PARIS, France — Four years after Canada succumbed to the weight of expectation as hosts in the quarterfinal at the Women’s World Cup, France finds itself in a similar situation.
Expectations have been high for the hosts of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and they will face a tough test here at the Parc des Princes on Friday against the reigning champion United States.
It is the biggest, most-anticipated game of the tournament by far, worthy of a final itself.
The game has been sold out for a month and tickets on the secondary market are breaking records for a women’s sporting event.
“This is a very hotly-anticipated match and we’re nearly there now,” said France coach Corinne Diacre through a translator Thursday in the official pre-match media conference. “It wasn’t easy for the United States in the Round of 16, but now the two teams are ready for the quarterfinal. My mindset hasn’t changed, we’ve worked well, we’ve prepared for this match just like any other and I hope that we’ve prepared it as best as possible, but I’ll only know that once I see the final score (Friday).”
France is embracing the underdog role heading into the contest against the three-time World Cup champions and four-time Olympic gold medalists.
France defeated Brazil 2-1 in extra time to get to this stage, while the United States needed a pair of penalties by captain Megan Rapinoe to get past Spain 2-1 in the Round of 16.
“Quite honestly, when you come up against the United States, there is no pressure,” Diacre said. “It’s impossible to have any pressure (Friday) night, it’s the opposite in fact. It’s motivation for us. We’re coming up against the best team in the world, so the only pressure that we have is producing a performance.”
From the moment France was awarded the tournament, comparisons began with the men’s team who won its first World Cup as hosts in 1998. No country has ever won both a men’s and a women’s World Cup as hosts.
The French men are also reigning World Cup champions, winning the title last year in Russia, and if the women were able to win their tournament, it would be a first as well.
“They are the reigning champions, they have a great trophy cabinet, and we still have a lot to prove,” said France captain Amandine Henry. “But we’ve played very well the last 18 months in a number of friendlies and we’re very aware of our abilities and we want to show that. I think we can go toe-to-toe with this side. I think we can beat them, we just need to do that in this competition itself.”
France has only made it past the quarterfinal once at the World Cup, finishing fourth in 2011, where they lost 3-1 to the United States in the semifinal. Four years ago, France fell to Germany in the quarterfinals in a penalty shootout in Montreal.
Since then, France has taken its game to another level, backed by one of the strongest women’s leagues in the world. This year, in the buildup to the World Cup, France defeated the United States 3-1 in January.
This may be the biggest game in French women’s history, but you wouldn’t know it talking to Diacre.
“Once again I’m going to have to disappoint you,” she said. “I’m no more excited than I was in the Brazil game, in fact I’m very much relaxed. It can be dangerous to get too excited about matches, especially if you’re not able to control that. We have to stay focus on our target and our mission. Our mission is not over at this stage so we much not waste energy.”
The United States are still the team to beat at this tournament and have not exactly endeared themselves to the rest of the world with some of their actions and statements throughout.
The United States pounded Thailand 13-0 in their opening game, rubbing it in with outlandish goal celebrations once the game was well in hand. They toned it down in a 3-0 win against Chile and then were finally pushed in a 2-0 win against Sweden in their final group game.
Against Spain, they needed a controversial penalty to get through and looked vulnerable for the first time in the tournament.
Regardless, the brashness the Americans have displayed to this point makes it easy for France to get up to play them, according to Diacre.
“When you play against the United States, I think I’ll have a lot less work to do in my team talk in regards to motivation, I don’t need to work on that at all,” Diacre said. “The girls are absolutely firing from that perspective, full throttle. If there is one area we don’t need to focus on, it’s motivation, because the girls are really on top of things. It’s massive to come up against the U.S. women’s national team, they are the team that have the most success in the women’s game, so I’m relaxed from that perspective.”
Whoever wins the game Friday will be favoured to take the World Cup crown, although Germany waiting on the other side of the draw might have something to say about it.
Much like Canada four years ago, the continued success of the tournament will be contingent on the hosts sticking around.
“We have motivation, which is positive pressure, if you will,” Henry said. “The coach has said we’re up against the reigning champions, the best team in the world. we want to write our own chapter in history of the women’s game and it’ll be a case of two top teams going up against one another and we’re going to try and give it 100% to try and get through to the semis.”
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest
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