The impressive form of central defender Hawa Cissoko and holding midfielder Grace Geyoro has been a major factor in France’s run to the final of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Papua New Guinea 2016.

The physical prowess and work rate of these two unsung heroes and the understanding between them have been key assets for Bleuettes coach Gilles Eyquem. Along with Mylene Chavas and Delphine Cascarino, Cissoko and Geyoro are the only players in the France squad to have played every minute of their five matches so far. Having put in a big shift to help thwart Japan in the semi-finals, the duo will no doubt have vital roles to play in Saturday’s final against Korea DPR, where the French rearguard will come up against the best attack in the competition.

Ahead of this weekend’s eagerly awaited encounter, FIFA.com spoke to the two mainstays of France’s defensive set-up, who have many things in common, the first of them being that they are the only Paris Saint-Germain players on duty in Papua New Guinea, which explains why they link up so well.

“In defence we work a lot with the midfielders and I don’t even need to look to see where Grace is,” explained Cissoko. “I can find her with my eyes closed. It makes life easier for me. And the more I play with Juliane [Gathrat] and the others too, the more things just happen automatically. We’ve been playing together for five years now, so we’re starting to get to know each other’s game by heart.” 

Doing the dirty work
Cissoko and Geyoro are also the bubbliest characters in the France dressing room, the ones responsible for playing the music, starting the pre-match war cries and putting a smile on everyone’s faces. “Hawa is crazy,” said Geyoro with a laugh. “She’s so full of life and she makes everyone laugh. We both enjoy livening things up.”

“Grace and I are pretty similar, though she’s maybe a bit more shy than I am,” added Cissoko. “The more I get to know her, though, the more I realise just how much of a screwball she can be. On the pitch she’s a leader. She’s not afraid to say things, even to me, with my strong character. We really need a player like her. I think she’s got more common sense than me. She’s calmer.”

Whatever happens against the North Koreans, the two PSG players have picked up a lot of valuable experience in Papua New Guinea and learned some important lessons under its beating sun. “Like to stop overthinking things and keep it simple,” said Cissoko. “I learned a lot in the match against Ghana, when I should have whacked the ball into the stands instead of making life difficult for myself. I came in for a lot of criticism after that match and it made me realise that I shouldn’t over-complicate things on the pitch.”

“I need to shoot more on goal,” said Geyoro. “Everyone tells me to, but it just doesn’t cross my mind. I’ve got a good shot on me, but when it comes to matches it never occurs to me to have a go. To my mind, my position is about passing the ball properly and defending well.”

“Grace prefers to play a decisive pass than shoot on goal, but she’s got a great shot on her,” commented Cissoko. “It’s up to the strikers to do the scoring,” retorted Geyoro. “We do all the dirty work: tackling, winning the ball back and playing it out again, the kind of things people don’t always see.”

Points to prove
Though she is perfectly happy to be out of the limelight, Geyoro would have liked to have made some kind of contribution to France’s U-17 world finals win at Azerbaijan 2012, a tournament she spent entirely on the bench. “That was my worst season,” she recalled. “My self-confidence just vanished. Not being able to play a single minute and show what I could do was just horrible. I felt inferior to the rest and my game just fell apart.”

“As a personal experience, Azerbaijan was fantastic, but it didn’t do me any good at all as a player,” added Geyoro, who was able to regain her self-belief through hard work and the help of her coaches, Gerard Precheur chief among them. “This World Cup is almost a replay of 2012: a 0-0 draw against USA in our first match and now a final against Korea DPR.” 

Cissoko, who only started playing the game in 2012, has also enjoyed a taste of redemption in Papua New Guinea. In picking up the Live Your Goals Player of the Match award for her superb performance against Japan, she silenced the critics who had rounded on after the Ghana game.

After struggling to succeed at school, Cissoko has found structure through football, which has allowed her to put her boundless reserves of energy to good use. “I worked hard enough, but I was a total disaster when it came to behaving myself,” she joked. “I don’t know how the teachers put up with me.”

Two fine examples of what the French development system can achieve, Cissoko and Geyoro are hoping Saturday’s stiff examination will end with them scoring top marks and hoisting the trophy as reward.