Despite losing 1-0 to USA in their second group-stage match at Rio 2016, France’s players were able to hold their heads high as they walked off the pitch at Estadio Mineirao, having gone to toe-to-toe with the reigning world champions.
And there might even have been a different, more positive outcome for Les Bleues, had captain Wendie Renard managed to find the net rather than the crossbar with a 16th minute header. “That was a good chance, but I missed other ones as well. I don’t mind telling you that I’m totally gutted. We let it slip away,” the influential centre-half told FIFA.com after the match.
“There’s an overwhelming feeling of frustration after a match like that. Coming back out at half-time, we knew they would put us under a bit more pressure, and there’s no doubt that, tactically speaking, there was a ten-minute spell where we were too stretched, and we left them too much space. We also lacked a bit of aggression, and we paid dearly for it. But we’re not that far behind them anymore,” she continued.
Over the past seven years, France’s women’s team has made continuous progress. In 2009, they were ranked ninth in the world; today they sit in third position. However, what the French players truly crave is a first major international success. “Yes, it’s probably about time,” said Renard. “I’ve won everything there is to win with Lyon, and I would really love to lift an international trophy and take it back home to France. But I do think we’re on the right track.”
The Martinique-born defender is certainly well-placed to comment, having collected 76 caps in her career to date. In 2013, her experience and charisma led to her being offered the captain’s armband, which she has proudly worn on her left arm ever since.
“It’s a role that I’m accustomed to, because I’m also the skipper at Lyon,” she explained. “Being named captain of France made me so proud. It also really helped me to grow up. It hasn’t changed my life or the person that I am, though. When it comes down to it, I think the role requires you to be yourself, above all.”
Head for heights
Although Renard appears to have always exuded an air of maturity and calmness, she is the first to admit that certain events in her life may have forced her to grow up more quickly than others. “Inevitably, that happens when you lose your dad at the age of eight,” she said.
“And if I seem calm, that’s down to the people around me keeping my feet on the ground, even though I do think that I’m not the kind of person who gets carried away anyway. I know where I come from, and that’s important, so that you understand the sacrifices you’ve made and the work you’ve put in to get to a certain point. That said, I also like to have a laugh and party. That’s my Martinique side talking (laughs). You just have to find the right balance.”
Balance is an attribute she has been able to hone while performing her defensive duties, even though, upon her arrival in Lyon from Martinique at the age of 16, she was originally earmarked for a role in midfield.
“When I first got to Lyon, my coach at the time, Nicolas Quinault, was very keen for me to play as a defensive midfielder, a bit like Patrick Vieira,” said Renard, who has only ever starred for Les Lyonnaises in her club career. “But I’ve always preferred playing at the back. I love being able to see the whole game. My height makes that a bit easier.”
The French centre-half is certainly an imposing figure, and she has previously used her height to great effect, not just at the back but going forward as well. Indeed, she has scored over 10 goals during each of the past two seasons, the majority of which have come from headers.
“My height is an advantage, but you need more than that to score goals with your head. It takes a lot of work, and quite a bit of coordination between the player crossing the ball and the one heading it. It’s pretty tricky. And even more so now that opponents are familiar with my game and mark me as tightly as possible.
"But," she said, concluding with a smile, "I do like being a fox ('renard' in French) in the opposition’s box.”