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Wendie Renard is determined to lead France to a first major trophy at the Women’s World Cup

CLAIREFONTAINE, France (AP) – Wendie Renard grew up in a place so remote that locals nicknamed it “The End of the World.”

By the end of the Women’s World Cup, the France captain hopes she’ll be raising aloft the major international trophy that has eluded the women’s national team.

The imposing central defender’s journey starts with a 17,000-kilometre trek to Australia, where France opens its campaign in Sydney on July 23 against Jamaica.

France’s men have won two World Cups and two European Championships — and reached three other major finals — but Les Bleues are underachievers. The women’s team lost its only World Cup semi-final 12 years ago to the United States.

“We have a lot of quality, but our honours list is blank,” Renard told The Associated Press in an interview at the team’s Clairefontaine training camp outside Paris. “There’s a long, long way to go. But the tougher it is, the better it is at the end.”

Despite boasting a team packed with players from ultra-successful French club side Lyon – the starting line-up for France’s opener at the 2019 World Cup had seven Lyon players – France has also only reached one European Championship semi-final, losing last year to Germany.

“Quite a lot of us have experience at the highest level and we need to use it,” Renard said. “The hardest thing is saying, ‘I should have done this, I have should have done that.’ By then it’s already too late.”

The tournament, co-hosted by New Zealand, kicks off on July 20, which is also when Renard turns 33.

She has played 144 internationals and scored 34 goals for France. With Lyon, Renard has won a record 16 league titles and a record eight Champions League trophies.

She’s long been considered one of the best players in women’s soccer, yet there’s a giant gap in Renard’s international résumé.

Renard has a chance to put that right, which back in February didn’t look like being the case.

Renard said she wouldn’t play at the World Cup after saying she no longer felt able to play for France. That decision came after years of tensions between then-coach Corinne Diacre and senior players, including Renard.

Striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto and forward Kadidiatou Diani also put their international careers on hold until significant changes were made.

Two weeks later Diacre was fired and Hervé Renard was hired. He won the African Cup of Nations as coach of Zambia and Ivory Coast, and guided Saudi Arabia to an upset win over Argentina at the men’s World Cup last year.

He immediately eased tensions.

Renard overturned her decision and 33-year-old midfielder Amandine Henry — who had not played for France for three years under Diacre — was recalled.

“He has an open-mindedness and he doesn’t judge you. There’s a level of trust. He says things up front, which is very important. It’s honest and to your face,” Renard said about her new coach. “He said from the first day that his door is always open, that he wants our feedback: what we thought about the training session, if there’s anything we could have done more of. He says that we have a project in common.”

Renard, therefore, is among the designated leaders that other players can always approach. The others are striker Eugénie Le Sommer, Henry, Diani and midfielder Grace Geyoro.

When she put her international career on hold, Renard mentioned the need to protect her mental health, which is a priority subject under the new regime.

“The coach spoke about it with us. You have to help each teammate, you can’t leave anyone on the side,” Renard said. “If she’s coming into the dressing room in the morning, I know if she’s feeling well or not, if anything’s weighing on her mind.”

Renard hopes a strong World Cup performance will boost the women’s league back home. Interest waned after France hosted the 2019 edition.

“There was great exposure, there was a huge media impact. But we didn’t manage to surf that wave and we stagnated, or even regressed, whereas other nations made the most of it and structured their leagues,” she said. “We hope we can get the momentum back, all that we lost.”

She points out how the women’s game in England is reaping the results of a continual investment. In May, a record crowd of 77,390 watched Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 in the Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley.

“They created a momentum there in a progressive way, with decisions that were already taken years ago. For the league, for TV rights, lots of things were done,” Renard said. “When we see how full the stadiums are at Wembley, we say to ourselves ‘Why not us?’ Because when our games are on TV, we generally have good ratings, but when it’s (at the stadium) we need to attract more people.”

Renard has played her entire club career in France, yet has been brushing up on her English for the World Cup.

“I’m shy and I’ve never dared speak it in front of the cameras. I’m good in front of my teacher, but she often tells me off and says to me, ‘You’re ready, you can speak English,'” Renard explained. “I feel like I don’t have enough command yet to express myself properly. But if the opportunity comes I’ll make the effort.”

Effort is something Renard learned early, growing up in Le Prêcheur (The Preacher) on the northern coast of Martinique, some 8,000 kilometres from France.

Le Prêcheur was so far away from anywhere else in Martinique that it became known as The End of the World.

It’s where she honed her skills for hours every day as a young girl; beginning a journey that took her to France as a determined teenager.

It could culminate with a victory lap in Sydney on August 20.

Chelsea’s Sam Kerr (left) and Lyon’s Wendie Renard battle for the ball during the Women’s Champions League quarterfinal second leg match at Stamford Bridge, London, on March 30. PHOTO: AP