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France's Women Are On A Mission To Establish Worldwide Soccer Dominance

Photo: Francois Mori (AP)
2019 Women's World Cup2019 Women's World CupPlayers to watch, dark horses, upset opportunities, and everything else you need to know for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

If the 100 percent non-existent aliens that purportedly flit about Earth’s skies were in fact real, and if they somehow mustered enough gumption in their lily liver-equivalent alien organs to descend upon the far superior human race and challenge us to a pair of soccer matches—one men’s, one women’s—to determine the future of the planet, and if we humans had to scramble to find a venue that could both host the event and stand as the recruitment base from which we would assemble our squads by selecting from the local populace, then the clear destination of choice would be Paris. That is because Paris, and France as a whole, is the center of the soccer universe right now.

Unfortunately, aliens are either not real or are big fraidy cats who don’t want to step to us, and so no such challenge has been proposed. However, the 2019 Women’s World Cup, which will be held in France and kicks off this Friday, will offer the French woman’s national soccer team the opportunity to prove without a shadow of doubt France’s intraplanetary supremacy.

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The case for France being the class of both the men’s and women’s game is already persuasive. From the men’s side, the justification is clear. Last summer, the Frenchies won the World Cup in convincing fashion. Two years prior, France finished runners up in the 2016 Euros. On top of those international tournament performances, France has been an unstinting geyser of talent of all sorts and at all positions, the likes of which no other country can match at the moment. (Paris and its surrounding suburbs are particularly rich in talent; an all-Paris starting XI could very well contend for the World Cup by itself.) Spain and Germany had their runs as soccer’s ascendant powers during the past decade or so, but now is France’s time.

In the women’s game, the argument isn’t quite as clear. On the club side, though, there is no dispute: France, by way of the preposterously dominant women of Olympique Lyon, are better than everyone else. Lyon are the best women’s team in the world, and it’s not even close. In fact, relative to their competition, Lyon just might be the most dominant team in all of sports.

France’s Division 1 Féminine is one of the strongest women’s leagues in the world; Lyon crush all competitors, winning the last 13 league titles, losing only two domestic matches in the past nine years. The strongest overall competition in women’s soccer is Europe’s Champions League; Lyon are peerless there, too, having just won their fourth consecutive European Cup after reaching the final eight of the past 10 seasons, winning six of those. Lyon are the Real Madrid of women’s soccer, only if Real Madrid and ate Barcelona like Majin Buu and absorbed all their success, too.

The glaring shortcoming here, and the thing the Frenchwomen will attempt to address this summer, is the country’s lack of success as a national team. France have never won a World Cup in the women’s game, nor have they finished in the top three of any of the major tournaments. Not only that, but despite being a hot pick as the next world power to announce its presence in a major tournament since taking a strong and exciting team to the semis of the 2011 World Cup, France have fallen short of expectations.

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Some of this is bad luck. Four years ago, France dominated the Women’s World Cup and looked like clear favorites to win the thing. Then they drew Germany in the quarterfinals. (Let’s not forget FIFA’s insultingly greedy bullshit that intentionally screwed those two countries by seeding the tournament not based on team quality, but instead with an eye to maximizing FIFA’s revenue.) Though they dominated the Germans on the pitch, the French were unlucky with their finishing and wound up getting bumped off in penalties.

Some of their relative failures of late are their own doing, though. If you thought the bad taste left in Les Bleues’ mouths after the last World Cup would inspire them to renew their focus and give their best in subsequent tournaments, you’d have been wrong. The following year, in the 2016 Olympics, France lost in the very first knockout round to Canada. The year after that, they lost at the same stage of the Euros to England. Canada and England aren’t the Little Sisters of the Poor, but for as good as France can and have looked, they really should be doing better against competition of that caliber if they want to be recognized as a top international team.

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Thankfully for France, the women have a great shot at redemption this summer. The roster is outstanding from top to bottom. They have a good combination of experience and youth. The spine of the squad is the same as the spine of that transcendent Lyon team. And when you throw in their home field advantage, playing before massive crowds that will most likely be more supportive than demanding, you can see why France are the bettors’ number two favorites to lift the trophy, behind only the U.S.

This could be the first time the same nation would simultaneously hold the men’s and women’s World Cups. (Get your shit together, USMNT.) France have the pieces, the motivation, and the support. Now it’s up to them to make it happen.

