For Renard and France, Focus Is Only on What’s Ahead

RENNES, France — Wendie Renard, the tallest player in the World Cup, put her left hand at eye level one night last week.

“One day you are up here,” she said.

Renard then moved her hand downward, much closer to the floor.

“And the next day you are down here,” she said.

The first three matches of the World Cup have been an emotional roller coaster for Renard, the 6-foot-1 central defender who is one of the stars and locker-room leaders of France’s team.

On opening night in Paris, Renard leapt higher than all opposition — twice — to score with headers off corner kicks in France’s resounding 4-0 victory over South Korea. On Wednesday in Nice, in a much edgier 2-1 victory over Norway in Nice, Renard made perhaps the biggest gaffe of the tournament so far: scoring the first own goal of her international career with a mystifying poke with the inside of her right foot that tied the score at 1-1.

On Monday, she was back in the spotlight, again for the wrong reasons. With France awarded a late penalty that seemed to present it a ticket to victory against Nigeria and first place in its group, Renard stepped up and sent the penalty around the left post. Only a curious decision by the referee to order a retake saved Renard, who calmly buried the second chance.

“It hurt me, and it could really have hurt us psychologically as a group,” she said of the own goal last week, though the comment just as easily could have applied to Monday’s penalty miss.

Each time, though, Renard’s mistake ultimately did not hurt the team’s bottom line: Les Bleues bounced back in Nice to score the decisive goal on a penalty kick by Eugénie Le Sommer to beat Norway, and Renard’s second penalty was the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Nigeria.

Le Sommer and the other French players were quick to show support for Renard after her own goal last week, and on Sunday, France’s coach, Corinne Diacre, emphasized that solidarity on the eve of France’s final group match. France has already qualified for the knockout round but has yet to secure first place in Group A, which would keep them on track to face the United States in the quarterfinals.

“Wendie has recovered from this mistake, which could happen to anyone,” Diacre said. “She is someone who is competitive, someone who doesn’t like to make this kind of error, but she’s moved on, and the group has shown her a lot of empathy.”

For Diacre, the 28-year-old Renard can be a sensitive subject. A former defender herself, Diacre took charge of the French team in 2017 and ultimately chose to take the captaincy away from Renard and give the role to Amandine Henry, a midfielder who once played in the United States and who now plays with Renard for Olympique Lyonnais, the dominant women’s club team in Europe.

Renard and Henry are the two highest-paid French women’s players in the world, according to France Football, with annual salaries of 360,000 euros, or about $403,000, for Henry and €348,000 for Renard.

Renard, with her deep voice and commanding presence, remains Lyon’s captain, which means playing for France is not only an adjustment for her but for her club teammates, including Henry, who make up the core of the national squad.

“I don’t want to talk about that anymore,” Renard said in March, in an interview with the French newspaper L’Équipe. “I’ve moved on to other things. I have a title that is waiting for me and the jersey of my country, which I have never betrayed or sullied, is more important than anything that’s been done to me.”

Renard was born and raised on the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean. As a girl, she competed in soccer primarily with boys, and she also played handball. She made it her goal to play for Les Bleues after the French men’s team won the World Cup in 1998.

At age 7, she watched that final against Brazil on television with her father, Georges, who would die of lung cancer later that year. Renard says that she is thinking of her father when she looks skyward as the French national anthem is played before matches, and she dedicated her two goals against South Korea to his memory.

“He is listening,” she said in the interview with L’Équipe. “He is protecting his daughter, his children. I had a strong relationship with him.”

Renard moved to the French mainland at age 16 to pursue her soccer dream and initially failed to make the cut at the French national training center in Clairefontaine. But she was accepted into Lyon’s developmental program and has become an institution at the club, helping to win 13 straight French league titles and six Champions League crowns, including the last four in a row.

Seven of France’s 11 starters against South Korea play for Lyon, including Le Sommer, Henry and right wing Delphine Cascarino. But the most significant crossover is on defense, with goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, left back Amel Majri and central defenders Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy all starting for both teams.

“For sure, it’s reassuring that we play together all year round,” Mbock said. “Wendie and I really complement each other, and we can bring our familiarity from our club to the national team.”

That familiarity made Renard’s miscue against Norway all the more unlikely.

“The cross came in, I knew there was one forward left,” Renard said. “Amel said something to me, and I didn’t understand too well. To be safe, I kicked the ball out to give them a corner kick and it ended up in the net. It was not a good look.”

Ada Hegerberg, the Norwegian forward who also stars for Lyon and is sitting out this World Cup, considers Renard and Mbock the “best central defender duo in the world.”

“It’s as if they don’t need to speak to know what the other is going to do,” Hegerberg wrote this week in France Football. “What characterizes them is the speed with which they challenge opponents and the care they take to quickly and effectively pass to the forwards. They are so technically sound but also have the ability to accelerate the team’s rhythm when they get involved in the attack.”

Both can score, too, but no player in this World Cup is as big and obvious a threat in the air as Renard, who in 110 appearances for France has scored 22 goals, mostly with headers.

The Norwegians spent considerable practice time preparing to defend against her, at one point deploying the tallest man available to them, a team official, to play the role of Renard on corner kicks in training.

“I don’t think there’s anyone quite like her in the women’s game, but I think we prepared very well for it,” said Maren Mjelde, a 5-foot-5 central defender who is Norway’s captain. “I know I’m not the tallest player, but I can be strong. I know I’m not going to win in the air against her, so I tried to stop her runs and get her out of her rhythm. Pretty much my goal and aim for the game was not to let her score.”

It worked, at least in front of the goal the Norwegians were defending.

“I know what I’ve been through and where I come from,” Renard said after her own goal. “And it’s not because I made an error that it’s going to weaken me. It happens, and we showed our togetherness, and we bounced back well.”