A UEFA Women's Champions League record holder, Wendie Renard has become an institution with Lyon. Champions Journal caught up with the seven-time winner.
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Lyon's UEFA Women's Champions League specialist Wendie Renard secured her seventh winner's medal from the competition back in August. As she prepares to defend that crown, Champions Journal profiles her rise and some of the key relationships central to her success.
Wendie Renard flew across the world aged 16 to pursue her dream of becoming a professional footballer. If leaving her family behind in Martinique was tough, a harder blow came when she failed to make the cut at trials at Clairefontaine, France’s training centre.
Lyon gave her a second shot and the rest is history. Fourteen years on and Renard is now an OL institution and an inspiration. She holds the record for most games played in the Women’s Champions League – 88 and counting – and in August won the title for a record seventh time, passing the men’s mark of six set by Paco Gento during Real Madrid’s heyday in the Fifties.
She is unmissable on the pitch, a towering 1.90m tall and an intimidating presence at centre-back. But her matchday persona masks a very different character away from the game – warm, compassionate and fun, a reflection of the country she moved from as a kid, but never left behind.
What was your younger self like as a kid in Martinique?
She had tremendous energy. I was very athletic when I was young. I needed to be busy all the time; I was almost a hyperactive child. At home, I always had a ball. It was the same in the school playground, we played all the time. That was it.
My mother used to play handball, and my aunts and uncles. I played handball for a while but I even used that ball to play football. My cousins and neighbours, a whole bunch of friends, we used to meet after school and play.
Tell us about first moving to France…
When I joined the academy – the equivalent of Clairefontaine – in Martinique, with all the good young players, we used to work a lot, including weekends. We had a good infrastructure with the necessary financial resources, but I knew I had to make the next step, which was mainland France.
I used to have long conversations with the CTR [regional technical adviser] Jocelyn Germé. He told me that at the end of the season he would check the option of sending me to Clairefontaine for a trial. He got me that chance.
At first, when I arrived, I trained without gloves, in only a T-shirt, and I had to get used to sweatshirts and gloves in the Clairefontaine woods. It’s not easy – your body needs time to adapt – but I arrived on a weekend and on Monday I was already on the pitch. But I’m not resentful at all [that the trial wasn’t successful]. They didn’t know me. It was my chance, but that wasn’t my destiny.
Do you keep in touch with Jocelyn?
Of course. You never forget the people that take care of you. When I play, he always sends me a message. He’s like a family member now. I became who I am because of him. He believed in me. After what happened in Clairefontaine, he could have said: "That’s it, Wendie. I did what I could, you weren’t able to make it happen. Now you have to go back home to Martinique." But he fought for me. One of his friends worked in Lyon. That friend is still my adviser today. In Martinique we used to say that one hand washes the other. He helped me a lot at that time and I’ll be grateful for that my whole life.
There has been so much change during the span of your career.
It’s nice to see our progression because, for instance, in Lyon, we started from nothing as well. In 2004, when the president [Jean-Michel Aulas] decided on the merger with FC Lyon, our structure was completely different. There’s been remarkable progress.
I was lucky enough to have experienced both. It allows me to be who I am today: a hardworking player, someone who is humble and especially grateful. Today it’s changing and it’s a good thing, but young girls have to be aware that they have a duty towards the next generations. It’s like a chain from one generation to another: you try to get more, you try to improve things. You have to try to get even more than what you’ve already achieved, in a positive way, in order to develop football, because it still lags behind other sports, and especially compared to men’s football.
On that note, what do you think of the changes to the format of the Women’s Champions League? There will be a group stage from next season, just like the men’s competition.
It’s really good. It’s like the final tournament we had [in Spain in August]; the standard of the teams is more or less the same and it opens the doors to everyone to a greater extent.
