How France became a challenger to the U.S. in this Women's World Cup

Can host nation France secure its first-ever Women's World Cup title this summer? Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

PARIS -- Every time France's finest women soccer players walk into the national training center in the forested enclave of Clairefontaine, they pass a giant trophy replica and two gold stars on the lawn outside that represent the men's 1998 and 2018 triumphs. They are a reminder of what can be.

Conditions seem ideal for France to take its game to another level in the 2019 Women's World Cup, which kicks off here on Friday. Les Bleues -- nicknamed, as are their male counterparts, after the color of their jerseys -- have evolved from being near-invisible 21 years ago into the most obvious threat to the reigning champion United States.

The team has a stacked roster that includes seven players from the most accomplished women's professional club in the world, Olympique Lyonnais, and will play to sold-out home stadiums. Yet France's stature as a title contender is twinned with immense pressure to go deeper than its previous best finish -- fourth, in 2011 -- and consolidate its recent gains.

Can les Bleues capture and hold the nation's interest? Will they receive anything approaching the love showered on the men's team? An advertising campaign by French soccer federation sponsor Volkswagen perhaps inadvertently reflects a hint of uncertainty: "Vous avez beaucoup crié en 2018. Ne vous arretez pas en 2019. La moitié de l'histoire du football reste a écrire." (You shouted a lot in 2018. Don't stop in 2019. Half of football history remains to be written.)

At France's final Women's World Cup tuneup match against China in the suburban university town of Créteil last week, roughly 10,000 of the stadium's 12,000 seats were occupied. The team's fan club, France Ang'elles, filled one stand, chanting and pounding on drums. Identically clad youth soccer teams with tricolor stamps on their cheeks waved French flags and shrieked their approval.

Outside, police armed with automatic weapons stood their posts. France is understandably hypervigilant, given recent history. In November 2015, as part of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, three suicide bombers killed themselves and one other person after being thwarted in an attempt to enter a men's friendly match at the Stade de France just north of the city.

France edged China 2-1 on a goal by incandescent young Paris Saint-Germain forward Kadidiatou Diani. But three key players didn't dress for the evening: captain Amandine Henry, striker Eugenie Le Sommer, and defender Amel Majri, all of whom were nursing what coach Corinne Diacre described as minor injuries.

Diacre, a former national team defender who was the first woman in France to coach a professional men's team, was ready for queries about the missing in action.

"After all, they're three Lyonnaises," she said, referring to the dynastic club that has won 13 straight French league championships and the past four UEFA Champions League titles. "So, it's a long season."

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The talent honed by the ascent of OL and a handful of other European women's superclubs has arguably benefited France more than any other country over the past four-year World Cup cycle. OL and PSG together account for 10 players on the 23-woman roster -- and a majority of Friday's projected World Cup starting lineup against South Korea.

Whether les Bleues can find the incrementally higher gear of footwork and ferocity needed to contend for the title remains to be seen. Their journey to this point is littered with not-enoughs: fourth in the 2012 Olympics; knocked out on penalty kicks by host Germany in World Cup 2015; eliminated in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals by Canada.

"Even the foreigners who have played with us at Olympique Lyonnais say to us sometimes, 'How can it be that you've never won?'" said Wendie Renard, the statuesque defender from Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean, who has been a captain for both club and country. "It's not a question of mentality or quality or will to win. Efficiency is the golden word for me. Even if you're dominated in a match, if you have one chance, you have to know how to go for it.

"We shouldn't be 'under pressure' to do something that will develop the game; there are people in place to do that," Renard said, sitting in OL's gleaming, spotless training center. "But it would be a plus, just like what the men's team did last summer was a plus. If you win a title ..." She tilted her right hand and sent it skyward, miming a rocket taking off.

Unlike their American contemporaries, many of the current French national team players didn't have any real grassroots girls' soccer infrastructure to launch them. Henry, now 29, was a standout for a boys' club team just outside her home city of Lille at age 12, leading locals to dub it "l'equipe de la fille" (the girl's team).

