Can This Man Fix France’s Women’s Team?

The banner hangs just beneath the central staircase of the elegant hotel that has been taken over by the France women’s national team for the World Cup. Hervé Renard wanted to make sure no one in his squad could miss it.

The motivational words emblazoned across it are typical of the type of positive messaging teams rally around before major sporting tournaments. But for this French squad, and for Renard, its well-traveled coach, the words carry extra significance after a period many on the team would prefer to forget.

“Only team spirit,” it reads, “can make you realize your dreams.”

Renard used the phrase the first time he met the French squad earlier this year, only months before the World Cup. That was not long after he was chosen to replace the fired coach Corinne Diacre, but even then he knew it was a message that might resonate with a team that even its own federation had concluded was “fractured” beyond repair.

“We were missing unity,” Renard said in an interview on a sunny terrace in front of the team’s base camp last week. It was perhaps the biggest understatement in women’s soccer.

France has arrived in Australia this month as a World Cup favorite on the mend. Torn apart by bitter feuds, it has in recent months lost players, welcomed them back, and then lost them again. It has changed coaches, changed approaches and changed tactics. And now it has asked Renard, a respected 54-year-old with a decorated men’s World Cup résumé but no previous experience coaching women, to carry it at least as far as the semifinals.

He started the process, he said, by being open about what he did not know.

“For me everything was new because I did it know women’s football, how to manage the girls,” he said. “I was lucky because on our staff a lot of people were already 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 had followed suit, saying they would not return unless there was a change in leadership of the team.

France’s longtime captain, Wendie Renard, had said she would skip the World Cup rather than play for the team’s former coach. Credit…William West/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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

Faced with a crisis as the World Cup loomed, the French soccer federation acted, announcing after a brief investigation that Diacre had to go. The rupture between her and the team, the federation said, had become so significant that it “has reached a point of no return.”

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

It promised a significant change of course for his career. Renard said that until the moment he picked up his phone to message Aulas, he had only once before considered coaching women: a flight of fancy that came as he watched France play in the last World Cup. His interest then, he said, had lasted “maybe just for a few seconds.”

But now that his interest in coaching a women’s team for the first time was reciprocated, he faced a problem. To accept the job, he would need the permission of soccer officials in Saudi Arabia, where he was under contract, and he would need to accept a significant pay cut. The Saudi job, Renard explained with a smile, paid at least “20 times” what he would earn coaching France’s women.

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

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

Renard’s most recent World Cup experience came as the coach of Saudi Arabia, which was the only team to beat Argentina, the eventual champion, at the 2022 championship in Qatar.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images

Renard is sanguine about his rare feat of coaching in two World Cups within a 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 squad is the highest ranked, at fifth in the world — a lofty profile it has maintained despite never making it beyond the semifinals of a major tournament. Renard said that is now possible.

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

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

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

In his first training camp, Renard told the team he was not interested in what happened in the past. He did not want to litigate past games, past feuds, past grievances — all the things that had made the atmosphere in the camp so poisonous that stars like Wendie Renard said they would rather not play for France at all. But he could not avoid confronting one final pretournament controversy.

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

The bizarre episode shadowed the national team for more than two years. Faced with reviving it in the France camp, Renard said he decided against bringing 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 that she was not going to start, and that a place on the bench would be unsettling for a player of her experience. “I think for this kind of player, you start in the first 11 or it is very difficult to sit on the bench,” he said. “We can’t go forward in a competition if we don’t have a fantastic team spirit.”

Renard acknowledged that not every choice he makes will be the correct one. But he said he has been frank with his players about what he knew, and what he did not.

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

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

France’s women’s team practicing in Sydney on Saturday.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters

The World Cup takes place with the sharpest focus on women’s soccer 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, has more than tripled prize money from four years ago, to $110 million. Its critics have said that new figure does not go far enough, that it should be the same as the $440 million prize pool awarded to men at the 2022 World Cup in 2022.

Hervé Renard acknowledged the progress women’s soccer has made, particularly since the last World Cup. But, perhaps controversially, he said that “women still have to be a little bit patient” when it comes to pay.

As interest continues to grow, he said, so will the earning potential. But commercial reality, he said, was reflected in the sports’ differing revenues, and he put forward an analogy to make his point.

“If you have one restaurant with 1,000 meals in the evening and one with 300, it’s not the same,” he said. “At the end of the night in the register, it’s not the same amount. Football it’s the same. It’s business.”

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