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Corinne Diacre and the Game of Her Life

PARIS — Her players shed some tears in the opening game of the World Cup. Tens of thousands of jubilant fans have roared their support at every match. Journalists have put forth their opinions, criticisms and praise. But Corinne Diacre’s job, as coach of France’s national women’s soccer team, is not to let any of it affect her, to give nothing away.

She has stood still and impassive in the technical area during each of her team’s first three games, her ringed, piercing blue eyes scanning everything on the field, her stony face revealing nothing. Now is not the time to express any emotion, she said. Not yet.

“There was no room for emotion tonight,” Diacre said after her team’s opening match, a 4-0 thrashing of South Korea. “There still isn’t, and I hope that it won’t be the case until as late as possible.”

As France enters the knockout stages of its home World Cup against Brazil on Sunday, it does so amid a surge of expectations and the weight of its disappointing history in the tournament.

A failure to reach the final, the French national federation’s official objective, would be just the latest example of France’s women’s team failing to live up to its status in international tournaments. But for Diacre, 44, it would be a stinging blow, because she was hired — after a lifetime of preparation — to change that.

A former France captain, she is in many ways just like her team: accomplished, respected, feared — and without a major trophy to her name. She spent the majority of her career at Soyaux, the small club that she once represented as a player and then as a coach but that she left to pursue a top-level certificate that in 2014 allowed her to become the first woman to coach a professional men’s team in her country. That job raised her profile, but also expectations.

“The failures of our national team are part of our history,” Diacre said in an interview before the World Cup. “We must break that vicious spiral. It will most likely be this year.”

Back to Basics

Diacre’s soccer tactics sound like they come from Soccer 101: “We start the game at 0-0, and if we defend well, we don’t concede goals, we won’t lose.”

If Diacre needed to show what that looked like, France’s three games in the group stage epitomized her approach. It did not matter if the goals come from beautifully worked exchanges or V.A.R.-assisted penalty kicks. All that mattered was that France won.

“I’d rather play slightly worse, and in the end win the game,” Diacre said. “Because what we remember is the final result, and nothing else.”

When she took the reins of France’s women’s team in August 2017, winning was not always a sure thing. The team was in disarray after a poor showing at the European championship, where it finished second in its first-round group before being eliminated by England in the quarterfinals. Arriving once again in its role as perpetual contender, France won only one of its four games.

If it wanted to perform at its peak at the World Cup on home soil in less than two years, Diacre told a friend around the time she was hired to lead the national team, it had to be more disciplined.

ImageDiacre with her captain, Amandine Henry. She has worked to build a relationship with each of her players. “Corinne needs to believe in her players,” one of her friends said. “Once she’s built that relationship with them, she can take the squad really far.”CreditFrancois Mori/Associated Press

“She’s brought a lot of rigor to the team,” said forward Eugénie Le Sommer, using a word that another dozen people interviewed all did when describing Diacre. Shin guards were no longer optional during training. Turning up even a few moments late has been “fully banned,” according to the team’s captain, Amandine Henry.

Diacre also stepped up what she calls “the invisible preparation,” with more emphasis on good sleep and hydration. She recruited a nutritionist and a mental coach, a change the players say has been a precious asset to ease the pressure caused by the public’s high expectations.

On the field, she said she wanted a team with “big and smaller characters,” a subtle mix of experienced stars like the Olympique Lyonnais teammates Henry, Le Sommer and Wendie Renard — players “who have won everything but the World Cup, and this one is going to be their last chance,” she said — and younger, more explosive talents like the wing Delphine Cascarino.

Players who skimp on preparation have no chance with Diacre. Players with thin skins have no place, either.

“You don’t want to be in the locker room when she yells at you,” Le Sommer said. Players talk about such rants as defining moments in their careers. “Like a good trauma,” forward Viviane Asseyi called hers.

There was a memorable explosion at halftime of a humiliating 4-1 loss against England in March 2018, where lax marking from France’s forwards and midfielders and inattention from defenders in key moments epitomized, in Diacre’s view, a lack of focus, which she wants to avoid at any cost at this tournament.

But she has shown flashes of anger when France has won, too, including after an encouraging 3-1 victory against the United States in January that led many to install France as the favorite for the World Cup. Diacre was furious about a meaningless goal conceded in second-half injury time that night. “She made sure we knew we should have never taken this goal, because in a decisive game, that can turn fatal,” left back Amel Majri said.

“When she yells, it’s tough,” Majri added. “But I need it. It has quite an impact.”

Her methods have been honed over time, and not always with success, over a lifetime that now seemed destined to lead to this moment. This is Diacre’s third experience as a head coach, but only her second coaching women.

In between, Diacre coached men.