The Tunisian-born Majri grew up in a community of immigrants in the Lyon area and also mixed it up with the boys. "They said, 'If you're going to play with us, it's with the same rules, and you're going to take some hits,'" she said. Those same boys, now grown up, are avid consumers of women's soccer and eager to talk to her when she goes home, Majri said.

Renard watched the heroics of the ebullient, diverse 1998 men's World Cup championship team from distant Martinique. Going on 8 years old, she told her mother she would be a professional footballer someday, which seemed like a mirage at the time. The event galvanized an entire country previously somewhat indifferent to team sports in general and women's team sports in particular, and it prodded the French soccer federation (FFF) to begin committing resources.

Veteran midfielder Elise Bussaglia, at age 33 the most-capped player (188) on France's World Cup roster, doesn't regret starting out with a boys' team, but she said she is glad there are greater options now. "It's not just that there are more girls playing, there are so many more gifted players, instead of just one in each city or region," she said.

Since 2011, the same year the French women just missed the World Cup podium, the number of registered female players of all ages has swelled from 58,565 to more than 138,000, according to statistics released last week by the FFF. Local clubs with at least one girls' or women's team nearly doubled in that same period, to 3,035, and the federation has mounted a concerted effort to recruit and train more female coaches and referees. France hosted last year's U-20 Women's World Cup, and it outbid South Korea, the only other candidate, for rights to stage the elite tournament in 2019.

Yet the federation's investment alone doesn't explain France's progress. Professional clubs are slowly supplementing the national development system. PSG's youth academy, for which midfielder Grace Geyoro of Orleans was recruited at age 15, has flourished notably over the past decade, dominating U-19 club and open competition.

"Players like Wendie or Amel start very young with their clubs, and you can tell 21 or 22 that they're further along than some of our players," said U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who played with OL for parts of the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

In 2006, then-16-year-old Renard flew from Martinique to Paris for a national team tryout but wasn't invited to stay. OL took a chance on her, and she finished school in Lyon and became a fixture for the senior team not long afterward. Majri blossomed in OL's youth ranks and briefly played for Tunisia at the U-20 level, then switched her national team affiliation to her adopted country when she became a naturalized citizen.

"I was so lucky to be from Lyon," Majri said. "Everything was in place to succeed."

It was pouring at Meadow Park, the Arsenal Ladies' pint-sized home ground, on Nov. 21, 2007, and just a few hundred spectators huddled in the stands for the quarterfinal of the UEFA Women's Cup (now the Champions League). The match was tied 2-2 at halftime when the OL players trudged into the locker room, chilled and drenched.

Sonia Bompastor, a former Olympique Lyonnais and national team midfielder who now oversees the club's academy program, said OL president Jean-Michel Aulas was stunned when he found out that the players only had one competition jersey apiece -- the thoroughly soaked one they were wearing.

"He said, 'This is impossible! Unacceptable!'" she recalled. "And then he said, 'OK. We have no choice.' He gathered the staff who were with him. We took off our jerseys. And they went into the hallway and wrung them out as much as they could. We won the match, 3-2."

Founder and chairman of the French software company Cegid, Aulas bought Olympique Lyonnais, then a second-division men's club, in 1987. Over the next 15 years, his financial backing and organizational efforts made the club into a contender that delivered seven straight championships in Ligue 1.

In 2004, Aulas annexed the FC Lyon amateur women's side and created a professional women's division within OL. As with the men, he demanded excellence, and he quickly saw for himself how much ground had to be made up.

"In 2006 when I met him, he told me he wanted to win the Champions League with the women,'' said Bompastor. The team's record since then is unsurpassed among women's clubs, and the players say that their form and morale are in large part due to the top-shelf facilities they share with the men's team.

The OL women still play some league matches on an adjunct pitch in Lyon, but key matches are contested at the same 59,200-capacity stadium as the men. In the home locker room there -- the venue where the Women's World Cup semifinals and championship match will be played -- magnetized nameplates are swapped out so the women don't feel as if they're occupying someone else's space. Exhibits at the club's museum are deliberately designed to give men and women equal display, insofar as possible, given that the men's history is so much longer.

The flip side of OL's singular prowess is that French D1 league play often is a lopsided, foregone conclusion that won't change until more clubs up the ante.

