Lucky Teddy, psychological thrillers and everything you need to know about the French team
PARIS -- The Pont de Tancarville is one of the most iconic bridges in France. It is also the way to get to the city of Le Havre in Normandy. However, the French players didn't take much notice to this beautiful architecture, built in 1959, when their coach drove through it on Tuesday morning. Amandine Henry and Sarah Bouhaddi were watching the video analysis of the France-Nigeria game Monday evening on their iPads. Delphine Cascarino, Viviane Asseyi, Kadidiatou Diani and Eve Perisset were playing Uno at the back of the bus. Wendie Renard was sleeping. Others were lost in their music.
Nevertheless, Tancarville and Le Havre have great significance to the French. It is where it all started this year and where it could also all end. Back on Jan. 19, Les Bleues beat the United States 3-1 in a friendly to launch their preparations for this World Cup on home soil. On Sunday, they will play their round-of-16 match of the competition, likely against Brazil, in this same Océane Stadium. You win, you go through. You lose, you go home.
"A new competition is starting now," coach Corinne Diacre said to her players after the laborious, if not lucky, 1-0 win against Nigeria on Monday in Rennes. We wanted three wins in the group stage; we got them. We are where we wanted to be but it is not finished. We have not won anything yet. Now we need to focus and raise our game even more."
The performance was disappointing against the Africans, but the French camp has been really pragmatic about it.
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Mentally, the team has been perfect. They have dealt with the expectation, the excitement, the pressure and the passion very well, especially in the first game against South Korea (4-0). They fought hard against Norway and won it thanks to their determination (2-1).
The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of emotions. They played in three different cities (Paris, Nice and Rennes), stayed in a three different hotels because teams in the Women's World Cup don't have a training base. The opening game on June 7 will stay forever in the players' minds.
They had been waiting for this moment for months. It was finally there. The Parc des Princes rammed with 45,000 fans, the Marseillaise, the prime time on TF1, France's main TV channel, Emmanuel Macron in the stands, the front pages of all the country's daily newspapers. It was a bit too much for Gaétane Thiney and Marion Torrent. Their eyes were welling up, red and full of emotions during the anthem sung by the whole stadium with so much passion, fighting off the tears.
The French players tried to "desacralize" these moments. "We knew it was a special game, but we wanted to approach it like a normal match," Thiney told ESPN.com afterward. The French midfielder was called back in the squad by Diacre after being dropped by the former head coach. "It means so much to me to be there. It means a lot of practice, a lot of questioning and a lot of happiness.
"I have been waiting for this moment for years. It was exceptional. I didn't want the anthem to stop. I wanted to freeze time and pause. We wanted to express all our emotions because if we suppress them then we would have got tensed. So if you want to cry, cry. If you want to scream, scream. Emotion is life. So once the Marseillaise finished and we had expressed all those emotions, we were good."
The hours before the game felt never-ending. In their hotel in Rueil Malmaison, a little town west of Paris, most of them were watching the French Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the afternoon. Some were not interested at all in the tennis and instead were napping.
In the room she shared with Wendie Renard, Thiney dreamed of this moment. "Imagine you score a header on one of my corners," Thiney said to her best mate. In the 35th minute of the game, their wish became reality.
The squad had also prepared for a celebration: a dance from the goal-scorer with the rest of the team surrounding her, shouting in English "swipe up, swipe up" (which is a feature on Instagram and Snapchat) and moving their arms up and down. When Eugenie Le Sommer scored just nine minutes into the game Monday, Les Bleues performed the plan perfectly and again for the second and third goals before halftime.
At the break, the dressing room was buzzing. But there was an added twist: The next goal-scorer had to extend the celebrations with the bench. When Henry scored with a superb curler for France's fourth goal, she went straight toward the subs followed by her teammates to "swipe up" all together.
Throughout the first two weeks, Diacre has tried to alleviate the pressure, telling her players to enjoy themselves. There certainly has been a lot of happiness in the camp, a lot of laughter and a lot of hard work, too. There have been fierce tennis-table tournaments with Sakina Karchaoui, the Montpellier full-back, one of the leaders. They are very passionate about Uno, too. They are also allowed to read newspapers. Diacre could have banned them so they could stay in their bubbles, but she thinks it is better for her players to be aware of what is being said and written about them and their performances.
The head coach also insists video analysis of each game be sent to the players' iPads or phones. Henry is keen to dissect her performance from the night before. Griedge Mbock debriefs her performances over the phone with her older brother Erwan. Together, they watch plenty of football, and not just their own matches but pretty much every single World Cup encounter. They were glued to the France-England U21 clash on Tuesday evening.
When the team isn't in football mode, a majority tend to zone out by listening to an array of music or watching television. "You," the Netflix psychological thriller, is the most popular show on the team.
This is a superstitious French squad. Before each game, the players have the same seats in the dressing room. Thiney, Mbock and Delphine Cascarino are always next to each other, like Karchaoui and Torrent or Le Sommer and Elise Bussaglia.
In the hotels, the players room by two, and it is always the same pair as well -- like Thiney and Renard, Amel Majri and Viviane Asseyi, Le Sommer and Buscaglia. When they moved to Rennes for the Nigeria game, they lived in little apartments of four. They always pick their suits to wear for their journey to the stadium on the morning of the game from the kit room. And there is the teddy bear. It is a white, fluffy teddy, which always sits on the bus or in the dressing room with a blue shirt, a French flag around its neck and hearts on the inside of his paws. Teddy is France's lucky charm so far.
Will this pay off now that the business end of the tournament has arrived? We'll find out starting Sunday.