The day that everything changed for Toletti
There she is in the photo, front and centre. Eyes pointed to the heavens, surrounded by team-mates amid a shower of golden confetti, her moment of euphoria is captured forever. Sandie Toletti must have seen the image a thousand times, but she only needs to close her eyes to relive the scene – when, as captain, she became the first French player to lift the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup trophy. Four years ago today, Les Bleuettes secured their place in history by winning the final at Azerbaijan 2012.
Despite France's absence this year, Toletti has been following the current edition as it continues toward its climax in Jordan, but above all she still recalls every detail of that Azerbaijani adventure. And how could she forget, with a shiny memento jogging her memory every day? "My medal is at home, keeping itself warm on my bed," she tells FIFA.com. "It's a superb souvenir and even now I get together with the other girls and talk about the tournament. It's nice to think back to it and go over everything that happened there."
'Everything' kicked off with France qualifying from a tough group that also featured Korea DPR and USA, before they edged a tense quarter-final against Nigeria on penalties. That set up a semi-final meeting with Ghana, which Les Bleuettes safely negotiated 2-0, and they claimed the title following an epic shoot-out success against Korea DPR. "We met them in the group stage and they were very tough to play against then," says the Montpellier midfielder. "The final was another difficult game. We were fine in the first half, but we started to feel really tired in the second."
France certainly dominated the opening period and went ahead through Lea Declercq with half an hour gone, before letting their grip on proceedings weaken after the break. It was little surprise when the North Koreans finally equalised with seven minutes to go. "Honestly, we thought we were going to lose," admits Toletti, whose doubts were swiftly banished. "I remember a Korean finding herself alone in front of the keeper three minutes from time and heading against the bottom of the post. We told ourselves that perhaps luck was on our side. In the quarter-finals, Delphine Cascarino had scored a penalty through the keeper's legs and we'd said then that we were charmed. That lasted all through the tournament."
Destiny decided Choe Yun-Gyong was the North Korean player who spurned that gilt-edged chance, and her miss ensured a penalty shoot-out for the first France team to contest a women's World Cup final. The tension was palpable, especially for the players chosen to get the ball rolling. "We had an order for the penalties, and I was first," says Toletti, who can vividly recall her emotions. "That was the first time in my life I'd felt so much pressure. There were 30,000 people and when we went to take the penalties, everyone was banging their seats. The noise was impressive."
Despite the intimidating atmosphere, the playmaker never let the occasion get to her. Well versed in the art of spot kicks, she approached her task with steely nerves – and the wise words of her coach Guy Ferrier still ringing in her ears. "When we got together before the shoot-out, he said to us: 'Girls, you're going to take your kicks, but your destiny has already been decided. It's written. Destiny already knows who will win and who will lose.' In the end, no one put pressure on themselves. We told ourselves we'd just take our kicks and see how it turned out."
Destiny clearly smiled on France, because it was Les Bleuettes who finished their unforgettable journey on a high after eight attempts by both teams. "The challenges we overcame during that tournament help us in every competition to this day, whether it's with our clubs or France," adds Toletti, who earned promotion to the senior side in 2013. "We spent a month and a half together and we never had the slightest problem or issue. We got on so well that we didn't even miss our families. We were happy together, laughed all the time and would even have liked it to last longer."
All fairy tales must come to an end eventually, and for Toletti and Co that meant packing their bags for home. However, it was only once they touched down on French soil that the players began to grasp what they had achieved. "It took us all a while before we realised we were world champions," says Toletti. "It was only when we saw all the people calling us and congratulating us that we understood. Just after we arrived in France, we were invited to a reception at the French Football Federation headquarters. The President congratulated us and we were all given gifts. For me, it was even crazier when I went home to my little village, which only has 700 inhabitants. I was welcomed like a queen – it was very sweet, but I still had trouble believing any of it."
Four years on, she needs only glimpse at the golden souvenir on her bed to be reassured that each of those magical moments truly did happen.