France Coach Corinne Diacre Just Can’t Get Along

It was June 11, 2019, the eve of France’s World Cup match against Norway, and Corinne Diacre was dazzling the press with her deadpan humor.  “I’m strict and intransigent,” she joked.  “We don’t have any fun here.  The girls are very unhappy.”  And the media laughed and laughed.

The only problem is that her players actually are unhappy. And Diacre is on the brink of losing control of a once-formidable France squad.

Diacre has repeatedly come under fire for her inability to maintain a positive relationship with her players. In just the past year, Diacre has managed to feud with Eugénie Le Sommer, Wendie Renard, and Sarah Bouhaddi, three undisputed legends of the French national team, with a combined 439 caps and 21 Champions League winners medals.  One has left the national team with a promise not to return while Diacre remains at the helm.  One confessed in her autobiography to having considered the same.  On top of that, Diacre has had to stifle a player-driven rebellion to hold onto her increasingly tenuous position. 

The French Football Federation (FFF) is reportedly becoming restless with Diacre’s tumultuous reign. They’ve watched for the past year as Diacre has dug herself into one conflict after another.

July 2019: Le Sommer in the Crosshairs

On the morning of the World Cup final—from which France were conspicuously absent—Diacre gave an interview to Téléfoot looking back at her team’s performance in the tournament.  Asked about her reluctance to move Eugénie Le Sommer into a central role that may have unlocked France’s lethargic offense, Diacre found no fault with her own work.  She did, however, take the opportunity to lay into Le Sommer, hammering the Lyon forward for allegedly ignoring the tactical plan: “I said to her, ‘why did you stay on the left?’  That wasn’t the plan.  But it’s what she did.”

The criticism was a surprising blow for Le Sommer.  “I would have fallen off my couch if I had watched the interview live,” she said.  “I didn’t think I didn’t follow instructions.  I’m not someone who ignores instructions.  It’s hard to hear that.”  She pointed out that it was hard to lay the loss the United States at her feet.  “I can’t play centrally, in the 10 spot, if we don’t have the ball.”

Lambasted by Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas (“Can you imagine if the folks at OL shared what we know about the pre-tournament training camp? It’s inconceivable.”) and former Lyon coach Reynald Pedros, among others, Diacre admitted her error. She said she called Eugénie to apologize, hoping to resolve any tensions.  “I’m still learning the rules of communication,” she said, by then nearly two full years into her tenure as France coach.  “Nobody’s perfect.” 

August 2019: A Stifled Rebellion

If Diacre hoped her apology to Le Sommer would give her a clean slate with the squad, she was mistaken. Per a France Football report, at the first camp following the World Cup in August 2019, a group of players, frustrated with Diacre’s management, planned to raise their concerns about the coach with Noël Le Graët, president of the FFF, during his scheduled visit with the team. 

But Diacre was tipped off about the players’ plan.  She intercepted Le Graët ahead of his address to the team and secured his support.  Le Graët then expressed his confidence in Diacre during his remarks to team, ultimately dissuading the unhappy players from speaking up.

According to France Football, putting down the failed coup was not enough for Diacre.  She conducted face-to-face interrogations of the players, demanding to know who was behind the uprising.  The confrontations left several players in tears in the hallway, and more than one reportedly considered hanging up their France jersey for good.

Asked recently about the report, Diacre told Le Progrès, “It’s been handled.  We’re looking forward now,” adding that she could learn from the past and improve.  But she didn’t entirely embrace contrition. “I can’t please everyone,” she remarked simply. 

November 2019: Armband Shuffle

Three months later, in November 2019, Diacre made an announcement that came as something of a surprise: With Amandine Henry and Le Sommer unavailable, Montpellier right back Marion Torrent would wear the captain’s armband for the European qualifier against Serbia. 

The news seemed to come as a surprise to goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, who had spent at least the year prior as third in the line of succession.  Asked why she was not given the armband, Bouhaddi told L’Equipe, “I don’t have an answer.  It happened.  The coach moved on after the World Cup.”

December 2019: Renard’s Revenge

The shuffling of the captain’s armband might be altogether unremarkable were it not on the heels of Diacre’s cataclysmic handling of her decision to remove Wendie Renard as France captain two years prior. The consequences of that conflict still have yet to stop reverberating through the team. 

In December 2020, Wendie Renard released her autobiography, Mon Etoile.  Renard dedicated an entire to chapter to her shattered relationship with Diacre, beginning with Diacre’s decision to take away the armband.  As Renard recounts, on the third day of Diacre’s first camp at the France helm, she asked Renard to meet with her.  In a meeting that lasted less than five minutes, Diacre told Renard that she was removing the defender as captain because she was performing at no more than 40% of her capability for France.  “It’s easy at Lyon,” Diacre told Renard, who by then had spent four years as captain of Les Bleues.  “But you aren’t at international level.” 

