stage exit for the French.

Fast forward 13 years and the stalwarts and stars of the French women’s soccer side had a similar standoff with Corinne Diacre, who was their coach in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup, currently being co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia.

France World Cup

Hanane Ait El Haj of Morocco and Selma Bacha of France in action during a World Cup round-of-16 match at Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide on 8 August 2023. (Photo: Joe Prior / Visionhaus via Getty Images)

Key players such as skipper Wendie Renard, Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani said in early 2023 that they would not be available for the World Cup if Diacre (who had been around since 2017) remained in charge.

In a statement released in February, Renard – who is considered one of the greatest defenders of all time – said she wouldn’t be going to the World Cup “under these conditions”.

“I love France more than anything. I am not perfect, far from it. But I can no longer support the current system, which is far from the requirements of the highest level,” the veteran Lyon defender said at the time.

“It is a sad but necessary day to preserve my mental health… Unfortunately, I will not be playing in the World Cup under such conditions. My face may hide the pain but my heart is suffering… and I don’t want to suffer any more.”

The French soccer federation then appointed a four-person panel to investigate the allegations against Diacre by the players who had quit.

“The numerous hearings conducted have made it possible to establish a very important gap with some top players. This gap has reached a point of no return that damages the team’s interests,” the federation concluded.

Diacre was dismissed, but not without a final parting shot: “I endured, not without great suffering, the display of slander, untruths and ambitions of some and others. I have been the subject of a smear campaign that is astonishing in its violence and dishonesty.”

New beginnings, again

With all that turmoil just a few months ago, it seemed unlikely, but the French have flipped their fortunes right around. With the World Cup in its quarterfinal stage, they are genuine favourites to push all the way and win the tournament for the first time in their history.

Les Bleues were one of the teams that impressed during an unpredictable group phase. Under the guidance of Hervé Renard, who replaced Diacre at the tail end of March, the Europeans won two and drew one of their three matches to finish at the summit of Group F.

We’re hoping to put Australia through exactly what France went through when they were the host country in 2019.

In their quarterfinal clash they will tussle with competition co-hosts Australia. The French are hoping to inflict the same pain on the Australians that they experienced as hosts in 2019, when Les Bleues were dumped out at the same stage of their home tournament.  

“We know exactly what we’re in for,” Renard said ahead of the quarterfinal clash. 

Hervé Renard was appointed France’s coach in March after a player revolt against former coach Corinne Diacre. (Photo: Zhizhao Wu / Getty Images )

“Being the host country… We know that that can be a good or bad thing. This is what the French team went through in 2019. It can be hugely disappointing, as it was for France when they were knocked out,” he continued.

“We’re hoping to put Australia through exactly what France went through when they were the host country in 2019,” Renard added.

Renard effect

Even though it is the 54-year-old’s debut campaign managing a women’s team, he is highly respected in the global soccer community. Most recently he managed Saudi Arabia and oversaw the team’s famous win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina at Qatar 2022.

Back, from left: Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, Grace Geyoro, Wendie Renard, Kenza Dali, Kadidiatou Diani, Elisa De Almeida. Front: Eve Perisset, Eugenie Le Sommer, Selma Bacha, Sakina Karchaoui and Sandie Toletti of France. (Photo: Joe Prior / Visionhaus via Getty Images)

He also has silverware under his belt. He led a talented, but unfancied, Zambia side to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. He managed the feat once more when he won the trophy with Ivory Coast’s ageing golden generation of stars including the Touré brothers, Gervinho and Siaka Tiéné.

The best France have managed at this tournament is fourth place, in 2011. Against a passionate home crowd and determined host nation out to etch its own World Cup history, it won’t be easy.

Nevertheless, this French side has shown its mental fortitude over the past few months.

In February, it might have not been simple to pick them as the outright favourites to win the whole thing. Six months later, they are right up the summit of that list. Even though this World Cup has shown that the favourites tag is just about meaningless. DM

France and Australia play on Saturday, 12 August, at 9am South African time.

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