ROTHERHAM, England — Corinne Diacre punched the air, allowed herself a cursory smile of satisfaction, and then turned on her heel. She managed to dodge the first couple of staff members rushing past her on their way to join the celebrations on the field after France’s quarterfinal victory, only to find her path blocked by Gilles Fouache.
Fouache, France’s assistant goalkeeping coach, is not an easy obstacle to avoid: broad-shouldered and shaven-headed and with the air of a kindly bouncer. Diacre, a redoubtable central defender in her playing days, quickly recognized there was no way past. Fouache swept his manager up in a brief bear hug, and then she sent him on his way, too.
Once she had done so, her smile melted away. She sought out her Dutch counterpart, offered some words of congratulation and condolence, and then made her way to her players. A handful received a pat on the back. Others were offered only some immediate performance feedback. She had come to Euro 2022 on business, not pleasure.
By some measures, that victory against the Netherlands last weekend was enough to ensure Diacre had done her job. France had never previously made it past the quarterfinals of a European Championship; Eve Périsset’s penalty, deep into extra time, finally ended the hoodoo.
Diacre, though, arrived in England with slightly higher expectations, and so did her country. France, after all, is home to two of the most powerful women’s soccer clubs, the reigning European champion Lyon and its great rival, Paris St.-Germain. Diacre had an unrivaled pipeline of talent from which to create a squad.
To her, and to French soccer, it felt reasonable to declare reaching the final the team’s “stated ambition.” On Wednesday night, it failed to meet it. France might only have fallen narrowly to Germany, by 2-1 in their semifinal in Milton Keynes, England, but it fell nonetheless. And that, unfortunately, gives Diacre a problem.
A couple of weeks after Diacre, 47, and her players arrived in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, the small town in rural Leicestershire where France’s national team has taken up residence for this tournament — that it chose a spot with a distinctly French name is, apparently, coincidental — a journalist from a French magazine contacted the team’s press officer to ask why no local junior team had yet been invited to watch a training session.
Such outreach initiatives are a staple of major tournaments, a fairly simple public-relations maneuver designed to thank the community for its hospitality. France, by contrast, had made no contact with amateur sides in Ashby. The team, the journalist was told, was not in England to make friends.
It is a tunnel vision that is characteristic of Diacre’s management style. She veers between distant and acerbic with the news media, despite employing a P.R. “teacher”; she has admitted that communication is not her strong suit. She makes no secret of the fact that she does not enjoy the public-facing aspects of her job.
With her players, too, she has not always fostered the most conducive relationships. One of her first moves after taking charge of her nation’s team five years ago was to strip Wendie Renard, France’s totemic defender, of the captaincy.
Since then, she has contrived to alienate a number of players from Lyon, the country’s dominant women’s team, to such an extent that Sarah Bouhaddi, the goalkeeper, claimed she had inculcated a “very, very negative environment.” Bouhaddi has subsequently said she will not play for her country while Diacre is in charge.
Another veteran, Gaëtane Thiney, was dropped for criticizing Diacre’s tactics, and a third, Amandine Henry, was dropped after she had described the French squad during the 2019 World Cup as “complete and utter chaos.” The call in which Diacre broke the news lasted, Henry said, “14 or 15 seconds; I will remember it all my life.” More remarkable still was that Henry had inherited the captaincy from Renard; her banishment meant that Renard was restored to the post.
Diacre’s biggest gamble of all, though, may well have been her squad for this tournament. Diacre was already without both Kheira Hamraoui and Aminata Diallo, a legacy of the assault scandal that has roiled French soccer for much of the last year, but she also chose to omit both Henry and Eugénie Le Sommer, France’s career goal-scoring leader.
The manager defended the moves, citing the need to protect and preserve the “mentality” of her squad. Early results bore her out. There was no sign, in France’s month or so in England, of club enmities poisoning the atmosphere among the players. The longstanding divide between the Lyonnaises and the Parisians seemed to have evaporated.
Besides, it was not as if Diacre did not have players of impeccable quality to replace them. The depth of talent at her command was such that she could juggle her team for each of France’s first four games of the tournament with no apparent diminution of quality.
The issue, though, was that making those calls turned Diacre into a martyr of outcome. Had France met her aspirations, and reached Sunday’s final against England, she would have been vindicated; leaving Henry and Le Sommer at home would have seemed like a masterstroke, proof of her bold conviction.
That France did not means it is all but impossible not to wonder whether the outcome might have been different had two of the key players on the best club team in the women’s game been on the field, or even on the substitutes’ bench, available to call on in an emergency.
In truth, the border between those realities is slender, and blurred. It hinges on a moment, an instant: Had France remained attentive when Svenja Huth picked up the ball on the edge of the penalty area, rather than assuming it had drifted out of play, then perhaps it would still be in the tournament, and Diacre’s call would have paid off.
It is the manager, though, who made that bargain, who made it plain that the gauge of success and failure was what she did, not how she did it. France came to Euro 2022 with a destination in mind. Now that it has fallen short, it cannot claim credit for the journey.
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