Renard was stung by the critique and the abruptness with which it was delivered.  And Diacre did not let up publicly.  “Wendie Renard will never be captain as long as I’m here,” Diacre told the press.  “She’s just a player like any other.” 

Renard reflects in the book that it wasn’t the loss of the captaincy that sent her reeling.  She wasn’t surprised that the new coaching staff would install new leadership, and she was happy to lead the team in other ways, but the disrespect she felt from Diacre was unsettling.  She spent months picking up little injuries, off her game, and felt it was all driven by the unrest between her and Diacre.  She considered stepping away from the national team.

Renard benefited from some time away at the end of 2017 to recenter.  The calendar flipped to 2018, and she headed to the year’s first camp in Montpellier with renewed energy.  She saw Diacre upon her arrival and extended her hand.  Diacre’s face dropped, Renard writes.  Renard had not extended la bise, the traditional cheek kiss greeting.  “You better get in line if you don’t want to stay home,” Diacre threatened.  But Wendie had had enough.

“I didn’t know we had to do la bise with the coach to be on the national team.  I said hello, I wasn’t disrespectful—but I won’t extend my cheek to you anymore.”

Renard’s autobiography was the most detailed account yet of the atmosphere inside Les Bleues, and the press jumped on the story.  Renard made the television rounds, sharing her account publicly. 

Le Graët was displeased.  “I like Wendie, and because I like her, I’ll forgive her.  But it was a mistake to revisit old problems,” he lamented.  “I would have preferred she didn’t talk about this.  It’s in the past and it should have stayed in the locker room.”*

In early January of 2020, Le Graët attempted to broker peace between his coach and his iconic centerback. Diacre demanded that Renard be punished for turning the heat on the coach. Le Graët refused and called for an end to the animosity, coordinating a meeting between the two. 

Once again, Diacre promised that any issues would be left in the past. “We had a frank discussion,” Diacre recounted.  “We said everything we wanted to say to each other.  Now, we’re turning the page, and we’re looking forward.”

February 2020: Thiney Takes Aim

In February, midfielder Gaëtane Thiney became the next player to express dissatisfaction with the management of the French national team, contrasting it with the men’s team, the World Cup holders.  “Didier Deschamps [the coach of the France men’s team] is a manager who knows how to manage personalities and develop leadership.  He protects his players, he loves them and supports them,” she explained.  “Corinne Diacre or others should draw inspiration from that,” she said, quickly caveating that her remarks were not intended to be “anti-Corinne Diacre.”

Less than two weeks later, Thiney was left off Diacre’s list for the inaugural Tournoi de France.

May 2020: Prêcheur’s Dire Warning

France would go on to win the Tournoi de France just ahead of the global pause on football activities due to Covid-19.  But former Lyon coach Gérard Prêcheur was not reassured.  In an interview with Coeurs de Foot, published in May 2020, Prêcheur, who led Lyon to Champions League victories in 2016 and 2017, unloaded on Diacre.

“I don’t want to talk about Diacre personally,” he began, “because I don’t have the same game philosophy, the same tactics.  I absolutely would not have made the choices she made during the World Cup, whether in terms of player selection, coaching, strategy, even tactics, we are diametrically opposed, so I don’t want to talk about Corinne Diacre personally because we’re not on the same page.”

But Prêcheur did not stop there.

“The most important thing is the relationship between the coach and a player—that determines whether or not there is success, whether the player performs or not, whether there is victory or defeat.”

“I know that the current relationship between Corinne Diacre and the players is very bad.  That was the case before the World Cup, it was the case during the World Cup, and I can assure you that following the Tournoi de France, which was positive in terms of results, the relationship has not improved.”

“I know that the President [Le Graët] wants to know, he’s taken a lot of steps to improve the relationship between the coach, her staff, and the players.  He’s doing everything within his power to make thing harmonious, to create the best situation to get good performances.  I think it’s lost cause and if nothing changes, in two years, we’ll have the same problems and we still won’t win anything.”

September 2020: Bouhaddi Walks Away

Nothing has changed, and with the first international break following the Covid-19 stoppage on the horizon, yet another domino fell, as Diacre’s first-choice goalkeeper walked away from Les Bleues. 

At the end of July, Sarah Bouhaddi revealed in an interview with Olympique-et-Lyonnais that she wanted to pause her international career.  The goalkeeper, sitting on 149 caps, explained that the disappointment of the World Cup and France’s failure to achieve its objectives still weighed on her and she needed to step away to breathe.

But more has trickled out since.  In an interview following Lyon’s win over Reims on matchday two of the D1 Féminine season, Bouhaddi shied away from delving into details, but admitted that her decision “was not just sporting, there are other things around it.”  She said she had spoken to Le Graët and Diacre and made clear to them her reasons for stepping away from the national team.  “It’s not goodbye forever,” she promised.  “I’ll be back.  When exactly? I don’t know.”

