Monday 13 March 2017, 05:02

Echouafni serving up surprises with France

France's women's team have rarely treated their fans to the scenes of jubilation that followed their surprise victory against USA on Tuesday. Not only did Les Bleues stun the world champions, their 3-0 success also brought them an unexpected triumph in the SheBelieves Cup. It was a remarkable result for their supporters to enjoy, not least given France's history of tournament misfortunes. The European side are still chasing a first major title despite a string of promising campaigns, but Olivier Echouafni's team defied the naysayers with three superb displays to win a competition featuring four of the top five nations in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

"For me, there were two big things to take away from this tournament success," the France coach told "On the one hand, there was the performance aspect, the fact that we beat England , held the Olympic champions Germany and defeated three-time world champions USA on their own soil. That gives us something excellent to work on. After that, there was the humility aspect, because we won nothing aside from what we gained in confidence. It was just a friendly tournament, which will help us in our preparations for the coming challenges. It allowed me to observe the squad's state of mind, and see how the players react over a given period of time broken up by three big matches."

Although France supporters have grown used to disappointment in recent years, the last few months have brought them a series of surprises – and the SheBelieves Cup win was only the latest. Just as unforeseen was Echouafni's appointment last September, when Les Bleues were looking to replace Philippe Bergeroo in the wake of France's early exit from the Women's Olympic Football Tournament at Rio 2016. He came into the job with a management CV limited to short spells with third-tier Amiens and Sochaux in Ligue 2, but the former Marseille and Nice midfielder has wrong-footed everyone with a collection of eye-catching results.

"The record so far is positive in terms of work, commitment and hunger," he explained, with his team yet to suffer a defeat after seven months at the helm. "The idea was to get over the Olympics and begin a new cycle. That's what we've been putting in place since January. My first two squad get-togethers were a little tricky. When I took over, I could feel that the girls were tired both physically and mentally. They were really affected by having failed in Rio. Although the desire to do well was there, things weren't working. But if you want to do well on matchdays, you have to work beforehand. That's what we've been doing, with humility."

Work and humility Hard work and humility are terms that Echouafni returns to often, as if they hold the key to France's past tournament woes. Les Bleues have frequently kicked off as favourites only to fall by the wayside, but the French Football Federation (FFF) can expect both qualities in abundance from their modest and diligent new coach. "I've always had a link with women's football," he said. "Most notably I was the patron of the women's section at Nice, and I have to say that I get a lot of pleasure from my new role. I like everything. I feel as if I've been here a long time and yet it's only been seven months. It's like a breath of fresh air to work with this squad. They're rigorous, disciplined and they listen. They want to improve."

There would be no better way to show proof of progress than by winning a maiden title at this year's UEFA European EURO, which takes place in the Netherlands between 16 July and 6 August. "Being humble doesn't mean you can't be ambitious," added Echouafni. "We have the quality to beat any team, which we showed by winning the SheBelieves Cup. A lot of people were waiting to watch us and see how good this France team is. We sent a message: 'Here's how good we are. We're preparing ourselves and we want to do well.' We still have some time before that championship, and the club season is far from over. Injuries or other setbacks could upset our plans, so we'll see where we stand later."

Further down the road, France also face the challenge of competing for the next FIFA Women's World Cup™ as hosts. "Let's take one step at a time. I think some of the players have that in the back of their minds, but it's important not to lose sight of our objective. We're not rushing things. Let's go into this European Championship with a lot of motivation and desire, and without pressure too, because France have never got past the quarter-finals at a European Championship. That's our first target." All very sensible, of course, but who would bet against Echouafni and his players delivering yet another surprise?