The last time he coached a team at a World Cup, just eight months ago at the men’s tournament in Qatar, Hervé Renard masterminded arguably the biggest surprise in that competition’s history, when his Saudi Arabia team stunned the eventual winner, Argentina, in their opening game.
Here in rain-soaked Sydney, Renard, coaching a women’s team for the first time in a coaching career stretching more than two decades and across three continents, just about avoided the opposite fate on Sunday. His France team, which arrived in Australia with the stated aim of reaching at least the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup, finished its tournament opener with a scoreless draw against Jamaica, a team making only its second tournament appearance after losing all three of its games four years ago.
In a poor game, France had a flurry of chances late to make up for its disjointed play. But Jamaica largely held its own, even though it was ranked almost 40 places lower than France in the pretournament standings (oddsmakers similarly considered Jamaica a 40-to-1 underdog to win).
Instead, it was Jamaica’s star striker Khadija Shaw who threatened to author one of the biggest upsets in recent tournament history, until she was given a red card in the waning minutes of the match.
With her bustling runs, Shaw, a player on big spending English team Manchester City, was difficult to counter — a wrecking ball on both sides of the field who tore into the French defense with slashing runs and who charged at her opponents repeatedly to take back the ball. It was that eagerness that led to her dismissal late as the game hurtled toward a frantic finish, with Jamaica hoping to hold on and France desperately trying to score.
France, a team stitched together by Renard after almost falling apart with infighting and mutiny just months ago, looked far less than the sum of its parts and well short of the play needed for its stated goal of reaching a semifinal.
Jamaica, which rightfully celebrated its first World Cup as if it had won, provided yet more evidence that the gap between women’s soccer’s elite teams and the rest might be narrowing.
Jamaica had for nearly the entirety of the game kept France from creating the type of chances expected of its highly rated attack. But just before the game entered stoppage time, Kadidiatou Diani, a striker on Paris Saint-Germain, leaped into the air and connected with a header that cannoned back into play after striking the goal post, with the Jamaican goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer only able to watch.
That chance was the cue for chaos that included Shaw’s red card and a late charge from France that yielded little beyond half chances and snatched shots.
Shaw’s red card, the result of two yellow cards, means she will miss Jamaica’s next game against Panama on Saturday. “To lose a player of that stature is a big loss,” said Lorne Donaldson, Jamaica’s coach. He added that Shaw’s teammates will have to step up in her absence so that Jamaica still has something to play for when it meets Brazil in its final group game.
France gets Brazil next.
“We just only started the competition today and there’s still a long way to go,” said Renard, adding that he hoped Jamaica repeated its efforts against Panama and Brazil, the other two teams in Group F.
The Women’s World Cup’s newest goal celebration is delayed gratification.
The latest player to join the club was Stefanie van der Gragt of the Netherlands, who scored her team’s only goal in a 1-0 victory against Portugal on Sunday, had it ruled out immediately for offside and then, three long minutes later, had it reinstated after a video review.
“It’s always difficult to wait,” van der Gragt said. “But it doesn’t matter: We win, and that’s what is important.”
Van der Gragt’s brief emotional roller-coaster has been echoed in other games in this tournament. Sophia Smith of the United States experienced the same wait a day earlier, when her second goal against Vietnam was initially disallowed and then returned to her after the officials took a second look.
Many times, the wait is worth it. On Friday, Georgia Stanway of England failed to score on a penalty kick against Haiti only to have another video review grant her a second attempt, which she converted. That same night, the exact same sequence played out for Riko Ueki of Japan.
In each case, as with Van der Gragt’s goal for the Netherlands on Sunday, the key player in the wait was soccer’s video assistant referee system. The system was introduced several years ago not to re-referee games, but to ensure that the officials got all the big calls correct.
While few would argue with that motivation, the system’s many detractors complain that in trying to do the right thing, V.A.R. is robbing the game of some of its spontaneity. Penalty decisions now routinely take several minutes to confirm as plays are scrutinized again and again. Goals are ruled out and then given. Sometimes that leaves players waiting, and waiting, for confirmation that something is actually worth celebrating.
