Grinding Instead of Gliding, France Takes Another Step

NICE, France — Just before France’s players disappeared into the locker room, once they had spent a few minutes picking out the faces of friends and family amid the sea of fluttering tricolors in the stands, Corinne Diacre called her squad together on the touchline.

They gathered around her, arms slung over each other’s shoulders, and crouched down low, craning their necks toward their manager, eager to hear. Photographers hovered around the edges, searching and scouring for a gap, the chance to capture the moment on camera. The phalanx held tight.

There is an air of expectation around France at this tournament. It had gathered in the weeks and months before it started, a sense of momentum accelerating, of hopes rising, of events coalescing and processes culminating. Some of it is the excitement of hosting, of course, the confidence bestowed by home advantage, but much of it is to do with the — relative — rude health of the French domestic game, supercharged by the primacy of Olympique Lyonnais Féminin and the wealth of Paris St.-Germain.

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Opening night — that imperious win against South Korea — buttressed and burnished it. The remaining tickets for France’s second game, against Norway, sold out (though, judging by the stands in the Allianz Stadium, not everyone decided to take their seats).

It is a stereotype that it takes success to engage French attention, but it is not an entirely inaccurate one: as the crowds gathered in Nice — or rather, the barren no-man’s-land by the freeway in which the stadium, still awaiting the tram service it was supposed to have for Euro 2016, is situated — the atmosphere bubbled and fizzed with anticipation of seeing this France team take another step to glory.

That is how it turned out, in the end, of course: goals from Valérie Gauvin and, thanks to a curious penalty awarded by the Video Assistant Referee, Éugenie Le Sommer, enough to ensure a 2-1 victory and almost certainly secure the host’s place in the last 16.

But as Diacre no doubt told her players in that brief, tight huddle, this was a reminder that nothing is written, not yet; that opponents tend to take a dim view of other people’s destiny; that home advantage comes at a cost; and that a march to glory is an ordeal, rather than a parade.

Norway does not rank among the favorites to challenge France for the title. The team it has sent here is defined more by an absence — that of Ada Hegerberg, the Lyon striker widely regarded as the world’s best player — than by its presence.

The players Martin Sjogren, its coach, brought to France included two defenders drawn from Chelsea, the Champions League semifinalist; a midfielder, the industrious Guro Reiten, scheduled to move to England after the tournament; and Caroline Graham Hansen, soon to be of Barcelona. From the tone of the coverage, though, his team-sheet may as well have read “Not Ada Hegerberg” eleven times.

Diacre, for her part, gave that idea short shrift in the build-up.

“I believe there will be 11 Norwegians opposite us tomorrow night,” she said the day before the game, in the faintly acerbic tone that managing a French national team seems to engender. “We play against Norway, not against Ada Hegerberg. But if she wants to play alone against us at 11 p.m., then why not?”

Norway proved, amply, that Diacre’s disdain was warranted. Hansen was bright and lively. Ingrid Engen, just 21, took a little time to assert her influence but never seemed cowed by Amandine Henry, her illustrious opponent. Maria Thorisdottir and Maren Mjelde, the two Chelsea defenders, provided obdurate, unyielding resistance. Only the most dubious of penalty calls — for a foul by Engen on Marion Torrent — denied Norway the point its performance deserved, and an own goal from Wendie Renard seemed it might have earned.

Certainly, there seemed to be little material difference in the respective quality of the teams. This is a France squad suffused with individual talent, expressed in myriad ways: the calming excellence of Renard; the busy efficiency of Henry; the elegance of Gaëtane Thiney; the speed and menace of any of Amel Majri, Kadidatou Diani and — used here as a substitute — Delphine Cascarino; the dead-eyed cool of Le Sommer.

In sweeping past South Korea, all of that shone through. It created an impression that France would emerge triumphant by virtue of its supreme ability. That is not really Diacre’s way, though, just as it was not Didier Deschamps’s approach last summer, in Russia, to indulge his rich array of superstars, to play as the team he had on paper.

Far more enduring, far more effective, far more significant in a tournament is the ability to outlast opponents, to find a way to win, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it might be. That was the France that emerged against Norway: a team that offered only the most occasional jolt of electricity, but simply wore its opponent down: not only in the boundless energy offered by Diani, but by its steadfast refusal to buckle when Norway poured forward.

If France is to win this tournament, you sense, the credit will belong as much to Renard and her central defensive partner, Griedge Mbock Bathy, as it will to Cascarino or Thiney or Le Sommer. It will be a primacy built on parsimony. It may not always be great to watch, but as long as the phalanx holds, nobody will mind.

Diacre kept her players in that huddle for no more than a minute, enough only to deliver her message, to make sure they had heard what she had to say. And then she released them, to make their way to the locker room, to receive the congratulations of the loved ones who had stayed behind. As soon as she did, their faces relaxed, and their smiles returned. They had taken another step.

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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