BRISBANE, Australia — There might be a strike in Hollywood this summer, but veteran defender Wendie Renard wrote her own superhero blockbuster script on Saturday night and starred as the main character, too. You could not have scripted what happened in Brisbane on Saturday night: doubtful all week because of a calf problem, the French captain wasn’t expected to play until a few minutes before the game. “She will take the decision herself to play or not,” said France head coach Herve Renard in his Friday media availability.
Renard did decide to play, though she did more than that, delivering a superb performance alongside Maelle Lakrar in a gutsy 2-1 win that puts The Blues in charge of their destiny. (A draw against Panama puts them through, while a win ensures they finish top.) Oh, and Renard scored the winning goal, too, on a perfect header in the 83rd minute.
“I told Selma [Bacha] before she took the corner: you better apply yourself [and deliver a good cross]! And she did! Then I just had to place it well. It might be my most important goal for the national team, but I hope more will come,” the defender told ESPN after the game.
But it is not just the goal Renard contributed. All game long, she marked debinha and Geyse perfectly, steering them away from dangerous positions and preventing them getting off shots. All game, she led her team through what is likely to be one of their toughest games of this competition.
“We needed her so badly and she responded,” Lakrar told ESPN.
You can never write her off, even at 33 and not fully fit. Her experience and leadership are so valuable. “She makes the team cope when we are under pressure. She deals with these moments so well,” said coach Renard before the game, and that’s exactly what she did on Saturday. When Brazil had momentum, the Lyon defender was the calm in the storm, steadying the ship.
“I love this shirt so much,” she said post-match. “We play for the badge and we knew we had to step up after the performance we put up against Jamaica. We did. It was much better collectively. We were aggressive, we created chances, we played with intensity and we got a very important win, especially with the top spot of the group at stake,” she added.
Her resilience throughout the week and against Brazil, who have still not beaten France in 12 career meetings (seven defeats and 5 draws), clearly impacted the rest of the French squad. The players had been disappointed after the draw vs. the Reggae Girlz because they “played with the hand brake on,” to borrow one of Arsène Wenger’s favourite expressions. They didn’t let themselves go enough and perform to their expected level.
“We wanted to change that,” said the defender. “We wanted to fight more, be more resilient because this is the World Cup. You have to enjoy it and make the most of it as you don’t play in it everyday. We did all of that against Brazil.” They showed character when they need the most to score that late goal synonymous of a huge and precious victory.
The fighting spirit, collective effort and togetherness, along with their resilience, are probably what the Blues’ head coach Renard appreciated the most on Saturday. He would have enjoyed that more than another goal for Eugenie Le Sommer (her 90th in 181 caps), more than the centre-back partnership, more than the bright substitute appearance of winger Vicky Becho.
In his pre-match team talk, the former Saudi Arabia manager found the perfect words to rally his squad. “It was an impressive speech from him. It was unifying, it was motivating, it was electrifying,” said a source who was there. “He is renowned for that. This is where he excels as well. It was special, especially considering the opponent and the importance of the game,” confirmed defender Renard after the game. But then, if, as a player, you are not motivated by France vs. Brazil at a World Cup, you may as well stay home.
It wasn’t just the players; coach Renard showed his resilience and his character, too. He kept his 4-4-2 formation despite being under big pressure and in need of a win, and he got the response he wanted from his players. His tactic worked well, especially how his team pressed Brazil in the first half, to recover the ball high. It worked, even if some moments were a bit chaotic. But this prestigious win — because all France vs. Brazil matches, men or women, are special encounters — has brought out a much better side of this French side. If they keep playing like this, with the same mentality, talent and urgency, they can certainly dream of winning the World Cup for the first time in their history.
“How far can we go? Let’s make sure we finish the job against Panama next week and then we will dream,” concluded Wendie Renard.