The pain of defeat was acute for Marie-Charlotte Leger last July as she bowed out of the UEFA European Women's U-19 Championship in punishing circumstances. The France captain had opened the scoring against Spain during their semi-final showdown, but it was her last contribution that proved more telling. Leger missed her team's final penalty as a 1-1 draw gave way to a 5-4 shoot-out loss. "It was a very tough ordeal," the 19-year-old explained to FIFA.com. "I had a hard time accepting it, but you need to accept your mistakes at the highest level and that's what I did in the end."
Her formidable mental strength undoubtedly helped, but the Abbeville native also had plenty of good reasons to turn the page. For a start, as France's highest scorer at the tournament, she had done much to take them to the semi-finals in the first place, and their last-four finish came with the added reward of a berth at the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea.
She was likewise set for a new chapter in her domestic career. Having struck eight goals for Metz the previous season, Leger was about to move up in the world at Montpellier, a team used to competing in the upper reaches of the French league in recent years. And the best was yet to come too – with the youngster being called up by France's senior side for a friendly against Brazil on 19 September. "It was my Montpellier team-mates who first told me about it," she said. "They sent me messages congratulating me. After that, I saw my name in the squad list on the internet. I wasn't expecting it at all."
Leger came on as a substitute in added time as France ran out 2-1 winners, and she is unlikely to forget her maiden experience of the senior set-up. "That was the first time I'd really met those girls. I used to watch them play and I was a fan of theirs during the World Cup – and then all of a sudden I was training with them, eating with them and being around them all the time. It was great!" It was merely a first taste as well, the newcomer returning for more playing time in a 2-1 friendly loss to the Netherlands on 23 October and a 1-0 friendly win against Norway on 26 January.
With the Olympic Games looming on the horizon this year, she could hardly have picked a better time to make the step up. And she is not about to let herself be intimidated either, despite rubbing shoulders with such world-class talents as Marie Laure Delie, Eugenie Le Sommer and Elodie Thomis. "You have to get over any shyness if you want to perform," she said. "If you're stressed, your level drops. I'm still very young, but the girls have been teaching me a lot thanks to their experience."
France coach Philippe Bergeroo certainly appears impressed with the Montpellier forward, who currently leads the way in the domestic scoring charts with 11 goals. Always keen to promote competition in his squad, he is especially committed to trying out new faces in the long build-up to the FIFA Women's World Cup™, which France is due to host in three years' time. "The [French Football Federation] President has asked me to prepare for the future and prepare for 2019," he explained in September, the night Leger won her first cap. "I could have fielded other girls, but we've resolved to give the youngsters and other talented players a chance to play."
In the meantime, Leger has plenty to keep her occupied, with 2016 offering the promise of the Rio Olympics in August and the U-20 World Cup in November. "I never would have thought I'd make it into the France senior team so soon, but to play in both those tournaments would be fantastic," noted the powerful striker, at the start of what could be a landmark year. "We'll just have to see. I'll need to give it everything because the hardest thing isn't getting there – it's staying there."