The saying “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” is perhaps apt when talking about the French women’s national football team. Yet, it’s not like they’ve not had the chances to get married, it’s more that they wait until the last minute to wreck the entire wedding, and no one is entirely sure what has happened.
However, Wednesday night’s 4-0 win over Colombia had a different feel about it and suggested that perhaps this team is ready to go all the way. Although we are still in the early stages of the ceremony—it could still go incredibly wrong.
Les Bleues have previous, and could quite happily take the award for the most frustrating team in women’s football history.
Currently third in the FIFA World Rankings, this is the highest position they have ever held, adding to their role as underachievers. They have never been ranked lower than 10th. But in all this time, their best return at a World Cup is fourth, and they have never gone past the quarter-finals of the European Championship.
2016 is only the second time the French have reached the Olympic games, but in London four years ago, they still found a heartbreaking way to lose. That’s where we will start our story of woe.
We should have seen it coming after the first match against the United States at Hampden Park, Glasgow.
In what has a stunning start, France took a 2-0 lead within 14 minutes. The USA responded through Abby Wambach, then a double from Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd in the 56th minute sealed the comeback and a 4-2 win for the eventual gold medallists.
France recovered with a 5-0 win over North Korea, and then a fifth-minute goal by Elodie Thomis was enough to win 1-0 against Colombia.
Former manager Bruno Bini's side showed great fight and resilience in the quarter-finals against Sweden. They would go 1-0 down early in the first-half, but they bounced back, scoring twice before the break to win the game 2-1.
As has been the story so many times, you felt that Les Bleues had turned the corner, until they came up against the reigning world champions, Japan.
France had their chances but fluffed their lines. Sarah Bouhaddi's goalkeeping error helped Yuki Ogimi bundle the ball over the line for the lead, and Mizuho Sakaguchi would beautifully head home the second after the break.
Eugenie Le Sommer would get one back, but France didn't have enough belief to find the equaliser.
The bronze-medal match in Coventry was one of the most one-sided games you will ever see at this level. France had 25 shots on goal compared to Canada's four. They hit the post and the crossbar and had chances cleared off the line.
Gaetane Thiney, Camille Abily, Louisa Necib and Le Sommer were all guilty of missing chances, and then it happened. With their only shot on target, Diana Matheson pounced on a loose ball to knock it past Bouhaddi, sealing victory for Canada deep in injury time.
The levels of disappointment on the faces of the French players were there for everyone to see, contrasted with the sheer joy from the Canadians. France shouldn’t have lost that game—it seemed almost impossible—but that inability to take their chances has seemed to haunt them for a number of years.
Just 12 months ago, history would repeat itself. Labelled as one of the favourites to lift the 2015 Women’s World Cup, they would win a difficult opening match against England with a fine strike from Le Sommer, but a 2-0 defeat to Colombia in Moncton re-raised the same issues.
France controlled the game, with 60 per cent possession, per the official FIFA match report. Colombia would win the game, 2-0, with only two shots on target.
Manager Philippe Bergeroo's team had 21 shots on goal, and just six made it on target, but it was another case of France's poor showing in front of goal causing themselves problems.
An early goal against Mexico by Marie-Laure Delie settled the nerves, 1-0 up after the first minute, and it would finish in a comfortable 5-0 win, with France through to the knockout stages.
That pattern would continue against South Korea. Delie again breaking the deadlock, this time it took four minutes. Thomis would double the lead after eight minutes, and France would never look back. They were through to the quarter-finals against Germany.
There, they would hit the same wall that has hindered them time and time again.
Even against one of the best teams in the world, France managed to create 24 shots on goal, but just four found the target. Necib and Thiney missed excellent chances, the latter with an opportunity to win the match in extra time.
It would end 1-1. Penalties followed, and when Claire Lavogez missed France's fifth spot-kick, they were eliminated.
Now, this summer, France are again one of the favourites to win an international tournament, and Bergeroo’s team will be delighted to get the competition underway with a rousing 4-0 victory. Especially against the team that beat them 2-0 in Canada last summer.
You would like to feel that this team has turned a corner and Wednesday’s 4-0 victory was a marker rather than a one-off, but it has all the same patterns as we have seen previously.
France were helped in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, by an early goal. Poor Carolina Arias unwillingly helped Le Sommer's low cross into her own net after 90 seconds.
Les Bleues had started quickly, but as soon as Le Sommer followed up Abily’s looping shot to convert the rebound, the South Americans' heads dropped, and France had full control of the game.
Next up for Bergeroo’s side is a mouth-watering clash with the reigning gold-medal winners, USA, a rematch of 2012’s group game and a proper test of where this France team currently stands.
Both teams will still likely qualify for the next stage, regardless of the result on Saturday, but a positive performance from the European side will go a long way to reaffirming their status as medal hopes.
When they score early and settle their own nerves, France are fine. They are confident, good on the ball and able to play with patience and control. The problems come when events don’t quite go their way.
If the opposition can frustrate them and limit their attempts to long-range efforts, France become panicked and rushed. Then they snatch at shots, try to force the play and ultimately become a less dangerous side to play against.
Their chances won’t be hindered with a loss against the U.S., but if they can remain composed and calm throughout the game and continue to create chances regardless of the score, then perhaps this French team has changed.
Until that happens, the same doubts will remain, and the belief will be that it will only be a matter of time until France revert to type and become the architects of their own downfall.