Not everyone, though, minds the wait. A few minutes before Smith’s delayed-gratification goal against Vietnam, the United States had been awarded a penalty kick when the match referee, again using video review, overruled her initial decision that a foul against Trinity Rodman did not merit a trip to the penalty spot.
United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski said he would never complain about the wait to get a call correct.
“With all the cameras, with V.A.R., with all the angles that the referees are reviewing, I’m sure that they’re calling the right call,” he said.
The upside for van der Gragt on Sunday? She got to celebrate the game’s only goal twice.
The first four days of the World Cup have produced a string of curiously narrow score lines for some of the tournament favorites. A scoreless tie for Canada. A 1-0 win for England, the European champion, against the World Cup newcomer Haiti. The United States’ 3-0 victory over Vietnam.
Sunday brought the prospect of the tournament’s first true shocker. And then just like that, it was gone.
The scare came courtesy of South Africa, and striker Hildah Magaia, who bundled a rebound into Sweden’s goal three minutes into the second half to give her team a stunning 1-0 lead against Sweden, the world’s third-ranked team. The South African players could hardly believe their luck, and were soon celebrating with a dance. Their coaching staff poured off the bench and then dissolved into a series of bear hugs.
But then Sweden stormed back. Fridolina Rolfo tied score with a goal at the back post in the 65th minute, and defender Amanda Ilestedt got the winner with a header off a corner kick in the 90th.
Much was made before the World Cup of the potential gap between the eight first-time entrants and the traditional powers. The first week has shown the talent gap might not be as yawning as some think.
To a small subset of devoted soccer fans, Sophia Smith’s goal celebration during the United States’ 3-0 victory against Vietnam would have looked familiar.
After her second goal in the U.S. team’s 3-0 victory over Vietnam, Smith ran her fingers across her lips to zip them and then threw away an imaginary key. It was the same goal celebration her good friend and former Stanford teammate Katie Meyer used during a penalty shootout at the 2019 N.C.A.A. championship game. The gesture by Meyer, Stanford’s goalkeeper and team captain, quickly went viral.
When Stanford won the penalty shootout that day, Smith ran to Meyer and leaped onto her, causing them both to tumble to the ground.
Just over two years later, in March 2022, Meyer was found dead in her dorm room only a few months before graduation. She had killed herself.
“That was for Katie,” Smith said after the Vietnam game, explaining that she and another former Stanford player on the U.S. team, Naomi Girma, had planned the goal celebration in the days leading up to the World Cup. Both have dedicated this tournament to Meyer.
In Meyer’s memory, Smith and Girma also launched a mental health care initiative with the nonprofit Common Goal that included filming a public service announcement with several of their U.S. teammates. “We just want to honor her in every way,” Smith said.
Vulnerability is a sign of strength, not weakness. My teammates and I are determined to make sure everyone has the support they need.
Launching the first mental health initiative of its kind with my friends at @CommonGoalOrg.
This one’s for you Katie ❤️ pic.twitter.com/AoGLUcxeMU
— Naomi Girma (@naomi_girma) July 18, 2023
Smith said Meyer’s death “changed everything” about her life. It has helped her value her friendships more, she said, and put other issues into perspective.
“Now I don’t take things too seriously,” said Smith, who left Stanford two years early to play professionally. “I realized that there’s so many more important things happening and the little things that stress me out take a toll on me.”
France arrived in Australia as a World Cup favorite on the mend. Torn apart by bitter feuds, it has in recent months lost players, welcomed them back, and then lost them again. It has changed coaches, changed approaches and changed tactics. And now it has asked Hervé Renard, a respected 54-year-old with a decorated men’s World Cup résumé but no previous experience coaching women, to carry it at least as far as the semifinals.
He started the process, he said, by being open about what he did not know.
“For me everything was new because I didn’t know women’s football, how to manage the girls,” he said. “I was lucky because on our staff a lot of people were already working with women’s football. So I was listening.”