Opinion: Is too much being asked for France as it hosts World Cup?

PARIS — If only it were so easy as winning a few games or making a deep run.

The World Cup kicks off Friday, and the burden on France is perhaps heavier than it’s been for any host since 1999.

It is not just that a title could have a transformative impact on women’s soccer in France, which still stands deep in the shadow of the men’s game. Or that the country already holds one World Cup trophy from the men’s victory last summer and very much wants another, a feat no country has accomplished. Or even that the beleaguered nation could use a psychological boost after the tumultuous yellow-vest protests and the horrifying blaze that nearly destroyed Notre Dame. 

Parc des Princes stadium will play host to the opening game of the World Cup on Saturday between France and South Korea. (Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson, EPA-EFE)

It is that it is all of that.

“If we get the results, of course it will be only a positive thing for women’s soccer in France," coach Corinne Diacre said Thursday. "But for us, the main goal is to have the results on the field and to be focused on our performance on the pitch.”

In other words, tune out the noise and the heady expectations. If that’s possible.

France would be considered a favorite no matter where the World Cup was being played. Though it has never advanced beyond the semifinals of a major tournament – at the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics – it enters the World Cup in the best form of any team. It has lost only one game since March 2018, and its first game this year was a 3-1 drubbing of the top-ranked Americans.

Captain Amandine Henry was the second-best player in the 2015 tournament, and most of the players on its current roster play for Olympique Lyonnais, the world’s most dominant club team.

Couple that with France’s history when it hosts major tournaments – Les Bleus won the men’s World Cup in 1998 and the 1984 European championship, and was runner-up at Euro 2016 – and it is easy to see why so many people believe this is Les Bleues’ year.

But maintaining focus will get harder and harder as the victories pile up.

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Women’s soccer is often an afterthought in France – if it’s thought of at all. Women were prohibited from playing for a good portion of the 20th Century, and it wasn’t until 2003 that it qualified for a World Cup or the Olympics.

Even Thursday, there were ads in subway tunnels for the men’s team’s upcoming European qualifiers and scant evidence the women are playing in the World Cup.

But there are signs that success can change that. TF1, which is France’s most popular network and has long broadcast the men’s team’s matches, has the rights for the World Cup and is using its top talent for the tournament. French president Emmanuel Macron visited the women’s training camp earlier in the week to wish the team well.

As if to remind the players what is at stake, he awarded members of the World Cup-winning men’s team the prestigious Legion of Honor later that same day.

“We have the expectations of others,” Diacre acknowledged. “Yes, we’ve got the (French federation), we’ve got different stakeholders, we’ve got the president of the French Republic. But that’s not my problem. We’ve got other fish to fry. We need to think about winning games and winning the World Cup.”

It is not lost on Diacre or her players how significant a World Cup title could be. When the men won, both in 1998 and last year, it set off raucous celebrations throughout the country. French children are more likely to be able to name the players on those rosters than the country’s presidents.

Best of all, the diversity of those World Cup-champion teams was seen as France at its aspirational best, the color of a player’s skin made irrelevant by the red, white and blue of his shirt.

“Obviously I’m from the 1998 generation, so I have great examples of players,” Henry said when asked who her role models were growing up. “Zinedine Zidane was someone I admired a lot. He was the player from the World Cup in 1998. But also, all of the players from the 1998 team.

“They made us all dream in France,” she added. “We want to go through the same emotions.”

There’s no doubt France could use it. The country, and Paris in particular, have been roiled for much of the last year by protests over growing economic inequity.

Even the national unity that occurred after Notre Dame’s iconic roof and spire went up in flames didn’t last. When France’s richest citizens poured money into a restoration fund, they were criticized for their selective generosity.

But asking one team to fix all these things, be all these things, it feels like too much. The hype, the expectations, the obligation – it’s too big a burden to carry, even if it is spread across the shoulders of 23 players.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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