There’s always a major risk for any coach to bench a star player in team sports. We have just come off an NBA Finals in which David Blatt couldn’t dare breathe the wrong way at LeBron James, let along contemplate benching him for too long. Heck, he almost lost his job for not calling a final shot for LeBron (he still may). Taking it to the game of soccer, we already endured the Luis Enrique-Lionel Messi “benching” saga. And that came only due to the fact that Enrique wanted to give Messi (and Neymar) extended days off.
Benching any star player on a team during crucial parts of a season or competition is almost asking to be removed from your job. It’s a risky, or sometimes idiotic, decision that is more uncommon in women’s soccer. It’s why France head coach Philippe Bergeroo’s decision to drop Louisa Nécib after his team’s debacle of a loss to Colombia was so noteworthy and could be a defining move for not only France but the entire Women’s World Cup. A win in the greatest quarterfinal ever against rivals Germany would certainly go a major way to enhancing the gutsy decision.
To put into proper context how massive that decision was by Bergeroo, let’s further explain how Necib isn’t any ordinary “star” player.
Whenever any soccer player is compared to Zinedine Zidane, an absurd “WTF” level of expectations is placed on that unfortunate soul. Whenever that player is a French women’s soccer player with similar Algerian bloodlines as the World Cup winning legend, well, it’s about as unfair as trying to find the successful male model version of Heidi Klum.
For Nécib, that lazy comparison bestowed on her by some in the women’s game has been both an honor and curse. Since arriving on the global scene at the last World Cup, the 28-year-old has been constantly fed to both passionate and casual followers of the women’s game as the female Zidane. And every single time that happens, that description sets new and old viewers of hers to be disappointed (or further disappointed) at Nécib not living to that billing.
This is certainly not to say that Nécib has no elite talent whatsoever. Her first touch and passing are of the highest order, a true panache of a soccer player blessed with the potential to deliver exquisite free kicks, final ball cutting edge passes and beat any player off the dribble.
But there are two main problems with the Zidane comparison for the Lyon standout: First, Nécib doesn’t play in the middle, behind the striker like Zidane did (she prefers to line up wide). Second, and most importantly, she doesn’t produce dynamic, defining moves against top opposition like the Real Madrid legend did. Nécib is more an immaculate build up player than a prime playmaker or finisher, which is so unfortunate, considering her ability.
It’s why frustration is what you feel when you see her play. That was evident in France’s first two performances in Canada. You could give her a pass for her team’s opening match in Moncton due to the windy and horrible conditions against a passive England, where a moment of individual brilliance by Eugénie Le Sommer was the only offense in that dreary match. But her play, and more egregiously, her behavior versus Colombia was the best paradigm of how overrated she is. Nécib never came close to getting into goal scoring or final ball passing positions against a good but still developing South American side. Frustrated by her lack of impact, Nécib’s volatile temper exploded when she threw the ball at teammate Jessica Houara on a throw in. Bergeroo had no choice but to sub her off a bit later.
Bergeroo could have easily brushed aside that one moment of madness from Nécib, but he did not want to take that chance. His side needed something to reenergize themselves from avoiding an embarrassing flop of an early exit, and the 61-year-old manager did just that ahead of his team’s final group game vs Mexico. A knee injury was cited as the main reason Nécib did not play, but in truth, it seemed like the mental injury of being a growing disruption that prevented her from seeing the field. The inclusion of skillful speed merchants Élodie Thomis and Maria-Laure Delie in the lineup produced a major transformation for France’s offense, crushing a disappointing Mexican side, 5-0. The directness that Thomis’ great pace brings on the right side for France was a wonderful contrast to Necib’s side passing and one touch flicks of nothing.
Humbled by being benched in such an important game, a more mellowed Nécib was fortunate to return to Bergeroo’s first XI against South Korea. But even with being back in the starting lineup, Nécib’s performance against the AFC side was the perfect example of how she isn’t France’s best or most important player. She factored in none of the three goals Les Bleues scored in their dominating Round of 16 win. Nécib was off on the periphery as the front three of Thomis, Delie and Le Sommer, along with the real playmaking unlocker of the French side in Camille Abily, reminded people why they could easily win this tournament, just like their quarterfinal opponents Germany can.
Those four players were constantly inside and outside the Korea box. Nécib stayed a spectator on the outside. It was something you wouldn’t see from Zidane. It was something you would see, however, from a Yoann Gourcuff. Gourcuff, another fine talent who has for years left fans wanting much more from him, is the proper male French player to compare Nécib to, not the three time World Player of the Year.
And there in lies the conundrum that Nécib faces. She will continue to stare into that unfair comparison placed on her until people, who should know better, stop uttering such nonsense. At 28 now, time is running out on her making that game changing, match winning impact against the elite that some wrongly assume she already has. But Bergeroo has showcased that any type of extraordinary performance from Necib versus Germany, or in any future game of massive importance, is a bonus, not a necessity for France.
Bergeroo’s benching of Nécib was a risk worth taking, and it could propel the French women to being world champions ahead of hosing the tournament in 2019. At the very least, it shows that a team won’t be held hostage by a player, a player in who’s been held hostage by a burdensome label.