In The Journey to the Cup, The Athletic tells the stories of players and teams as they work towards a place in the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Follow along as we track their progress as they prepare both mentally and physically for a chance to shine on the game’s biggest stage.
The Women’s World Cup gets under way in July but what state the France team are in at the start of the tournament is anyone’s guess. A nation that, ordinarily, would be considered among the favourites in Australia and New Zealand is without some of its star players and the manager could be removed at a meeting next week. It has been a dramatic week, even by French football standards.
The ‘jaw-dropping’ moment came with Friday’s announcement by national team captain Wendie Renard — a bona fide legend of the game — that she would no longer be available for selection. Much more on that in a moment.
It is just one part of the French Football Federation (FFF) saga. After months of turbulence, the shake-up has begun.
On Tuesday, the FFF president, Noel Le Graet, announced his resignation at a meeting of the executive committee after 11 years in office.
The discussion over Le Graet’s future had always been scheduled for February 28 after the findings of an audit commissioned by French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera over claims of sexual harassment and bullying at the FFF were released two weeks ago.
The report ruled Le Graet failed to hold “the necessary legitimacy to manage and represent French football” and “highlighted the inappropriate behaviour of Mr Le Graet towards women”.
Le Graet, who denies any wrongdoing, is the first person to go but he may not be the last. The president’s resignation has serious consequences for the women’s game. His departure felt inevitable but there are major doubts about the future of French women’s team head coach Corinne Diacre.
The viability of her position was an issue added to the meeting’s agenda after Renard and team-mates Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani announced their boycott of the national team. Renard, whose concerns are understood not to be personal but relate to the overall set-up of the women’s team, said she “can no longer support the current system which is far from the requirements of the highest level.
“It is a sad day but necessary to preserve my mental health. I will unfortunately not be playing in this World Cup in such conditions.”
Katoto and Diani said they would put their international careers on hold unless “the necessary changes are made”.
Diacre’s future, which made French sports newspaper L’Equipe’s front page, is hanging by a thread. No decision was made on Tuesday because, well, only the president can hire or fire a coach. And he has just resigned.
Although Renard’s announcement — supported by Ballon d’Or winners Ada Hegerberg (Norway) and Megan Rapinoe (United States) — came as a shock to those close to the French team, it was not a snap decision. She had been thinking about quitting for several months.
A week before February’s Tournoi de France, Lyon centre-back Renard — who was named in the FIFPro World XI on Monday for a record seventh year — informed Le Graet and her club president Jean-Michel Aulas that she was going to stop playing for the national team. The eight-time Champions League winner even raised footballing concerns with Diacre again during last week’s international break but to no avail.
Renard lifted the Tournoi de France trophy but with a forlorn expression. Those watching did not know it, but Renard was aware it might be her last act in a France shirt.
La réaction des Bleues suite à leur victoire dans cette 3e édition du Tournoi de France 💬🏆#FiersdetreBleues
— Equipe de France Féminine (@equipedefranceF) February 22, 2023
It should not come as a surprise that there have been issues between Diacre and some players. Deep-rooted management problems stretch back to before last summer’s European Championship and, while the manager realised she had made mistakes and did create a greater sense of togetherness during the tournament in England, it has not lasted.
After taking charge in late 2017, Diacre stripped Renard of the captaincy. Renard writes in her book, Mon Etoile (My Star), that Diacre said she was at “40 per cent of her capacity with the French team” and “perhaps the armband took up too much of her energy”.
In February 2020 France midfielder Gaetane Thiney suggested the team should learn from the men’s team’s head coach Didier Deschamps. “We must draw inspiration from his communication and management,” she said. “What is certain is that he protects his players, he loves them…Corinne Diacre or others must be inspired by that.”
Long-serving goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi stepped back from the France squad in July 2019 initially citing “the sporting failure” of the 2019 World Cup as a reason for her departure. Speaking to Lyon’s official TV channel, however, in October 2020, she said: “Winning a title with this coach seems impossible. These are strong words, but we live in a very, very negative climate. Many players think so too but don’t say it. I could put my two hands on it that the French team will not win the 2022 Euros if Corinne Diacre remains in charge.”
The manager has also fallen out with Lyon midfielders Eugenie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry. After the 2019 World Cup, Diacre criticised Le Sommer’s performance on TF1’s French football TV show Telefoot, saying: “I don’t understand why Le Sommer never played in the centre, that wasn’t the plan.” Le Sommer has not been selected since April 2021.
The France manager also did not choose her then-captain Henry for two Euro qualifying matches in October 2020. Diacre said she was giving Henry “time to get back to her best level”. The midfielder had suffered a calf injury in August but had since played three games (two of them full 90 minutes) for Lyon.
In November 2020, Henry told France TV show Canal +: “I saw girls cry in their room (during the World Cup). I cried in my room. It was total chaos.” Regarding her omission from the October squad, Henry said her call with Diacre lasted 14 to 15 seconds. “She told me: ‘Amandine, you know that the list comes out tomorrow and you won’t be on it due to your recent performances.’” Henry has not been recalled since 2020.
