France just about kept their perfect record at the 2019 Women's World Cup, but Norway made them work for it. France head coach Corinne Diacre has got France winning, but her plan for success is an unusual one.
Corinne Diacre, the coach of Les Bleues, had warned the press on Tuesday afternoon. "The French national team is going to play against Norway, not against Ada Hegerberg. And it is a team that qualified for this World Cup without her."
In France, Hegerberg’s absence has made headlines. It has been easy for the media to underestimate Norway as a result. On Wednesday night though, France realized pretty early on that the Scandinavian team was going to be a tough opponent.
Ultimately, France found a way to win its second game of the competition, but the success came after real periods of struggle. Since the beginning of the tournament, Diacre has had the same motto : "leave your emotions at the door". Against Norway, her players struggled to apply that principle.
The opening quarter of an hour was a bit of an anticlimax for the home team. After a warm welcome from the fans and a thrilling rendition of La Marseillaise, France started the game looking stressed. Diacre's side often lost the ball in midfield and struggled from set-pieces. Norway almost took advantage, but couldn't find a way past Amel Majri. At the end of the first half, Les Bleus might have regained control but they had only managed two shots on target.
It was a game of ups and downs for France. It was the kind of game where emotions ran high.
Frustration in the first half was followed by instant joy at the start of the second. Valerie Gauvin, who was on the bench for the first game following a disciplinary sanction after being late for training, swept a low shot past Ingrid Hjelmseth, the Norwegian goalkeeper, to the delight of the home crowd.
Within eight minutes, France were in shock. Wendi Renard, one of the best defenders in the world, scored a baffling own goal. It was the most unlikely of goals, and a sign of France’s lack of calmness on the night.
Relief was what France were left with when they were awarded a rather generous penalty by Bibiana Steinhaus after the intervention of the VAR. After Eugenie Le Sommer scored, Diacre's reaction was to give a few of her staff members a fist bump.
"I think we did everything to win," the French coach declared after the game. "But obviously it was not perfect. I liked the girls’ attitude and courage but I could have done without the own goal. I feel like we put ourselves into bad situations at times."
Diacre cold but calculated
If Diacre was less harsh than usual in her analysis, she still appeared stoic in front of the press.
After two victories, and with Nigeria to play in the third game, France has a big chance of finishing top of their group. One look at Diacre though, and that wouldn't be clear. The 44-year-old is not famous for her outward signs of joy.
"We are not the tournament favorites. We are just outsiders," Diacre reaffirmed after the game.
This unsentimental approach is pretty uncommon for a team playing a tournament at home. Normally, coaches tend to use public support to motivate their players — Diacre doesn't. If her players are free to feel things and use these feelings on the pitch, Diacre even said earlier this week that she has to reminded them to not "succumb to their emotions".
The coach doesn’t care about her reputation though. In fact, she embraces it. This past week she joked about her "mere fouettarde" status (mere fouettarde is a French expression for a mother who hits her children). "We never laugh. Everything is calculated. The girls have no rights, they live a terrible life," she ironically told the press when asked about her cold demeanor.
This method could be considered cold and might close off the team from its fans, but Diacre is well aware of the enormous pressure Les Bleues are under. As one of the best teams in the world, but one that has never actually won any titles, France cannot afford to disappoint for much longer.
Maybe exaggerating her strictness is just a way for Diacre to protect her team, allowing the girls have fun while she tries to contain everybody else's hopes. And after two victories, maybe that strategy is paying off.