The banner hangs just below the central staircase of the elegant hotel, which has been taken over by the French women’s national team for the World Cup. Hervé Renard wanted to make sure no one in his squad could miss it.

The motivational words emblazoned across it are typical of the kind of positive message teams rally around before major sporting tournaments. But for this French squad, and for Renard, its well-travelled coach, the words have an extra meaning after a period that many in the team would prefer to forget.

“Only team spirit,” it reads, “can make you realize your dreams.”

Renard used the phrase for the first time when he met the French squad earlier this year, just months before the World Cup. That wasn’t long after he was chosen to replace sacked coach Corinne Diacre, but even then he knew it was a message that might resonate with a team that even its own federation concluded was “broken” irreparable.

“We lacked unity,” Renard said in an interview on a sunny terrace outside the team’s base camp last week. It may have been the biggest understatement in women’s soccer.

France arrived in Australia this month as recovered World Cup favourites. Torn by bitter feuds, it did in recent months lost players, welcomed them backand then lost them again. It changed coaches, changed approaches and changed tactics. And now it asked Renard, a respected 54-year-old with a decorated men’s World Cup resume but no previous experience coaching women, to take it at least to the semifinals.

He started the process, he said, by being open about what he didn’t 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 in our staff many people already worked with women’s football. So I listened.”

What he inherited was a talented team in disarray. Its longtime leader, Wendie Renard (who is not related to Hervé), announced that she would not play in the World Cup to preserve her mental health. Two other stars followed suit, saying they would not return unless there was a change in leadership of the team.

There were previous controversies under Diacre, the coach at the time, but nothing so serious or existential. A rebellious mood turned into open rebellion.

Faced with a crisis as the World Cup loomed, the French football federation took action, announcing after a brief investigation that Diacre had to go. The break between her and the team, the federation said, had become so significant that it had “reached a point of no return”.

Hervé Renard, enjoying a successful and lucrative stop in a migrant coaching career in Saudi Arabia, said he acted on impulse when the news broke. He contacted Jean-Michel Aulas, one of the most influential men in French soccer and member of the board of the French federation. Renard met him a decade ago, when he narrowly missed out on becoming the coach of Lyon’s men’s team. He told Aulas that he wanted to be considered for the opening.

It promised a significant change of course for his career. Renard said that until the moment he picked up his phone to text Aulas, he had only considered coaching women once before: a flight of fancy that came while watching France play in the last World Cup. His interest then, he said, lasted “maybe only a few seconds.”

But now that his interest in coaching a women’s team was reciprocated for the first time, he ran into a problem. To accept the job, he would need the permission of football officials in Saudi Arabia, where he was under contract, and he would have to accept a significant pay cut. The Saudi job, Renard explained with a smile, paid at least “20 times” what he would earn coaching France’s women.

“When you’re in Saudi Arabia, that’s not exactly the reality,” he said. “So sometimes it’s good to go to reality.”

Months later, Renard said he still can’t quite explain why he threw his hat in the ring, before looking down at the French crest on the left chest of his tracksuit. Having coached five other national teams, he said, the opportunity to lead the country of his birth was clearly a major draw. But even then some things, Renard said, cannot be explained. “I still don’t know why exactly I decided,” he said.

Renard is optimistic about his rare feat of coaching in two World Cups within a year. “The most important thing is not to participate in two World Cups in six months,” he said. “There is something to do” in them.

Of all the teams Renard has coached, his current squad is the highest ranked, at fifth in the world – a high profile it has maintained despite never getting past the semi-finals of a major tournament. Renard said that is now possible.

“We have to believe in ourselves,” he said.

He is under orders to reach the semifinals, he said, a goal he has accepted. “We can’t come here when you’re fifth in the world and say, ‘Oh, no, a quarter-final will be enough.’ No. We must have a very high challenge. So our first goal is to reach the semi-finals. Later we will talk about other things.”

Renard has had just months to repair a broken squad, to create the team spirit his banner demands and that he believes his players must win in what he considers the most competitive Women’s World Cup in history.

In his first training camp, Renard told the team that he wasn’t interested in what happened in the past. He didn’t want to litigate past games, past arguments, past grievances — all the things that made the atmosphere in the camp so toxic that stars like Wendie Renard said they’d rather not play for France at all. But he couldn’t avoid facing one final pre-tournament controversy.

Kheira Hamraoui, an experienced and talented midfielder and regular customer of the national team, was attacked in 2021 by masked men after dinner with her club, Paris Saint-Germain. The fallout had repercussions for both the club and the national team, with a former teammate on both teams, Aminata Diallo, accused of involvement in the attack, and others angered by Hamraoui’s initial claims that they or people they knew were also involved.

The bizarre episode overshadowed the national team for more than two years. Faced with reviving it in the French camp, Renard said he had decided against bringing Hamraoui to the World Cup, and told her in a face-to-face meeting why she would not be selected.

He said he told Hamraoui she would not start, and that a place on the bench would be worrying for a player of her experience. “I think for this type of player, you start in the first 11 or it’s very difficult to sit on the bench,” he said. “We can’t move forward in a competition if we don’t have an amazing team spirit.”

Renard acknowledged that not every choice he makes will be the right one. But he said he was open with his players about what he knew and what he didn’t know.

“I told the girls: ‘Maybe I’ll make some mistakes. If I say something wrong, just let me know.’ But step by step, you learn how to manage,” he said.

His players, for now, say they’re hearing the right things. “He keeps pushing us to be the best versions of ourselves,” midfielder Grace Geyoro said in a recent interview. Wendie Renard said: “As long as everyone has the same vision and willingness to pull in the same direction, then we can achieve something great.”

The World Cup is taking place with the sharpest focus on women’s soccer in the sport’s history, with teams and players using the platform to press for greater recognition and compensation for their efforts. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, has more than tripled prize money from four years ago, to $110 million. Its critics said the new figure did not go far enough, that it should be the same as the $440 million prize money awarded to men at the 2022 World Cup in 2022.

Hervé Renard acknowledged the progress that women’s football has made, especially since the last World Cup. But, perhaps controversially, he said “women still have to be a bit patient” when it comes to getting paid.

As interest continues to grow, he said, so does the revenue potential. But business reality, he said, was reflected in the different revenues of the sports, and he presented an analogy to make his point.

“If you have one restaurant with 1,000 meals a night and one with 300, it’s not the same,” he said. “At the end of the night in the register, it’s not the same amount. Soccer is the same. It’s a business.”

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