History was made at 8km Stadium in Baku on Tuesday when France became the first European team to book a place in a FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup final. It was a landmark moment and just reward for Les Bleuettes, a group of talented and likeable players who for the last three weeks have impressed with the quality of their tidy, expansive attacking football.
That pleasing style of play has much to do with Willy Sagnol, the general manager of France's youth teams. Having made the trip to Azerbaijan to congratulate players and staff alike, the 58-times capped French international agreed to speak with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Willy Sagnol, what brings you to Baku?
Willy Sagnol: I came to tell the France team's players and staff how proud I am of what they've done over the last three weeks, not just in terms of results but also their attitude and the image they've presented of themselves. The players are getting on very well together and they've played some very good matches. It's clear to see that they're a real squad, a real team. That's reassuring with regard to various decisions that have been made, whether they relate to the general philosophy of how the team plays or the make-up of the backroom staff. I'm delighted.
Are you yourself a fan of women's football?
I follow women's football as part of my job, and in a way I'm also just discovering it. I've noticed that the approach the girls tend to have to football is completely different to that of the boys. It's healthier with the girls. They ask themselves fewer questions, and France's U-17 women's side are the best example of that. They're at a World Cup and they take the time to appreciate what they're experiencing. They have their eyes wide open and they're happy to take the whole spectacle in. But they don't forget that they have to play when they're on the pitch. They know how to make the very most of the experience.
What is your take on the state of women's football in France at the moment?
It's a sport that's constantly growing in France. We have around 60,000 licensed players and we hope that figure will increase. The infrastructure is there and is still being developed. We have our youth-development programme which is working very well. That's produced a huge amount of quality female players, such as the ones participating in this tournament. As the women's senior team is currently on the rise, that has a knock-on effect. In France, when the women's senior team play, we manage to get a million television viewers. That's something new and fresh and football in general is feeling the benefits of that.
You have FIFA World Cup™ experience yourself, having played at Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 as well as the FIFA U-20 World Cup Malaysia 1997. What does that represent in the life of a player?
There's nothing better than a World Cup. We all have memories of watching World Cups on TV when we were young. You always dream of being there as a player. When you get to take part in the tournament, it's kind of like fulfilling a dream. Beyond that, the competitive angle is also important, because when you start a competition you want to go all the way. As far as France's girls go, I don't know if they hoped to go as far as they have at the start of the competition. They were in a difficult group but they coped very well by playing good football and keeping their discipline. Since then, they've carried on with the same attitude and the same way of working behind the scenes. It's going well for them – all the better.
Have you been following the tournament?
I've seen all of France's matches as well as some others, especially Germany's games. Overall, I think the level of the teams is very close, except for two or three countries where women's football is still too new for them to hope to do something in a competition like this. The four or five strongest nations at this level are very evenly matched, though.
It seems that a lot of players who shine at youth level do not manage to breakthrough in the professional game afterwards. What pitfalls do they need to avoid?
The difficulty for the boys is when they join a professional side. They have to adapt. They're up against experienced players who don't have the same lifestyle that an 18-year-old might have. For the girls, women's football at the moment doesn't make it possible for them to base a career on their passion, so they have to have a professional job on the side. It's important for them to focus on both areas, the sporting and the professional. And, above all, to come into their own as women.