MILTON KEYNES, England — Once again, a top-flight French team have failed to live up to expectations at a major tournament, with the 2-1 semi-final defeat by Germany being the latest in a long string of disappointments over the summer. However, this time feels a little different.
At the Women’s Euro 2022, France had the usual noise about the team: they were the favorites and this was a side that could finally do what their 2011 predecessors couldn’t. Of course there was also the usual background noise, with rumors of dissent and distrust within the camp, including some very public altercations between manager Corinne Diacre and several notable internationals. A narrative for the expected quarter-final failure against the Netherlands was prepared and ready to go, with former France goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi saying the team under Diacre’s leadership could never win a title, to be copied and pasted into a post-mortem.
But this French team was not a picture of disharmony; The players had reported how happy they were at camp, in the environment encouraged by their coach. Whether those thoughts were serious or not, or just lines poured into them to encourage a show of unity to the media, only the members of the group know, but this team looked just like that: a team.
From the breathless first half against Italy on 10 July there was understanding in the group, balance and a willingness to contribute to the cause and the collective. As we’ve seen with other teams who have come far this summer, the team spirit was clearly there and the environment Diacre cultivated among their players was one of humility. Even if her starting XI weren’t necessarily the best players available to her based on talent alone, la selection was built as the best possible group on stronger foundations.
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So, despite the noise, the side had indeed silenced their critics in that opening game of the group stage, but suffered the same fate as countless French teams before them in major tournaments: football began to stagnate and goals dried up.
France could have either done something no other French team has done before and built on that success and go from strength to strength towards a grand tournament final and the sacred title, or it could have done like so many others and fizzled out and also protrude far soon. Even as they set out to claim their first semi-final spot since 2012, there was a sense of inevitability for what would follow in Milton Keynes on Wednesday. France were vastly superior against the Dutch, but they hadn’t finished the game in 90 minutes and would no doubt carry that extra 30 minutes of effort in their legs to reach the semi-finals against Germany, who had an extra 48 hours of rest and preparation.
Dropping record goalscorer Eugenie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry from the squad had been a decision in favor of the collective but also meant Diacre had few reinforcements to call on as they lost star striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto to a cruciate ligament injury midway through the second Group match against Belgium. Katoto has been hailed as the difference maker and positioned as the attacker who could have propelled legendary teams to victory and World Cup success at Euro 2011 and 2015 had she been born a decade earlier.
Her injury coincided with the drop in rating. Since their defeat, France’s four goals have been a header from a centre-back after a corner (vs Belgium), an open sequence of play in the first minute (vs Iceland), a penalty in extra time (vs Netherlands) and an own goal just before half-time (against Germany).
It was all too familiar for Les Bleues. They’d been too helpless in front of goal and hadn’t scored when it really counted. Still, the team played enjoyable football this summer; Even in the loss to Germany, their off-ball form of cutting out obvious passing lines had worked well in the first half as they generally dominated the midfield battle until Germany found a way to adapt and outplay their opponents.
Where national coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg made the changes that tipped the game in her side’s favour, Diacre’s bench decision wasn’t as strong. Bringing Clara Mateo into play made sense from an attacking perspective, but instead of using her in more central areas one would associate with a No9 or No10, her use on the right wing neutralized her natural play and left France unbalanced. That meant winger Kadidiatou Diani was then relegated to the centre-forward role: a case of the right players in the wrong positions, a plan almost doomed to failure.
It would be easy enough to regret the missing players or talk about a team that needed Katoto to be successful. But not every team that has won a major tournament has had a katoto on their team, and in any case, this French side has more than enough goals for that Les Bleues have been more convincing in the last third.
On the morning after the night before, as France once again head home early from a major tournament that had shown so much promise but nothing, the feeling of failure is all too familiar. But this summer the French felt a different feeling: all the noise from outside and the critics’ worries about disharmony had stayed outside. In parts, the team was actually up to the task of the summer. Even in the cold light of day, the future of this team looks bright. The young group that Diacre brought to England will be at the World Cup, the 2024 Olympics and Euro 2025 next year.
Diacre may not be the coach at the end of the next Euros, but for the first time in a long time there is hope.
As Diacre said after the defeat by Germany: “Disappointment prevails at the moment. But we have a good basis. We just need a little time. That wasn’t our evening. Maybe it just wasn’t our competition this year. But we’ve built something here together with a great, hard-working group that doesn’t like to lose.”
https://www.espn.com/soccer/uefa-womens-european-championship/story/4707851/france-left-with-a-familiar-feeling-after-euro-2022-lossbut-theres-hope-for-the-future France left with a familiar feeling after Euro 2022 loss, but there’s hope for the future