This past weekend, L’Equipe confirmed the suspicions of, well, everyone:  Bouhaddi’s decision to step away has less to do with the disappointment of the World Cup and more to do with her fractured relationship with Diacre.  In particular, Bouhaddi was unhappy with Diacre’s decision to hand the captain’s armband to Torrent when Henry and Le Sommer were unavailable.

Bouhaddi spoke briefly to Diacre to share her decision.  The conversation lasted barely a minute, with Diacre not bothering to try to convince Bouhaddi to continue. She notified Le Graët as well. 

But it didn’t end there.  Diacre nonetheless included Bouhaddi on a pre-selection list for September camp.  When Lyon coach Jean-Luc Vasseur broke the news to the goalkeeper, Bouhaddi sent Diacre a stinging text that left no room for doubt about her decision: she would not return to the national team as long as Diacre remains in her post. 

Diacre left Bouhaddi off her final September list, but didn’t bother to hide her displeasure with the decision.  She commented during her press conference to announce the September list, that she “did not accept” Bouhaddi’s decision, but would “respect” it.

Diacre added later, “[Bouhaddi] said, clearly, that I was the reason she does not want to return to the French national team.  But the French national team doesn’t belong to anyone—not the players and not the coach.”

For her part, Le Sommer said she understood her club teammate’s decision to step away. “We’ve had some difficult moments.  I respect Sarah’s decision . . . . It’s a courageous decision on her part.”  She expressed some hope for better days ahead.  “We know things have not been perfect in the past.  We’ve made that clear, and we’re trying to move forward.  I think the coach is making some efforts towards that as well.”

In comments to L’Equipe, Diacre’s agent waived yet another conflict between Diacre and a French stalwart.  “If [Diacre] has to worry about the whims and egos of every player, she’ll never get anywhere.  For those who follow Diacre’s direction, everything is good.  Those who don’t want to can simply get off the boat.”

What Future for France?

Can France move forward with Diacre? That is the question facing FFF.  The Euros are two years away, and the window for France’s golden generation is rapidly closing, and Diacre’s ever-growing list of enemies is not helping.

Bouhaddi’s absence leaves Les Bleues with a significant gap in goal, as Diacre is left to select among Pauline Peyraud-Magnin, who has now served as second choice with three straight big clubs (Atletico, Arsenal, and Lyon), or Solène Durand and an assortment of other goalkeepers for mid-tier D1 teams.  Meanwhile, Renard feels one wrong move away from out the door.

To make matters worse, Diacre’s integration of young players has left much to be desired.  She was panned for leaving PSG’s talented young striker Marie Antoinette Katoto at home for the World Cup, and even on the occasions when she has called Katoto into camp, Diacre has treated her harshly.  She has studiously avoided selecting Selma Bacha for the first team, even as Bacha has collected three Champions League medals while playing major minutes for Lyon.  Her preference for mid-table role players is by now well documented.

That leaves France behind the curve.  Outside of an imposing strike force, France’s depth cannot match other top tier international teams.  That has been more apparent than ever during this international window.  But while France’s stitched together defense and makeshift midfield may have enough to scrape by Serbia and North Macedonia, ranked 41st and 129th in the world, they wouldn’t have a prayer of holding up against top teams like Germany, the Netherlands, or England. 

In short, Diacre simply can’t afford to alienate anyone else. And the latest reports suggest that FFF is growing tired brokering truces between Diacre and France’s biggest names and hearing her assure the press that any tension is in the past…until the next battle. For now, her position seems fairly secure. But at a certain point, it won’t be enough for Diacre to wave away criticism by saying she can’t please everyone.  Because right now, it’s not clear that she can please anyone.

At war with the veterans and having no faith in the youth, there doesn’t seem to be any path forward for Diacre.  Instead, FFF is left to answer the question posed by her agent:  Is France ready to go down with Diacre’s ship…or is the Federation finally ready to get off the boat.

Are you also over the Corinne Diacre era? Do you see better days ahead for Les Bleues? Follow Arianna (@AScavs) and Lyon Offside (@LyonOffside) on Twitter, and let us know what you think.

Photos via France Ang’Elles.

*Le Graët, of course, has never seemed bothered by Diacre’s disinterest in keeping team matters in the locker room.  Her public attacks on Renard and Le Sommer are only the tip of the iceberg.  Diacre has also seen fit to publicly blast Bouhaddi, Delphine Cascarino, and Marie-Antoinette Katoto, among others, when displeased with their performances.  And her criticism of the wildly inexperienced team she selected to face England in the 2018 SheBelieves Cup (“We’re nowhere near international level.  I’m very angry at my players.  I’m ashamed.”) was so harsh that even the U.S. commentators expressed discomfort with her decision to go to the press with the comments (“She threw the players under the bus, didn’t she?” “I never think it’s a good idea myself.”).    

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