Job done, France.
For any big, favoured team going into a World Cup, there is exactly one thing that matters. For a host nation it counts double. Or maybe even triple. And that thing is: don’t screw up your first game.
World Cups are strange things. Self-contained hothouses of football in which everything grows faster and larger and weirder than normal. In part, this is a consequence of the format: a team gets just three games to get out of the group, and tanking one of them makes everything that little bit squeakier.
But mostly, it’s just the way these months work. Four years’ build-up compresses down into four weeks, and so, if there are any cracks in a squad or faults in a first XI, an early shock can blow the whole enterprise to pieces. A camp turns inward on itself, a manager panics, and suddenly all that matters is whose fault it was that it all went wrong.
Further, and as even the most studiously neutral observer will tell you, a World Cup needs a host to do well. FIFA’s heavy-handed branding and control freakery hasn’t quite managed to kick the party out of World Cups, and so as long as the hosts are having a good time, so is everyone else. It’s a party in their house, after all. Be awkward as hell if they left early.
Fortunately for France, and for everybody descending on France over the next few weeks, they were pretty much faultless in their opener against South Korea. They managed the threat of Ji So-yun by ensuring she never really saw the ball, pressing high and swarming their opponents whenever they had the temerity to try and pass the ball around.
And while their four goals didn’t quite match the 11 that Germany opened with in 2007, there was little chance of them being denied a comfortable winning margin. Amandine Henry’s fourth was probably the pick of them, a gorgeous arcing slapshot from the edge of the penalty area. Though commiserations should go to Griedge Mbock Bathy, who contorted herself wonderfully to slam the ball home, only to find out she’d been marginally offside in the process. VAR has no sense of occasion.
But it was Wendie Renard’s second that set the tone. Up in the box, head to ball, down and through. Exactly what should happen when a central defender marauds their way forward. Thump.
Goals can’t talk, of course; that would be ridiculous. But if they could, well, this one would have said all kinds of encouraging things about France. How good they were feeling. How strong they were looking. How positive a statement of intent this was. And how much fun they and everybody else is going to have over the next few weeks.
Then finally — once it had finished saying “Ouch, that really hurt”, of course — it would conclude: job done.
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