MILAN – Frances national training center in Clairefontaine, set in the rural Chevreuse valley (50 kilometers to the south of Paris), is seen as the key touchstone for development in European soccer. Since it opened in in 1988, Les Bleus have gone on to win an unprecedented haul of trophies at every level of the game, from the 1998 World Cup to the Under-17 version in 2001. Now Les Bleues - the female sector - are aiming to follow suit heading into the Womens World Cup in Germany. Clairefontaine has been crucial in the development of womens soccer in France, even if the national team made its debut way back in 1920. The first international match involving the French womens national team recognized by FIFA, however, wasnt until 1971.
Only after the appointment in 1997 of the sides first-ever female coach, former France international Elisabeth Loisel, did genuine strides of progress begin to be made. Aime Jacquet, head coach of the mens side that lifted the 1998 World Cup, successfully campaigned to incorporate Loisels squad into the Clairefontaine fold. A first World Cup qualification followed in 2003 (after a two-legged playoff win over England), with the quarterfinal appearance at 2009s European Championship serving as another high watermark. With Sundays opener against Nigeria at Sinsheim's Rhein-Neckar Arena - the home of TSG Hoffenheim on the horizon, France seems ready for the next step up in its development. The womens game is currently riding the crest of a wave, with Olympique Lyonnais having become the first French winner of the Womens Champions League last month, beating German giant Turbine Potsdam in the London final. Ten of the Lyon side that won the Champions League is included in the 21-strong squad selected for Germany by coach Bruno Bini. Lyons rise is largely due to a considerable investment of both time and money from club president Jean-Michel Aulas. The Champions League win was the culmination of years of plotting and planning, with a fifth successive national title already in the bag by the time OL arrived at Craven Cottage. Camille Abily and captain Sonia Bompastor were both brought back to the club by Aulas after acrimonious departures to the United States and have continued to flourish. Abily was voted Player of the Match for her contribution in the Champions League final. Lyon finished the season unbeaten in the league, a rhythm of success that bodes well for France. If anything, the surprise was that more Lyon players werent included in the final squad. Both Sarah Bouhaddi one of the best goalkeepers in the women's game - and midfield sentinel Amandine Henry were highly controversial omissions, cut from the preliminary squad named earlier in May.
Ive not taken the 21 best players in France," said Bini at the squad's announcement. "Ive selected the 21 players who I think will form the best group to take us as far as possible in the competition. "Its a question of complementarity. Any selection quibbles will soon be forgotten if the promising form of last weeks two warm-up matches against Belgium is continued. France followed up last Wednesdays 2-1 win in Nieuwpoort with a 7-0 thumping of the Red Devils in Calais on Saturday night. Marie-Laure Delie made hay in these encounters, hitting both goals in the first game and a hat-trick in the second. Regardless of how it may look on paper, the 4-3-2-1 system set up by Bini against Belgium is a staunchly attacking one, allowing Montpelliers French league top scorer Gaetane Thiney and the exquisitely talented Louisa Necib license to attack infield, as well as on the flanks, behind Delie. The one piece of bad news for Bini was the knee injury to Corinne Franco - who the coach admits the side have badly missed in her absence - which forced the right-backs first-half substitution from a previously all-Lyon back four. It remains to be seen how severely this will affect the experienced Francos involvement in the tournament. After a second group match against Canada, the likely scenario is that France will face off with Germany for top spot in the group when it faces the host in its final group match, in Moenchengladbach on July 5th. The mischievous Bini has already been winding up the under-pressure Germans, saying the teams fans will need to look into exchanging their tickets for the hosts sold-out matches after the quarter-finals." In reality France would face a stiff test if it did indeed emerge as group winner, with a semifinal with United States likely to bar the path to the Frankfurt final on July 17th. What is certain is that France is as ready as it has ever been for the challenge ahead. France Football has this week published a ten-page special on the Womens World Cup. Its a far cry from the 2009 nude photoshoot by the France squad, with its catchphrase Faut-il en arriver l pour que vous veniez nous voir jouer? (Do we have to turn out like this for you to come and watch us play?). With expectations significantly raised in recent months, the only thing naked in 2011 is Frances ambition. Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.