With the Paris 2024 Paralympics on the horizon, many football 5-a-side fans will be wondering if and how France can return to the podium at Tokyo 2020.The team reached their peak at London 2012, grabbing silver, but did not qualify for Rio 2016.
By the time of the 2018 World Championships in Madrid, Spain, the French had hit rock bottom and finished second from last despite having some of the best players in the world. It was a crushing blow that France needed, according to Performance Director Charly Simo, who was installed a few months before the competition to rebuild the system from the ground up.
Just a year later, France began their fight back, finishing second at the European Championships in Rome, Italy. Frederic Villeroux – who has been compared to Lionel Messi because of his scintillating goal-scoring average – was named Player of the Tournament.
“The ‘team building’ was a decisive step,” Simo said, noting that his players were “emotionally decimated, no longer wanted to fight and no longer looked in the same direction” in 2018.
“We finished 15th out of 16 in Madrid at the World Cup. But for the staff and me, it was an important step in the construction of the new project because it allowed the players and staff to become aware of the gap that there was now between us and the best nations.”
An Orchestra Conductor
In a relatively short period of time Simo, his players and staff turned their team’s fortunes around to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
“The key to success in 2019 in Rome was the construction of a collective project linked to horizontal management based on trust, with the human being at the centre of the project,” Simo said.
“Each person in his place and each important in his field of competence while favouring the balance of the group.”Villeroux agrees:
“This  is the culmination of the work done during the year and the mobilisation of the staff and players. We had two objectives to achieve: a place on the European podium and qualification for the Paralympics. Being in the pool of death, we were forced to achieve a final in each match.
“The victory against defending champions Russia galvanised and gave us confidence individually and collectively. We were at the desired level.”
In short, the star was "the band", according to Simo. That is: “Orchestral work, with pianists, violinists, double bass, guitarists…”So does that make Simo the conductor?
As he notes, France have rarely had a more successful campaign than they did in Rome - Thirteen goals came from five different players.
“What is certain is that the state of mind has not changed. Humility, work, surpassing oneself are still there. The group is united, we will continue to give everything together, the rest does not belong to us.
“As Gerard Houlier said: ‘only in the dictionary does the word success come before work.’ We are confident, we are working and success will surely be at the end.”
French Football Revolution
It is not only on the pitch that France have revolutionised their approach. The whole system has been rewritten with success at Los Angeles 2028 in mind. Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 will be just the start, according to Simo.
Their blind football academies have been improved, national Championships restructured and blind football will be introduced and played in secondary schools. Also crucial to the plan is the development of the ‘France Espoir team’ two years ago.
Espoir means ‘hope’ and Simo wants this group of players to be ready to strengthen the national team after Tokyo 2020. “These different devices will quickly allow us to have a solid and durable elite over time,” Simo said.But what about the next few months? Tokyo 2020 is less than 100 days away.
“We go there to be on the podium,” Simo said. “The colour of the medal, God only knows, we hope for the most beautiful. After that it's still sport, we prepare ourselves, as the others do too - that's the very charm of sport.”
From there France will try and win their first World Championships medal at next edition being held as part of the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) World Games in Birmingham, Great Britain, in 2023.
“The harvest will be good in the future,” he said. “There is no doubt that the results will follow as well on the continental, World Championship, as in the [Paralympic] Games.”