ImageDiacre was the first woman to coach a men’s professional team in France.CreditPeter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock‘They Don’t Listen’

In June 2014, a few months after Diacre had become the first woman to earn France’s highest coaching diploma, she received a phone call from Claude Michy, the president of the men’s second-tier team Clermont Foot.

Would she consider coaching men? Diacre said she would think about the offer. She did not hesitate for long.

“I don’t have a job,” she told a longtime friend. “There’s a bunch of guys who’d love to get this one. I have to take it.”

Weeks later, as she turned 40, Diacre made headlines in France as the first woman to coach a professional men’s team in a league match. Her tenure started with a clumsy gesture from her counterpart from Brest, who offered her flowers before a match. It also started with a 2-1 defeat.

In three seasons, Diacre led Clermont Foot to midtable finishes, climbing as high as seventh in 2016, despite one of the league’s smallest budgets. She impressed her players with her tactical skills and work habits. “She is tough, but she knows what she wants, and she is frank, something we can’t say about every coach,” the former Clermont striker Gaëtan Laborde said. But she also got a taste of the game’s lowest instincts: remarks about her gender, shouts from the stands, and pushback from players dissatisfied with her changes.

When her mother died, the stress mounted. When the players failed to follow instructions, so did her frustration.

“They don’t listen,” she would repeat to Marilou Duringer, a friend and former teammate.

Image“When she yells, it’s tough,” France left back Amel Majri said. “But I need it. It has quite an impact.”CreditFranck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Still, when Diacre was first approached by the national federation to take the reins of France’s women’s team in 2016, her instinct was to stay put. “I’m not leaving, I’m faithful, because you’ve trusted me,” she told Michy. He told her he was ready to let her go. He didn’t want her to “waste her career.”

Many argue that a strong performance at this tournament could take Diacre to a job at a club in Ligue 1, France’s top division, but as much as Diacre was a pioneer, she remains, five years after her debut at Clermont Foot, an exception: While other women have since earned France’s top coaching diploma, none have trained a professional men’s team.

“She’s a model for many of us, but it takes time, and soccer in France remains a male-dominated world,” said Sarah M’Barek, the third woman to have earned the B.E.P.F., France’s highest professional coaching diploma.

Diacre is less optimistic. “You can fight for a day or two, a week or two,” she said about the constant pressure of being a woman coaching in the men’s game. “But for weeks or years? It’s really complicated.”

Meant to Be a Coach

Diacre was born in 1974 in the northern town of Croix, and like most girls who started to play soccer at a young age at that time, she did so with boys. After her family moved to central France, the teenage Diacre joined A.S.J. Soyaux, a pioneering club that had been dedicated to women’s soccer since the late 1960s.

All who knew her then agreed on one thing: She was the one who worked the most, the one who had the highest expectations for herself and for others. She was great at juggling, but not the best in distance running, yet she would exhaust herself to tears during physical tests.

If soccer was already at the center of Diacre’s life, it became a refuge after her father died in a car accident when she was 14. “He had such high expectations for her,” said Claude Fort, a former coach at Soyaux, who along with his wife, Marylin, hosted Diacre for a year in 1988 since her parents lived three hours away.

Diacre won her first cap for France at 18, and in 1997, the coach at the time, André Mignot, made her the captain. “She was the only player striving to understand why we were doing this or that exercise during practices,” Mignot said. “She was meant to be a great coach.”

She scored the goal that qualified France for the 2003 World Cup, its first, and played in the tournament in the United States a year later. She eventually made 121 appearances for France, and appeared in the European championship three times.

After her playing career, she served the national team as an assistant coach at the same time he held the head job at Soyaux. Her coaching education honed her tactics, and her time at Clermont her approach to players. She has found purpose in trying to listen more, to forging personal relationships that make both player and coach more comfortable.

“Corinne needs to believe in her players, even if they are not the most skilled,” her friend and former teammate Bernadette Constantin said. “Once she’s built that relationship with them, she can take the squad really far.”

Three victories in the group stage have raised her team’s confidence and her country’s expectations. She is managing both, trying to hold it all together for two more weeks.

After a lifetime in the game, she knows that France’s first trophy — and hers — is only four wins away.

“She’s done so much for France,” Duringer, her former teammate, said, “sometimes I’m not sure her players realize how much she deserves to win that trophy.”

ImageCreditFranck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesMore coverage of France at the Women’s World CupFrance’s Men Won the World Cup Last Summer. Its Women Want a Title to Match.June 6, 2019As Video Reviews Dissect Penalty Kicks, Critics Say Stick to What’s ObviousJune 22, 2019France Revels as It Opens the World Cup With a VictoryJune 7, 2019Read More



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