"It's not our job to drop to the level of others,'' Renard said. "It's up to them to raise themselves to our level."

Still, the vigorous internal competition at OL has been beneficial for both French players and others, as U.S. forward Alex Morgan knows from personal experience.

"Game days were most often easier than training days,'' said Morgan, who was professionally courted by Aulas on Twitter before her 2017 loaner stint in Lyon. "I evolved so much as a player because of the training environment I was in. I was challenged every single day on the pitch."

Rapinoe offered her take: "You only get a few [competitive matches]," she said, "and you just pray to God you're in the starting lineup for those, because you're playing a third-division team in a league cup game the next week. That part is frustrating -- that's the area where the French league needs to get better."

And that could accelerate if the national team makes a World Cup run that elevates them in the sporting, cultural and commercial consciousness.

As much as OL has raised the bar, top women's salaries remain in a different solar system than the men's. France Football magazine, in its annual survey of soccer salaries, recently reported that Henry (360,000 Euros) and Renard (348,000) were among the five highest-paid women in the sport, but their earnings are fractional compared to top men. (The magazine reported that the top-paid woman in the world, at 400,000 Euros, is OL forward and 2018 Ballon d'Or winner Ada Hegerberg of Norway, who has declined to play with that national team for two years.)

Miami-based investor Joseph DaGrosa, who with business partner David Neithardt bought FC Girondins de Bordeaux last year, predicted that others will soon realize what Aulas did years ago: Bankrolling a great women's club is still a relative bargain.

"I think we can close the competitiveness gap on the women's side very, very quickly," DaGrosa said. "On the men's side, there are gross distortions in spending. On the women's side, the budget or salary differential is maybe a couple of million instead of a couple of hundred million Euros. The hunt for talent on the men's side is fierce, competitive, brutal. On the women's side, it's at the very earliest stages."

DaGrosa said he has set the immediate goal of paying female players enough that they don't have to hold second jobs, and he plans to increase Bordeaux's total salary pool by about 30 percent each year, focusing on bringing players on the lower end of the scale to a "respectable" level.

"The move toward parity is a good one, but it's not going to happen overnight," said DaGrosa, who recently took part in a panel on women's sports at the United Nations 63rd Commission on the Status of Women. "Ultimately, it's about following the money. Get sponsors in, fans to embrace it, broadcasters to embrace it, the money will start flowing, and then you'll start to see the competitive juices start to flow all over the world."

For now, a big part of what France brings to the table on Friday will be a direct result of the groundwork laid at a couple of clubs.

A mere two weeks before the June 7 opener, the immediate area around the Parc des Princes betrayed absolutely no clue that a potentially transformative women's sporting event was about to take place there. Instead, giant decals of PSG's male stars loomed from the windows and the fencing along the street.

The ambience has since changed. Friday is a blockbuster day at the adjacent Roland Garros tennis complex -- the men's and women's French Open semifinals will be played hours before and steps away from where France opens its World Cup campaign -- and there already is extensive security in the area. The overall scale and episodic violence of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests against economic inequality that have marked 29 straight weekends in Paris has dissipated, but no one is dismissing the possibility that it could escalate again.

Crews in bucket trucks have stripped away the PSG montage and replaced it with neutral FIFA signage bearing the Women's World Cup logo on a royal blue background. The color is a not-so-subliminal reminder that les Bleues have never been better prepared -- or hungry -- for success.

"It's the year to win it,'' FFF president Noel Le Graet proclaimed in an interview with the national newspaper Le Figaro on Thursday, before adding that "we don't necessarily have the best team in the world.'' France is fourth in the FIFA rankings, and Le Graet repeated the obvious caveat that the top-ranked United States is a formidable obstacle to even reaching the final four. If the draw plays out as expected, the two sides could meet in the quarterfinals in Paris on June 28.

"It would have been a beautiful final,'' France's Bussaglia said. "But to go all the way, you have to pass through the best teams at some point. What has stopped us before? It's the most difficult thing that journalists ask us. If we had the answer, we would have done it. We have to put in that one extra sprint and exceed our limits.

"The best result would be if all of France is following and carrying us."