In terms of excitement, I think it changes things because you know that you’re close to the highest level. There are English and Spanish teams involved and you know you’ll have good-quality playing surfaces and top-drawer facilities. It’s cool and we can’t wait to be involved. It also opens the door for other clubs, because a third-place finish in the French league is now enough to qualify. That’s the same in other countries too. It’s good because it’ll give everyone that experience. It will only bring positives on an individual level, and for the clubs and national teams too.
What are your first Champions League memories?
There’s Zizou [Zinédine Zidane], a French idol and pure class. He was elegant and made football look so easy. My dream player since I was a kid is Ronaldinho. Brazil and my home islands aren’t so far apart, and music also runs through our veins. When he was on the pitch I could feel this joy of playing, while respecting the opponent and the game. To me, Ronnie will always be Ronnie.
As a player my memories of the European Cup go back to Macedonia, in the first qualifying round of 2007/08. We had a very good side, we got along very well too under Farid Benstiti. I remember we played hide-and-seek in the hotel. Some of us even hid on the hotel roof. A wedding was taking place in the hotel and the forfeit was to give a kiss to the bride and groom. I don’t remember who had to do it! It was good fun. We would meet and play in the corridors. After winning our three games we went to the hotel pool, where music was playing. We just relished the moment since it was the first time the club had got through to the next round. They’re good memories.
Back then you can’t have imagined what you have gone on to achieve so far: most games played in the competition and seven titles, more even than Real Madrid legend Paco Gento.
To be honest, life goes on. I mean it. Growing up, I had this objective of winning titles, but more importantly of succeeding in mainland France. I’m enjoying the moment but I know I need to keep being self-demanding, as it can all vanish if I make a mistake. I’m aware of my development but I achieved that within a team and with fully committed people. We did this together and it’s not over yet. I’ll keep writing history.
You have won seven Champions League titles, and kicked it all off with scoring in the very first triumph the 2-0 win against Potsdam 2-0 in 2011…
Some players leave the club after winning a title; for some, it’s their first Champions League and they’re absolutely buzzing. But the first one will always remain etched in my memory. We had a tough time winning it. The year before, despite being 2-0 up in the penalty shoot-out against Potsdam, we lost the final. A year later, in 2011, we got the opportunity to play against the same team. I can still remember the pre-match photo in Fulham. It really looked like we were going to war. Our faces were expressionless; there was no room for any smiles, nothing. My mother had travelled to be in the stands and I scored the first goal. It was a perfect night. At the end of the game, the outburst of joy was amazing.
There are so many moments we’ve shared. Even the most recent one, with Lucy [Bronze], Alex [Morgan] and then Shanice [van de Sanden] leaving us, there are so many things. Those are really strong bonds that’ll remain etched in my memory for the rest of my life. That said, a season is never easy. There are highs and lows but that’s how you move forward. That’s how you challenge yourself even more, and it’s also how you go chasing after titles.
Eugénie Le Sommer and Sarah Bouhaddi have been with you from the beginning. Are they like sisters more than team-mates?
We played with the former generation, the more experienced players. They yelled at us in the beginning! They yelled at us to make us learn and realise things. I’m happy we’ve managed to take over and follow in their footsteps.
Sonia [Bompastor] told me the other day: "When you think how tough it was to win a Champions League, and today you’ve got seven of them, it’s crazy." And I said: "Oh yes, do you remember how tough it was? We worked so hard for that and we still are." That’s how it was, and it was beautiful.
It’s true that I’ve shared a lot of emotions and joyful moments with Eugénie and Sarah. We had tougher moments as well, don’t get me wrong, but we always managed to remain professional. And when you share all this you create bonds; that comes naturally. Both on a personal and sporting level, you can definitely count on them. You can trust they will perform well on the pitch. They’ve proved us right because years have gone by and today all three of us hold the record of most Champions League wins. It’s just beautiful.
This is an edited version of an interview with Wendie Renard that features in issue five of Champions Journal. Read the full interview or purchase a printed copy of the magazine at champions-journal.com.
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