France went into their final group match against Gambia with their destiny in their own hands, knowing that a winning margin of six or more goals would see them through to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup knock-out stages for the first time in their history.
Their coach, Guy Ferrier, laid his cards on the table from the start, lining up his side in a heavily attack-minded 3-4-3 formation. And it was a gamble that paid off handsomely, thanks in no small part to the efforts of attacking duo Pauline Cousin and Lea Declercq.
The pair started the rout in the 11th minute. Declercq crafted the first with some good work on the left, sending a perfect ball across the face of goal and into the path of Cousin, who connected sweetly to open the scoring. From there the duo ran riot, with Declercq claiming a hat-trick and Cousin scoring a brace to help France win 10-2 and qualify with style.
“It wasn’t all that easy,” Cousin told FIFA.com. “We had to fight for it. We were up against a team that gave very little space at the back. We had to be clever and draw their defenders apart. We got the first goal, which then allowed us to push on.”
Declercq added: “We were a bit uncertain at the start of the second half, but we knew that tiredness would creep up on the Gambian players as the minutes went by, and that we’d be able to score more easily.”
The similarities between the two French stars run deep. They are both forwards, play for the same club – Henin-Beaumont – come from the same region in northern France and have blond hair. They also enjoy a laugh, share a hotel room, score goals for fun and get on particularly well together.
“On the pitch, I wouldn’t say that I link up more easily with Lea than with any other player,” said Cousin. “But she’s the one I know best, that’s for sure. We’re friends and we play together all year. That obviously helps your on-field understanding.”
Their career paths have also been identical. The talented youngsters developed their passion for football during kick-arounds at school break times, before quickly progressing from the playground to the pitch by joining clubs and representing regional sides from the age of 15.
“I met Pauline while representing Pas-de-Calais,” said Declercq, with an accent that clearly pinpoints her northern roots. “We then joined Henin-Beaumont together, before becoming part of the France set-up.”
For the team
The inseparable pair have certainly been good news for France. They played key roles in Les Bleuettes’ superb showing at the UEFA Women's U-17 European Championship earlier this year, and have been similarly impressive at Azerbaijan 2012 so far. But, as Cousin and Leclercq make clear, the team is more important to them than individual success.
“We’re forwards, so it’s our job to score goals,” said Cousin, before adding: “But goals have to be built. There’s a whole team behind us tacking, winning back the ball, moving it on, covering and passing. It’s a group effort.”
“Lea had a great game against Gambia, and I’ve not been shy in telling her,” said coach Ferrier. “She has grown in stature, she’s starting to find her form and is turning into the Lea Declercq we knew before. She had lost a bit of sharpness recently but now she’s got it back. But she’s not the only one to have made a contribution.”
Of Cousin, Ferrier added: “As for Pauline, she’s a real penalty-box player. She’s very good in tight spaces. She could have scored more goals, but I’m more than satisfied with her performance.”
Cousin and Declercq, for their part, are quick to highlight the importance of their team-mates. “There’s great spirit among the group,” they said, before laughing together and adding: “Do you want to know some secrets? Griedge Mbock Bathy and Amandine Blanc are great dancers, and Aissatou Tounkaré and Kadidiatou Diani are brilliant hair stylists!”
The pair’s talents and jovial personalities will certainly be assets in France’s push for the semi-finals. Standing in their way of a place in the last four are Nigeria, whom they face on Thursday in Baku.