PARIS — France deserves every bit of the hype it got before the World Cup.
It wasn’t merely the way it dominated South Korea in a 4-0 victory that was, frankly, even more lopsided than the score indicated. It was the confidence and joy with which Les Bleues played Friday night, showing no indication they will be weighed down or intimidated by the considerable expectations on them. Players danced after goals, smiled often and seemed to draw energy from the boisterous crowd at sold-out Parc des Princes.
“We knew it was going to be a very emotional evening but think we managed it well,” said Wendie Renard, named player of the match after scoring two goals. “When you have more than 45,000 people singing the French national anthem, obviously it does drive you forward. But I think we started the game really well and made the most out of the crowd support.”
There is little question that France has the talent to win a World Cup. Amandine Henry is mesmerizing, as she showed with her wondrous goal in the 85th minute. Slicing through the defense, she took a low shot that lifted as it got closer to the goal, floating past the outstretched hands of the South Korean goalkeeper and into the upper corner of the net.
Eugenie LeSommer can hurt teams in so many ways, giving France the only goal it needed when she one-timed in a pass from Henry in the ninth minute, the earliest goal scored in a World Cup opener.
And Renard — there won’t be many teams with an answer for the 6-foot-2 veteran, who is opportunistic on set pieces. Both of her goals were scored on headers.
But France has never won a major title, its best finishes appearances in the semifinals at both the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics. No country has ever held both the men’s and women’s World Cup titles, as France has the chance to do. And, as host of this month-long tournament, trying to manage the expectations of giddy fans brings added pressure for Les Bleues.
Imagine being a young soccer player in France in 1998, and watching the euphoria that swept the country as the men won their first World Cup title in a tournament they hosted. Now imagine you have the chance to do the very same thing, and just try and keep those emotions in check.
“I refused all emotion tonight,” coach Corinne Diacre said.
Not everyone else could, however. You didn’t need to be French to get chills listening to the crowd belt out “La Marseillaise,” and some of the players appeared to have tears in their eyes when the anthem finished.
France's Amandine Henry (left) reacts after scoring a goal during the opening match between France and South Korea. (Photo: IAN LANGSDON, EPA-EFE)
But there is a fine line between being overwhelmed by emotion and being motivated by it, just as there is a fine line between being a contender and a champion, and France has shown it can be the latter in both cases.
If there were flaws in its game, they weren’t revealed Friday night. Even an extended video review in the 27th minute, which eventually determined Griedge Mbock Bathy was offside, nullifying a goal, couldn’t fluster the French.
Eight minutes after the goal was disallowed, Renard scored off a corner kick. She added her second goal with the last touch in the half.
“It really feels good on a personal level, but above all as a team because these were important goals. It allowed us to go into the break with a three-goal lead,” said Renard, who had not scored in a World Cup before. “That was important in terms of our confidence.”
Teams with so large a lead will often relax, but not France. It finished with a 21-4 advantage on shots attempted, and South Korea never really tested French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi.
Complimentary as the French were to South Korea, these were not equal opponents. The next game against Norway will provide a much stiffer test, as will games later in the tournament.
Should France win Group A and the defending champion United States win Group F, they would likely meet in the quarterfinals.
"This is just one step on the road, and there are six more steps to take if we are to go all the way," Diacre said. "We are playing well at the moment, but we need to keep our feet on the ground and keep working."
That is true. But France is the real deal, and that's going to make for an exciting next few weeks.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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