MILTON KEYNES, England -- Once more, a well-fancied France team failed to live up to expectations at a major tournament, with their 2-1 semifinal defeat to Germany the most recent in a long line of summer disappointments. However, something feels different this time.
Coming into the Women's Euros 2022, France had the usual noise around the team: They were the favourites, and this was a team that could finally do what their predecessors from 2011 could not. Of course, there was the usual background noise as well, with rumblings of dissent and distrust from within camp, including some very public fallings-out between the coach, Corinne Diacre, and several notable internationals. A narrative for their expected quarterfinal failure against Netherlands was primed and ready to go, with former France goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi saying that the team could never win a title under Diacre's leadership copied and set to be pasted into a postmortem.
Yet this France team wasn't a picture of disharmony; the players had reported how happy they were in camp, in the environment fostered by their coach. Whether or not those thoughts were earnest or merely lines fed to them to promote a show of unity to the media is something only those in the group know, but this team looked just like that: a team.
From their breathless first half against Italy on July 10, there was an understanding in the group, there was a balance and a willingness to commit oneself to the cause and to the collective. As we've seen from other teams that have gone far this summer, the team spirit was clearly there, and the environment cultivated by Diacre has been one of humility among her players. Even if her starting XIs were not necessarily the best players available to her on raw talent alone, la sélection was built on stronger foundations as the best possible group.
So for all that noise, the team had actually silenced their critics in that opening group-stage game, yet they suffered the same fate as countless French teams before them at major tournaments: The football began to stagnate, and the goals dried up.
France could either have done something no other French team had done before and built upon that success, getting stronger and stronger en route to a major tournament final and hallowed silverware, or they could do as so many others had and fizzle out, peaking far too soon. Even as they made their way through to claim their first semifinal berth since 2012, there was a sense of inevitability about what was to follow in Milton Keynes on Wednesday. France had been greatly superior against the Dutch, but they'd failed to put the match to bed inside 90 minutes and would undoubtedly be carrying that extra 30 minutes of effort in their legs into the semifinal against Germany, which had 48 extra hours to rest and prepare.
Leaving record scorer Eugenie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry out of the squad had been a choice made in favour of the collective, but it also meant there were precious few reinforcements Diacre could call upon when she lost star striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto to an ACL injury partway through their second group game against Belgium. Katoto was lauded as the difference-maker and positioned as the attacker who could have fired the legendary teams of the 2011 and 2015 Euros to victory, and World Cup success had she been born a decade earlier.
Her injury coincided with the decline in scoring. Since losing her, France's four goals were a centre back's header at a corner (vs. Belgium), a cutting open play sequence in the first minute (vs. Iceland), an extra-time penalty (vs. the Netherlands) and an own goal just before half time (vs. Germany).
It was all too familiar for Les Bleues. They'd been too bereft in front of goal, failing to strike when it truly mattered. Yet the team did play some pleasing football this summer; even in the loss to Germany, their off-the-ball shape to cut out obvious passing lines had worked well in the first half as they generally dominated the midfield battle, until Germany found a way to adjust and out-muscle their opposition.
Where Germany coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg made the changes that tipped the game in favour of her side, Diacre's decision-making regarding her bench wasn't as strong. Introducing Clara Mateo into the game made sense from an attacking point of view, but instead of using her in more central areas you'd associate with a No. 9 or No. 10, her deployment on the right wing neutralised her natural game and left France unbalanced. It meant winger Kadidiatou Diani was then pushed into a centre forward role: a case of the right players in the wrong positions, a plan almost destined to fail.
It would be easy enough to rue the missing players, or talk about a team that needed Katoto to succeed. But not every team that's won a major tournament has had a Katoto in the team, and in any case, there are more than enough goals in this France side for Les Bleues to have been more convincing in the final third.
On the morning after the night before, with France once again going home early from a major tournament having shown so much promise but with nothing to show for it, the feeling of the failure is all too familiar. However, this summer, there was a different feeling around the French team: All that noise from outside, and critics' worries about disharmony, had stayed outside. In parts, the team had actually risen to the task of the summer. Even in the cold light of day, there is an air of promise about the future of this team. The young group Diacre brought to England will be around for the World Cup next year, the Olympics in 2024 and Euros again in 2025.
Diacre may not be the coach by the end of the next Euros, but for the first time in a long time, there is hope.
As Diacre said after the loss to Germany: "Disappointment is the overriding feeling right now. But we have good foundations. We just need a little bit of time. This wasn't our night. Maybe it just wasn't our competition this year. But we have built something here together with a great, hard-working group that doesn't like to lose."