[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT] In only its second appearance at the Women's World Cup, France has been the surprise of the tournament. Its 4-0 defeat of Canada was one of the most convincing performances in group play, and it earned a deserving victory over England in a shootout in the quarterfinals after enjoying a huge edge in play. The Bleues' emergence as a world power reflects the slow but steady progress they have achieved in gaining acceptance for the women's game in France. Here's an inside look at the five keys to the rise of women's soccer in France, the USA's semifinal opponent ...
1. EXCEPTIONAL GENERATION. Coach Bruno Bini has benefited from the emergence of an exceptional generation of talented players.
After the USA and Germany, no team in the tournament is deeper than France, which was able to bring 25-year-old midfielder Elodie Thomis, perhaps the fastest player in the Women's World Cup, off the bench against England.
Camille Abily and Sonia Bompastor weren't household names when they arrived from Lyon to play in WPS in 2009, but they were two of the best players during their two seasons in U.S. women's league.
Marie-Laure Delie is one of the hottest strikers in women's soccer. Although she missed a boat load of chances against England, Delie has scored 26 goals in her first 23 matches for France.
Louisa Necib may be the best playmaker in the Women's World Cup.
2. STRONG FEDERATION SUPPORT. More so than in many other European countries, French women's soccer has benefited from strong support from its soccer federation (FFF), in particular from Aime Jacquet, who coached France to the 1998 World Cup title and was later the French technical director.
Abily, Bompastor and former Boston College star Laura Georges were all part of the first class of U-16 players to enter the FFF's girls academy program at Clairefontaine, the famed national training center, in 2000-01.
The number of registered girls players has doubled in the last decade to almost 90,000.
3. EXPERIENCED NATIONAL TEAM COACH. Bini worked as a coach in the FFF's girls national team program for almost 15 years, so he had a wealth of knowledge about what worked or didn't work with French women when he was named the women's national team coach in 2007.
His credo: emphasize skill over athleticism, so the French women have an advantage against their more athletic opponents from Scandinavia, Germany and the USA.
4. WORLD'S BEST CLUB TEAM. Most experts who saw it beat German club Turbine Potsdam in the UEFA Women's Cup final agree that French club Lyon is the best team in the world.
It has certainly set the bar high in terms of support for women's soccer, working with a $7 million annual budget and offering 18 pro contracts to its players.
The squad includes Abily, Bompastor, Thomis, Necib and Georges and six other French World Cup players but also such foreign stars as Swedish star Lotta Schelin, Norwegian Ingvild Stensland, Swiss Lara Dickenmann (formerly of Ohio State) and Costa Rican Shirley Cruz.
Lyon, winner of the last five French women's league titles, is so dominant it won all 22 games by a margin of 106-6 in 2010-11. Lyon is one of seven French pro clubs to launch a women's program. The latest is archrival Marseille.
5. GROWING SOCIETAL ACCEPTANCE. Women's soccer has benefited from growing acceptance in French society. The launch of the women's program at Marseille is a perfect example of the impact big clubs can make by getting behind the women's game, according to Bini.
"A girl might say to her father, 'Papa, I want to play soccer.' He's going to respond, 'No, it isn't a sport for girls.' But if she says, 'Papa, I want to play for OM,' he will say yes because she isn't playing soccer, she is playing for OM. Even the most macho parents can do nothing about it."
Women's soccer is gaining increasing acceptance within the French immigrant population that produced so many of the French men's stars. Necib was born to parents who were Algerian immigrants. Delie is the daughter of immigrants from Ivory Coast, defender Wendie Renard is from Martinique, and Georges and Thomis were born to parents from the French Antilles.
Necib has often been compared to Zinedine Zidane because she grew up in the streets of a poor section of Marseille playing with boys. Her parents preferred that she continue with gymnastics -- viewed as a girls sport -- but they finally accepted that soccer was her passion and gave the OK for her to stop gymnastics at the age of 14 and sign with her first soccer club.
Necib moved to Clairefontaine in 2004 and later signed with Lyon. Farouk, her father, told Le Monde: "She is able to make a difference with small things, like Zidane. When there is nothing on, they see the ball. Her technique is a gift from God."