When France kicks off against Italy in Rotherham on Sunday night, it will be the start of what many fans will hope is a bright new era for a nation that has never reached its peak on the international stage.
Amazingly, Les Bleues has never been beyond the quarterfinal stage of a major tournament, its last exit potentially its most painful on home soil against the United States three years ago.
The last European Championships ended with a 0–1 defeat to England, but this time around Corinne Diacre has left several big, experienced names at home, with the likes of Marie-Antoinette Katoto, Sandy Baltimore, Melvine Malard, Grace Geyoro, Selma Bacha, and company leading the charge with their youth and excitement.
The Paris Saint-Germain trio of Baltimore, Katoto, and Geyoro were well-known to former PSG youth team coach Pierre-Yves Bodineau, who joined the club to coach the reserve team in 2010, but alongside first-team manager Farid Benstiti, revolutionized the youth teams in order to keep up with a dominant Lyon side, is well placed to discuss just how big their talent is.
“In 2012 when Farid came to the club to professionalize the women’s team, I presented him a project to create a youth team training center,” recalled Bodineau. “If we have the brother, we have the sister. I was convinced about it, and that we could only fight against Lyon with this kind of team.
“Farid listened to me and together we put together a process to get things going. In 2013, we decided to train the best talents directly in Paris, not in Saint-Germain, and with this system we attracted the best players in Paris. With this training center, we began to work with Geyoro, Katoto, [Perle] Morroni, and we recruited Baltimore, [Ouleymata[ Sarr and [Hawa] Cissoko from elsewhere, so we started to have really good talents.”
In 2013, Bodineau became the coach of the new-look Under-19s squad, a squad in which many of the players mentioned above would progress through over the coming years on their way to helping PSG to finally topple Lyon domestically in 2021.
Bodineau admits PSG at the time was more focused on signing big-name international players, and he had to convince the club players who were just as talented could be right on their doorstep.
“I observed the older generation and the newer generation and I could see there was a big potential in Geyoro, Katoto, and Baltimore especially. They were top players already at the beginning, it was just about promoting them to the club.
“The club didn’t look at that side of things before, they just looked at big international players. They didn’t know there was this potential within Paris itself. As soon as I saw them, I knew they would be top players.”
Bodineau and PSG’s biggest issue at the time was Clairefontaine, the main training center for French players, and somewhere where between the ages of 13 and 15, players could go permanently to train to develop.
Keeping Local Talent
With PSG desperate to convince local players of their project, they had to fight to keep players from going to the most established youth development center in the country.
“For Grace and Perle, they were already in the club, but they were attracted by Clairefontaine,” he recalled. “At that moment, there was no structure in PSG to welcome this kind of player and they decided to go to Clairefontaine. They were already identified, we decided with Farid to take them out of Clairefontaine as soon as we decided to have our own youth training center.
“They came with us and I don’t think they regret that. For Sandy, Hawa, Ouleymata, it was my knowledge of the local football and local areas, my relationship with the coaches around the Paris area who signaled to me the best players. For Sandy, we brought her to a couple of training sessions, I saw her for the first time when she was 12 or 13 years old. I told her and her family she was going to be special; she came at 15, she played with girls and boys.”
While Baltimore could set the tournament alight, it is striker Katoto who will be one of the most eagerly anticipated players to watch.
The 23-year-old was left out of the World Cup squad three years ago, much to the surprise of many people, but her form for both PSG and France has already earned her the tag of one of the best strikers in the world.
“The first time you see any player is really important,” said Bodineau. “When I decided to follow Marie-Antoinette, it was just before I started as U-19 coach with PSG. Two years before I observed Katoto when she played against boys and I was really convinced she could be the top player she is today.
“I remember her control, her control in the penalty area. One goal, she received the ball on her chest and she put the volley directly into the corner. She could jump, she could control passes, she was incredible for her age. She had the attitude too. With Grace too, it was impossible to take the ball off her. For all of them, it was about giving them the best conditions and for me it was easy with them because they all had the talent and it was wonderful to work with these kind of players.
In 2016, Bodineau won the U-19 National Challenge Cup against Lyon, with a team that included Cissoko, Geyoro, Morroni, Katoto, and Baltimore.
The Lyon side also included players who have gone on to represent their country, including Bacha, Malard, and Delphine Cascarino.
“For me, it’s like a dream to see them where they are now,” said Bodineau. “I was convinced about them 10 years ago and I think I was probably the only one. When Farid discovered these players, he said to me, ‘Pierre, we have a lot of top talent here. If we don’t make 15 of them professional players, we are not good coaches.’
“Now, we are actually at 15 who have signed professionally at the club since 2015, but I think we can do even more. We have a lot of talent, a lot who have to go outside PSG of course, because it is hard to get into a team like this. But the French elite, in all the clubs you have a player from Paris from this period. It’s wonderful for me.
“PSG plays a big role in this phenomenon. Lyon was famous for training young players, but during this period, PSG became the best youth team, we beat Lyon in the final in 2016. We saw Bacha, Cascarino, Malard, they were the players we fought against in this period. Now we have a French team where all of them are there. Bacha, I think, she is the future of the French team, her and Baltimore on the left side, I think it’s perfect, and you have Perle, too. We are very lucky to have these players and I’m proud to have participated in their development.”