But people involved in this situation — who, like all sources in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their positions — insist that this time it is not a personal problem but a sporting one.
A more professional footballing setup, better organisation and a whole management change are needed, according to one source close to Renard.
Katoto and Diani joined their captain in announcing their temporary withdrawal from the national team but the trio’s decisions to stand down were not the result of a collective dressing-room plan. Others soon followed, though, with Lyon’s Perle Morroni (who was last called up to the national team in 2021) and Griedge Mbock (who is recovering from injury) standing in solidarity.
The players’ issues relate to a lack of transparency regarding planning, decision-making, team selection, tactics and overall management. There are also only three members on the women’s team’s technical staff: Diacre and her two assistants, who double up as the goalkeeping and fitness coach.
Training sessions lack intensity and tactical emphasis, sources close to the players told The Athletic, and video sessions do not always occur — even if they do, time spent on them is minimal. Players have been told they do not have time to practise set pieces after training because the bus is waiting and some, but not all, have said too much of their warm-up is spent running without the ball.
As for matches, sources close to the team have said there is no clear plan — during the Tournoi de France, France experimented with a back three, a back four and a back five — players’ roles are ambiguous and there is too much rotation at each camp and within the starting XI. Some players feel this prevents them from forming connections, especially in the lead-up to a major tournament. “We have to find our own identity,” said France midfielder Grace Geyoro following the 0-0 draw with Norway.
Renard is used to the highest footballing standards at Lyon and wants to be pushed to the next level. She knows success comes down to fine margins. Other countries are surpassing Les Bleues and if they are to succeed at this summer’s World Cup, something has to change.
Inside Lyon’s dominance of women’s European football…
“Management is a simple word but it encompasses many things,” said Renard after Lyon’s 3-0 win over Bordeaux on Sunday. “I recognise that the coach (Diacre) has made efforts on certain things. But today, we owe it to ourselves, and I stress the word ‘sporting’, to raise the bar in terms of demands. We missed a turning point after the 2019 World Cup, there is a momentum that has been broken.”
Brought in by Le Graet in 2017, Diacre was the first woman to manage a men’s professional team (Clermont, from 2014 to 2017) and holds a unique place in football’s history.
But she also splits opinion.
“Some like her, some hate her,” said one source close to the camp.
On the one hand, she is said to be nice to young squad members when they arrive, giving them time to adapt and providing positive feedback. On the other, she is tough on more experienced players. Her communication has been described as inconsistent, disrespectful and insensitive.
The Athletic approached Diacre to offer her the chance to comment on this article but did not receive a reply. The Athletic also contacted the FFF, which declined to comment.
The problem runs deeper than the management of the national team, hence Renard’s use of the word “system” in her statement. With the head of the system Le Graet removed, this is a chance for the FFF to turn over a new leaf.
Despite a disappointing Euros performance — France were beaten in the semi-finals by Germany — Le Graet extended Diacre’s contract without consulting anyone else. That deal is reportedly worth €400,000 (£351,000, $424,000) per year and runs until the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. With one of Diacre’s only internal supporters now removed, his opinion no longer carries such weight and her position is vulnerable.
The federation’s leaders, however, do not want to be perceived to be giving in to pressure from the players. The last line of the FFF’s statement released on Friday said, “No individual is above the institution of the French team.”
Diacre’s future has been delegated to a working group consisting of Aulas, who is also in charge of women’s football at the FFF, Strasbourg president Marc Keller, FFF treasurer Aline Riera and FFF secretary general Laura Georges, who also played centre-back alongside Renard.
Aulas’ relationship with Diacre has not always been a happy one. When Diacre stripped Renard of the armband five and a half years ago, Aulas said in Le Progres, “It’s not very elegant in relation to what Wendie Renard represents.” Regarding Diacre’s criticism of Henry’s 2019 World Cup performance, Aulas said, “She has gone beyond the institutional and professional framework.” And in October 2020, when Le Sommer was not called up, he requested a meeting with Diacre and Le Graet “to start again on the right foot”.
“We have reached a point of no return,” Aulas told L’Equipe before the executive committee meeting on Monday.
“When you see the management of this French team, you see it is not at all comparable to the other great European teams. I know that we have the best players in Europe, maybe in the world, and we can’t get results. The executive committee must look carefully at the situation and make decisions. This seems to be compulsory if we want to respect the messages sent. It seems difficult objectively to fight against it.”
The working group will give their conclusions on Diacre’s future to interim president Philippe Diallo at the next meeting on March 9.
With less than five months until the World Cup begins, French football is at a major crossroads. Stick with Diacre and players will not return, reducing their chances of World Cup success.
But with just one international window left before a major tournament, how much impact can a new coach have? Time is ticking.
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(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)