The mere mention of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Russia 2006 brings out a broad grin on the face of Stephane Pilard, the coach of the French women's youth team. "At the time, we were the only side that managed to score against eventual champions Korea DPR," he recalls proudly during an exclusive interview with FIFA.com in Santiago. "And now here we are in Chile having gained a lot of experience in the interim." After their impressive 2-0 win over China PR, France have proved that they are a force to be reckoned with ahead of their final group match at Chile 2008 against Argentina.
"I'm totally satisfied with how my team have performed so far. We knew we had two real powerhouses in our group in the shape of USA and China, and the fact that we have three points on the board already and can secure our ticket for the quarter-finals against Argentina is excellent," says Pilard. The 39-year-old does sound a warning, however: "We haven't beaten Argentina yet though. We'll attack the match with confidence, but we shouldn't underestimate them as they are a team of battlers. We won't be complacent."
Pilard is a man who comes across as laid back, confident and ambitious all at the same time, and it is this combination that has seen his talented French youngsters hit the heights and become one of the top nations in their age group. "Of course we're not quite in the same category yet as USA, Germany, Brazil or North Korea, particularly in physical terms, but if we can make it through to the knockout stages then it's a whole new ball game," says the coach, taking the pressure off his charges while motivating them at the same time.
"We have different qualities, and we intend to play to those strengths. French national teams have always been known for their excellent technical skills, and this is something we also want to build on in women's football," explains Pilard, in a nod to his team's attacking ability. "We do know, though, that we need to be solid at the back if we want to go further in the tournament," he says, aware his squad will need to strike the right balance between going for goal and tending to their defensive responsibilities.
Delie - potential match-winner
For the time being, however, Pilard and his charges are content to bathe in the ambience of the South American tournament. "This event is a wonderful experience for my players. It will also help them to develop on a personal level. The hospitality and the enthusiasm of the people here and the sheer emotion in the stadiums is wonderful," he remarks.
The key to the continued success of the team may well lie with his goalkeeper and main striker. "Karima Benameur and Marie-Laure Delie are important elements of the team," says Pilard. "Delie in particular has already got a great deal of experience."
And if things continue to go according to plan, then there will be no need to look back fondly to Russia 2006. For France the future looks bright indeed.