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Roster

Goalkeepers: Sarah Bouhaddi (Lyon), Solène Durand (Guingamp), Pauline Peyraud-Magnin (Arsenal)

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Defenders: Julie Debever (Guingamp), Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier), Amel Majri (Lyon), Griedge Mbock Bathy (Lyon), Ève Périsset (Paris Saint-Germain), Wendie Renard (Lyon), Marion Torrent (Montpellier), Aïssatou Tounkara (Atlético Madrid)

Midfielders: Charlotte Bilbault (Paris FC), Élise Bussaglia (Dijon), Maéva Clemaron (Fleury 91), Grace Geyoro (Paris Saint-Germain), Amandine Henry (Lyon), Gaëtane Thiney (Paris FC)

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Forwards: Viviane Asseyi (Bordeaux), Delphine Cascarino (Lyon), Kadidiatou Diani (Paris Saint-Germain), Valérie Gauvin (Montpellier), Emelyne Laurent (Guingamp), Eugénie Le Sommer (Lyon)

Nickname

Les Bleues (The Blues)

FIFA World Ranking

4

Manager

Corinne Diacre

Diacre is a trailblazer in French soccer. She became the first woman to coach a professional men’s team when she managed Ligue 2 club Clermont Foot for three years from 2014 to 2017. And her time at Clermont was wildly successful. She brought an adventurous style of play to the team with the league’s smallest budget, and almost got them promoted to Ligue 1 in her second year. In 2015, the magazine France Football named her coach of the year. After three seasons at Clermont, she decided to accept the national team job in August of 2017.

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How They Play

Though France’s objective in this tournament is to recapture the terrifying form of the last World Cup, this team don’t really play like that one. That France team was more expressive and creative and threatening in front of goal. This France team is more reserved, solid, still dangerous in attack but in a different way. The focal point of the team has slid a little deeper down the pitch than the 2015 version.

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The reason for this switch is the departure of some of the key figures in the previous generation—namely Camille Abily and Louisa Cadamuro (née Nécib). Abily and Cadamuro were the animating forces behind France’s free-flowing attacking style that so shredded opposing defenses in years prior. Cadamuro especially, as the team’s star, brought a whirlwind of ingenuity that structured the team in her image. Without the goals and assists of Cadamuro and Abily, and missing reliable goalscorers like Marie-Laure Delie and Élodie Thomis, France have struggled at times putting the ball in the back of the net. While more than half of France’s likely starting lineup will feature regular starters for Lyon, it’s the goals Lyon’s star forwards (Norway’s Ada Hegerberg and Germany’s Dzsenifer Marozsán) won’t be providing France that keep the national team from perfectly replicating the club’s dominance.

Which isn’t to say France aren’t still great. Though they don’t have Lyon’s attack, the France squad will be able to call upon almost the entirety of Lyon’s nearly impenetrable defense. Goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, central defenders Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy, and full back Amel Majri all start together for club and country. One of the main reasons why international soccer isn’t as fluid as the club game is the lack of time international teammates spend together, preventing players from developing the shared understanding necessary to play their best. That four of France’s five starting defenders already bring that mutual understanding with them from their club experiences is a huge advantage.

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Standing a little bit in front of the backline is the star of the show, Amandine Henry. Henry is France’s midfield maestro. The 29-year-old, herself also a member of the Lyon contingent, has long been France’s conductor, but in the absence of Cadamuro and now as the team’s captain, she now has more influence on proceedings than ever before. Which is good news for France, because she’s fantastic.

Henry is a deep lying playmaker who organizes the game from the base of play with her passing. She shines brightest with the ball, splashing passes all over the pitch with her impressive range. She’s also strong defensively, especially when she lies in wait until the perfect moment and springs forward with a well-timed tackle or interception.

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Though Henry tends to start deep, she’s famous for striding forward a few yards and unleashing one of her trademark powerbomb shots from distance, which she can hit equally well with both feet. You might remember this particular gem from the last World Cup:

In attack, the leader is the same one it’s been for so long: Eugénie Le Sommer. Le Sommer—another Lyon star—is France’s most lethal weapon, and is the team’s most reliable source goals. The 30-year-old will soon become France’s all-time leading scorer, and will need to come up big for France, since most of the other forwards in the squad are relatively unproven.

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The 22-year-old Delphine Cascarino (you guessed it: also from Lyon) has emerged only recently as arguably France’s most promising young forward prospect; if she can channel her compatriot, Kylian Mbappé, and bring some speed and goals to the national team, her contributions could make the difference between success and failure. It will probably take at least two of France’s young forwards Cascarino, Kadidiatou Diani, and Valérie Gauvin—all under the age of 25—to get going in order for the women to repeat the men’s feat at win the World Cup. France’s biggest challenge should things go as expected will probably come in yet another mammoth quarterfinal matchup, this time against the USWNT. Get past that game, and France could be home free.

Group A Fixtures

June 7, 3 p.m.: France vs. South Korea at Parc de Princes

June 12, 3 p.m.: France vs. Norway at Stade de Nice

June 17, 3 p.m.: Nigeria vs. France at Roazhon Park

All times Eastern

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