Wendie Renard rose from an unconventional background to become one of the top defenders in women’s soccer. Born far away from mainland France, Renard left home and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to impress coaches and eventually become the leader of one of the top clubs in the women’s game.
Renard is the definition of a dominating defender. She is 6-foot-2 and uses every bit of that frame to snuff out opposing crosses in her own penalty area, and to score goals off set pieces and crosses in the attacking end. She has justifiably drawn comparisons to Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, arguably the best defender in the men’s game.
Renard scored four goals in the World Cup last summer, more than any other defender in the tournament and tied for fourth overall. She is just as much of a back-line goal scorer at French giants Olympique Lyonnais, where she scored 13 goals in 21 games during the 2019-20 campaign.
Renard is Lyon’s captain, but she didn’t come to that role in any sort of conventional way. She was born on the island of Martinique, an overseas department of France, and traveled to the mainland at the age of 16. She left behind her family and friends and traveled to a place she had never been, not knowing anyone in her new home. She landed a tryout with the French National Team and that was something a player from the Caribbean could never pass up.
“When you grow up in Martinique, you're not followed as closely and regularly as a young player here, so when you get a chance at a tryout, you have to prove yourself four times more,” she told ESPN before last summer’s World Cup. “I had only one thing in my mind: success. You don't think about the dangers or what would happen if you fail.”
That particular tryout did not go well, but Renard did stand out to one person: Lyon coach Farid Benstiti. He saw the potential in her game and was proven right when she made her debut in 2006, becoming a regular a year later, and leading the team to six Champions League titles and the Division 1 Feminine title in every one of her 14 seasons.
Renard still faced challenges even after she was established as a first team player. Her national origin and height were often a sources of discrimination and ridicule.
“During those early days in Lyon, I didn't understand why people made fun of me,” Renard’ said. “A basketball player [also from the French Caribbean] told me, ‘They're making fun of our accent.’ And everyone around me was shorter -- just like now -- and there were a lot of comments about it: How am I going to guard her?’ Or ‘I don't want to be next to her, she's too big’. When you're young, you don't understand how this can hurt.”
Mental toughness got Renard through those early days in mainland France. Without it, she never would have risen to be France’s captain and a leader of one of the most successful clubs in Europe.
“Every year, I had to work twice as hard to show that I belonged here,” Renard said. “Every year, the coach would recruit other players at my position, but the more competition I had, the more I wanted to prove I should be playing.”