Can this man fix France’s women’s national team?

Can this man fix France’s women’s national team?

The banner hangs just below the central staircase of the elegant hotel that was occupied by France’s women’s World Cup team. Hervé Renard wanted to ensure that none of his team could lose.

The motivational words emblazoned on it are typical of the kind of positive messages that teams put together before major sporting tournaments. But for this France team and for Renard, their experienced coach, the words carry extra meaning after a spell many in the team would rather forget.

“Only team spirit”, he says, “can make your dreams come true”.

Renard used the phrase the first time he met the France team earlier this year, just a few months before the World Cup. It wasn’t long before he was chosen to replace fired coach Corinne Diacre, but even then he knew it was a message that could resonate with a team that even their own FA had concluded was “fractured” beyond repair.

“We were losing unity,” Renard said in an interview on a sunny terrace outside the team’s base camp last week. It was perhaps the greatest understatement in women’s football.

France arrived in Australia this month as rebounding World Cup favourites. Torn apart by bitter feuds, the past few months have lost players, gotten them back, then lost them again. He changed coaches, he changed his approach and he changed his tactics. And now he has asked Renard, a respected 54-year-old with a decorated men’s World Cup resume but no previous coaching experience in women’s coaching, to take him at least to the semi-finals.

He started the process, he said, by being open about what he didn’t know.

“For me everything was new because I knew women’s football, how to manage girls,” he said. “I was lucky because in our staff there were already a lot of people working with women’s football. So I was listening.

What he inherited was a talented team in disarray. Its longtime leader, Wendie Renard (who is not related to Hervé), had announced that she would not play in the World Cup to preserve her mental health. Two other stars followed suit, saying they would not return unless there was a change in team leadership.

There have been previous controversies under Diacre, the coach at the time, but nothing as serious or existential. A mutinous mood turned into open rebellion.

Faced with a crisis as the World Cup approached, the French football federation took action, announcing after a brief investigation that Diacre had to leave. The rift between her and the team, the federation said, had become so significant that “it reached the point of no return”.

Hervé Renard, enjoying a successful and lucrative break from an itinerant coaching career in Saudi Arabia, said he acted on impulse when the news broke. He contacted Jean-Michel Aulas, one of the most influential men in French football and a board member of the French federation. Renard met him a decade ago, when he narrowly missed becoming coach of Lyon’s men’s team. He told Aulas that he wanted to be considered for the opening.

It promised a significant change in direction for his career. Renard said that, up until the moment he picked up the phone to text Aulas, he had only once thought about coaching women: a fantasy that came from watching France play in the last World Cup. His interest then, he said, lasted “perhaps only for a few seconds”.

But now that his interest in coaching a women’s team for the first time has been reciprocated, he has a problem. To take the job, he would need approval from football officials in Saudi Arabia, where he has a contract, and would have to take a significant pay cut. The Saudi job, Renard explained with a smile, paid at least “20 times” what he would earn training the women of France.

“When you’re in Saudi Arabia, it’s not exactly reality,” he said. “So sometimes it’s good to go for reality.”

Months later, Renard said he still can’t explain why he threw the hat in the ring, before looking at the French coat of arms on the left breast of his tracksuit. Having coached five other teams, he said, the chance to lead the country of his birth was clearly a huge draw. But even so, some things, Renard said, cannot be explained. “I still don’t know why exactly I decided,” he said.

Renard is optimistic about his rare feat of coaching at two World Cups in one year. “The most important thing is not to participate in two World Cups in six months,” he said. “It’s to do something” in them.

Of all the teams Renard has coached, his current team is the highest ranked, ranked fifth in the world – a high profile he has maintained despite never getting past the semi-finals of a major tournament. Renard said it is now possible.

“We have to believe in ourselves,” he said.

He is under orders to reach the semifinals, he said, a target he accepted. “We can’t come here when you’re fifth in the world and say, ‘Oh no, a quarterfinal will do.’ No. We need to have a very high challenge. Therefore, our first objective is to reach the semifinals. Then we’ll talk about other things later.”

Renard had just a few months to mend a fractured team, to instill the team spirit his banner demands and he believes his players need to win in what he considers the most competitive Women’s World Cup in history.

At his first camp, Renard told the team that he wasn’t interested in what happened in the past. He didn’t want to litigate past games, past feuds, past grievances – all the things that made the atmosphere on the pitch so poisonous that stars like Wendie Renard said they’d rather not play for France. But he couldn’t avoid facing a final pre-tournament controversy.

Kheira Hamraoui, an experienced and talented midfielder and regular in the national team, was attacked in 2021 by masked men after dinner with her club, Paris Saint-Germain. The fallout has reverberated for both club and national team, with a former teammate of both teams, Aminata Diallo, accused of involvement in the attack, and others angered by Hamraoui’s initial claims that they or people they knew were also involved.

The bizarre episode accompanied the selection for more than two years. Faced with reliving it on the France pitch, Renard said he decided not to bring Hamraoui to the World Cup and told her in a face-to-face meeting why she would not be selected.

He said he told Hamraoui she would not start and that a place on the bench would be upsetting for a player of her experience. “I think for that type of player you start in the first 11 or it’s very difficult to sit on the bench,” he said. “We cannot advance in a competition if we don’t have a fantastic team spirit.”

Renard recognized that not every choice he makes will be the right one. But he said he was open with his players about what he knew and what he didn’t.

“I told the girls, ‘Maybe I make some mistakes. If I say something wrong, just let me know. But, step by step, you learn to manage,” he said.

Your players, right now, say they’re hearing the right things. “He keeps pushing us to be the best versions of ourselves,” said midfielder Grace Geyoro in a recent interview. Said Wendie Renard: “As long as everyone has the same vision and willingness to move in the same direction, we can achieve something great.”

The World Cup takes place with the biggest focus on women’s football in the sport’s history, and with teams and players using the platform to push for greater recognition and compensation for their efforts. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, more than tripled the prize money from four years ago to $110 million. His critics said the new figure doesn’t go far enough, which should be the same as the $440 million prize pool awarded to men at the 2022 World Cup in 2022.

Hervé Renard recognized the evolution of women’s football, especially since the last World Cup. But, perhaps controversially, he said “women still have to be a little patient” when it comes to paying.

As interest continues to grow, he said, so does the earning potential. But commercial reality, he said, is reflected in different sports revenues, and he offered an analogy to make his point.

“If you have a restaurant with 1,000 evening meals and another with 300, it’s not the same thing,” he said. “At the end of the night at the cashier it is not the same amount. Football is the same thing. It’s business.”

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