Can this man improve the French women's team?

Banners hang just below the central staircase of the elegant hotel which has been taken over by the French women's national team for the World Cup. Hervé Renard wants to make sure no one in his squad misses it.

The motivational words emblazoned across it are typical of the kind of positive messages teams put together before a major sporting tournament. But for this France squad, and for Renard, his well-traveled coach, those words have extra meaning after a period many in the team would like to forget.

“Only team spirit,” it reads, “can make your dreams come true.”

Renard used the phrase when he first met the France squad earlier this year, just months before the World Cup. It wasn't long after he was chosen to replace fired coach Corinne Diacre, but even then he knew it was a message that might resonate with the team that even his own federation concluded was “cracked” can not be repaired.

“We lost unity,” Renard said in an interview on the sunny terrace in front of the team's base camp last week. That's probably the most underrated statement in women's soccer.

France have arrived in Australia this month as World Cup favorites in repair. Torn to pieces by bitter feuds, it had been in recent months missing player, welcome them backThen lose them again. It has changed coaches, changed approaches and changed tactics. Dan has now asked Renard, a respected 54-year-old with a embellished men's World Cup resume but no previous experience coaching women, to take him at least as far as the semifinals.

He started the process, he says, by being open about what he didn't know.

“For me everything was new because I didn't know women's football, how to manage girls,” she said. “I am lucky because in our staff there are many people who are already working with women's football. So I'm listening.

What he inherited was a messy team of talent. His longtime leader, Wendie Renard (who is not related to Hervé), has announced that he will not be playing in the World Cup to protect his mental health. Two other stars followed suit, saying they would not return unless there was a change in team leadership.

There had been controversy before under Diacre, coach at the time, but nothing so serious or existential. The rebellious mood had turned into open rebellion.

Facing a crisis ahead of the World Cup, the French football federation sprang into action, announcing after a brief inquiry that Diacre had to leave. The split between him and the team, the federation said, had become so significant that it “has reached a point of no return.”

Hervé Renard, enjoying a successful and lucrative stop to his traveling coaching career in Saudi Arabia, said he acted on impulse when the news broke. He contacted Jean-Michel Aulas, one of the most influential people in French football and a member of the board of the French federation. Renard met him a decade ago, when he narrowly missed becoming coach of Lyon's men's team. He told Aulas that he wanted to be considered for the opening.

This promises to be a significant change of course for his career. Renard says that up until the time he picked up his phone to text Aulas, he had only once previously considered coaching women: a luxury that came while watching France play in the last World Cup. His fascination at the time, he said, had lasted “probably only for a few seconds.”

But now that her interest in coaching a women's team for the first time has been reciprocated, she faces a problem. To take the job, he needed permission from football officials in Saudi Arabia, where he was under contract, and he had to take a significant pay cut. The Saudi job, Renard explained with a smile, paid at least “20 times” what it would make coaching French women.

“When you're in Saudi Arabia, it doesn't really come true,” he said. “So sometimes it's good to go to reality.”

Months later, Renard said he still couldn't explain why he threw his hat into the ring, before noticing the French crest on the left breast of his tracksuit. Having coached five other national teams, he said, the opportunity to lead the country of his birth was definitely the main draw. But even so, some things, says Renard, cannot be explained. “I still don't know why exactly I decided,” he said.

Renard is optimistic about his rare coaching feat at two World Cups in a year. “The most important thing is not to participate in two World Cups in six months,” he said. “This is to do something” in it.

Of all the teams Renard has coached, his current squad is ranked highest, fifth in the world — a high profile which has been maintained despite never going beyond the semifinals of a major tournament. Renard said that now it is possible.

“We have to believe in ourselves,” he said.

He was under orders to reach the semifinals, he said, a target he had accepted. “We can't come here when you're fifth in the world and say, ‘Oh no, the quarter-finals are enough.' No. We must have a very high challenge. So our first target is to reach the semifinals. Then after that we will talk about other things.”

Renard has only months to mend a fractured squad, to instill the team spirit her banner demands and that she believes her players need to win in what she considers to be the most competitive Women's World Cup in history.

At his first training camp, Renard told the team he was not interested in what happened in the past. He doesn't want to broach past games, past animosities, past grievances – all the things that have made the atmosphere in the camp so toxic that stars like Wendie Renard say they would rather not play for France at all. But he couldn't avoid facing one last pre-tournament controversy.

Kheira Hamraoui, an experienced and talented midfielder and a regular on the national team, was attacked in 2021 by a masked man after having dinner with his club, Paris Saint-Germain. The fallout resonated for both club and national team, with former team-mates on both teams, Aminata Diallo, being accused of involvement in the attack, and others angered by Hamraoui's initial claims that they or people they knew were involved.

A strange episode hung over the national team for more than two years. Faced with reviving him in the France camp, Renard said he decided not to take Hamraoui to the World Cup, and told him in a face-to-face meeting why he had not been selected.

He said he told Hamraoui he would not start, and that a place on the bench would be unsettling for players with his experience. “I think for a player like this you start from the first 11 or it's very difficult to sit on the bench,” he said. “We can't advance in the competition if we don't have a fantastic team spirit.”

Renard admits that not every choice he makes is the right one. But he says he has been candid with his players about what he knows, and what he doesn't.

“I said to the girls: ‘Maybe I will make some mistakes. If I say something wrong, let me know.' But step by step, you learn how to manage,” he said.

The cast, for now, say they heard the right thing. “He kept pushing us to be the best version of ourselves,” said midfielder Grace Geyoro an interview recently. Says Wendie Renard: “As long as everyone has the same vision and the will to move in the same direction, then we can achieve something great.”

The World Cup is taking place with the sharpest focus on women's soccer in the history of the sport, and with teams and players using the platform to push for greater recognition and compensation for their efforts. FIFA, soccer's global governing body, has more than tripled its prize money from four years ago, to $110 million. His critics say the new figure doesn't go far enough, that it should equal the $440 million prize pool awarded to men at the 2022 World Cup in 2022.

Hervé Renard acknowledges the progress women's football has made, especially since the last World Cup. But, perhaps controversially, she says that “women still have to be a bit patient” when it comes to payments.

With interest that continues to grow, he said, potential income will also increase. But commercial realities, he says, are reflected in different sports revenues, and he offers an analogy to make his point.

“If you have one restaurant with 1,000 meals a night and one with 300, it's not the same,” he said. “At the end of the night at the register, the numbers weren't the same. Football is the same. It's business.”