Azby-de-la-Zouch... or is it Achbee? Asby? The hardest thing so far for the French players since they arrived in England on Monday for the Women's Euro 2022 has been trying to correctly pronounce the name of the little village where they are staying for the duration of their participation in the tournament. The second part of it, "de-la-Zouch" is easy and even sounds almost French, like if it was destiny. The first part, however, is tricky!
In any event, Ashby-de-la-Zouch is the little plot of paradise when Les Bleues landed. It's calm, green, vast and exactly what manager Corinne Diacre wanted for her players. If, like most people around the world, you don't know where ADLZ (to make it simple) is, it's not far from Birmingham and for the moment, the French camp is a happy camp!
Happiness hasn't always been the prevailing mood around the France women's team since Diacre took the job in 2017. The tensions between the head coach and her players have been there pretty much since her first day. But right now, there are more smiles all around the France HQ than grimaces, something Diacre had to prioritize coming into the Euros. It remains to be seen how long this harmony will last, but the atmosphere is more harmonious than it's ever been over the past five years.
Diacre is trying hard to change; she's more relaxed, and less authoritarian. The long walks and discussions that she shared last summer with her agent Jean-Pierre Bernès (who is also Didier Deschamps' agent, by the way) have been really helpful. She had to understand that she had to change to be successful in this role, and the fact that she decided to give the captain armband back to Wendie Renard (31 years old, 131 caps) illustrates her attempts at reform. After taking it away from the Lyon defender in order to stamp her authority on the group, Diacre realised her mistake and her U-turn was the right call to make.
Diacre also moved aside the players that she did not get on well with or didn't like -- namely midfielder Amandine Henry or forward Eugenie Le Sommer -- which is another reason why the mood is better. Everyone is now pulling in the same direction.
France have never gone past the quarterfinals in a Euros before, and that stage has been their ceiling for a while now in big competitions: the last time they went further was a decade ago, when they finished fourth at the 2011 World Cup and fourth the following year at the Olympics. Yet they come into the Euros having lost just one of their last 30 matches since their loss against the U.S. in the 2019 World Cup in Paris. (Yes, that defeat was a quarterfinal.)
In 2022, they have confidence and momentum. In Marie-Antoinette Katoto, they have an outstanding goalscorer up front and at only 23, the PSG striker can be one of the stars of the tournament. They have a mix of youth and experience and wonderful individual talent (Sakina Karchaoui in defence, Grace Gyoro in midfield, Kadidiatou Diani and Delphine Cascarino up front) and to maximise that potential, they need to form a happy, harmonious camp.
The French have not been in England a week yet, but they already feel at home. "We have everything here to be happy here, it is perfect," one of the players tells ESPN. They have a big entertainment room, which they very nicely call the "room of life," where they spend a lot of time. There, they watched England taking on Austria and were so impressed with the atmosphere at Old Trafford. They also followed Germany's 4-0 destruction of Denmark too, with some cheering for Sara Dabritz: some of the girls used to play with her at PSG last season, and she will be a new teammate for some others when she completes her move to Lyon after the Euros!
The squad has been taking advantage of the other entertainment options, too: they have video games, table tennis tournaments and a pool table at their disposal, but the biggest attraction of all so far is without a doubt the basketball arcade game. You hear screams, laughter, arguments and jokes all the time there as they try to beat each other's high scores! PSG midfielder Gyoro claims that she is the best and while plenty of teammates disagree, of course, the friendly competitions are helping build that team spirit.
All around the camp, you can find big framed photos of the team, too: Les Bleues are everywhere. On the door of each player's bedroom, all spacious and comfortable, there is the name and photo of the player. Each player's room has a bed, a desk, a big bathroom and wardrobe. Some, like defender Eve Perisset, have brought some of their school homework: the future Chelsea defender is doing a real estate agent course and has to study! There are popular rooms, too -- some players love to hang out in Katoto's room, listening to music or just talking -- but this feels very much like a united squad. For now, anyway.
The first group game against Italy on Sunday in Rotherham has to validate all the good vibes coming out of the French camp in the early days of their time in England. Otherwise, the ghosts from the past could come back very quickly to haunt France and dampen their ambitions.