French Women Are Taking Over Soccer

“We have everything to prove,” Brigitte Henriques, the secretary-general of the French Football Federation (F.F.F.), said recently of France’s quest at the World Cup in Canada. They even have a hashtag, #objectifcanada.

This year’s favorites are a familiar bunch: the United States; Japan, the defending champions; Germany; teams from Scandinavia; and perhaps Brazil—nations that traditionally prize women’s soccer, or at least have solid track records at international competitions. France has historically not been a part of this group, but after a fourth-place finish in the 2011 World Cup, Les Bleues, as the national side is called, entered the tournament ranked No. 3 in FIFA’s global standings. They won their opening match on Tuesday, beating England 1-0.

Women’s soccer has been played in France for the better part of a century, but the sport was long stigmatized as being too masculine for women or girls. Such ideas date back to the sport’s nineteenth-century origins: it was a more violent game then, and was believed to be suited to forming strong men—future leaders of the republic—rather than developing overly muscled, unfeminine women. These attitudes cast a long shadow. Frenchwomen played soccer (in small numbers) and established a national-championship league, in 1919. Yet the sport remained a masculine domain, and this early effort faded by the nineteen-thirties.

The cultural changes that shook France during the sixties—the blurring of class distinctions and loosening of traditional gender norms; the youth protests of May, 1968, which nearly unseated President Charles de Gaulle—included a new outlook toward women’s sports. In the seventies, the F.F.F. reinstated women’s soccer—Les Bleues played their first official international match, a 4-0 win over the Netherlands, in 1971—but the game continued to combat long-held notions of who should, and should not, get to play. While the United States instituted its Title IX rules around this time to legally insure equal opportunity for male and female athletes, there was no such legislation in France, and the country took longer to invest in its women’s game. Without institutional and financial support, the women’s national team lagged far behind its counterparts in other countries. Les Bleues didn’t qualify for a major international tournament until the 1997 European Championship, and they didn’t reach the World Cup until 2003 (when they were eliminated in the group stage).

Years of lacklustre performances did not help the women’s team’s reputation at home, but national-team service did give a generation of young women players the opportunity to see how their sport was played and received in other countries. Henriques (then Brigitte Olive) played for France from 1988 through 1997 and travelled to the United States with the team. “It was always a dream for me to go there,” she said, because soccer was one of the top sports for girls. She recalled watching young American girls kicking around balls at stadiums before matches. “It is great to see that today in [France], it is the same.”

So, what changed?

The success of the men’s national team in the late nineties renewed popular interest in soccer; in particular, the team’s World Cup win in 1998 led to a spike in participation among French girls. The same year, the F.F.F. created a training center for young women at Clairefontaine, the federation’s national soccer center, where the best players could practice together. It helped to raise the athletic bar, and professional clubs with women’s teams, such as Olympic Lyonnais and Montpellier, subsequently founded youth academies for their young female players.

Noël Le Graët, who has been the F.F.F. president since 2011, has also offered support to the women’s game. After his election, he appointed female executives, including Henriques, to key posts throughout the federation. Under his administration, greater funding and resources have been devoted to the national team and to developing the women’s game at all levels, from the youth clubs to professional leagues. Henriques and the F.F.F. launched several campaigns to expand participation throughout the country, using phrases like “Mesdames, Franchissez La Barriere!” (“Ladies, Go Through the Barrier!”), which encourages women to join their local teams, and “Les Journées ‘rentrée du foot’” (“Return to Soccer Days”), timed for the end of summer holidays, to get girls to try the sport in the new school year.

But the major turning point for women’s soccer was the 2011 World Cup. Before that tournament, Henriques recalled, “it [wa]s like we didn’t exist. Nobody was talking about us in the media.” But the performance of Les Bleues that summer, and the increased coverage of the women’s game that came with their success, changed the situation. “When we came back in France, it was incredible,” she said. “People discovered that women’s [soccer] does exist in France and it was so surprising.”

“When our national team plays in our country, we have stadiums full, packed, of about twelve thousand to fifteen thousand spectators” Henriques said. While attendance is not as high as it is for the men’s team, which can attract as many as eighty thousand fans for marquee matches, it is a significant improvement from a decade ago, when barely thirteen hundred people turned out for women’s friendly games. “It is a big change for us for the people love our national team,” Henriques said. And while soccer fans in France have grown disenchanted with the men’s side in recent years—in a survey leading up to the 2014 World Cup, only twenty per cent of respondents said that they viewed the team positively—the women’s team remains relatively free from criticism. Today Les Bleues enjoy the highest popularity among all the women’s teams in France, according to study conducted late last year by Kantar Sport and published in the sports daily L’Équipe. Earlier this year, FIFA announced that France had been selected to host the Women’s World Cup in 2019.

The “World Cup effect” on women’s soccer has not yet faded. The F.F.F. counted 54,482 licensed female players in 2011. That number rose to 66,787, in 2013, and to 83,000, i 2015. Much of this owes to the victories of Les Bleues, increased media coverage of the team, and the opportunities that aspiring footballeuses now have to play in clubs and, for the top players, to train in one of the academies. According to Henriques, one of the most surprising trends is that, since 2011, the biggest area of growth has been among teen-age girls—a demographic that has long been difficult to retain. As the number of teen-agers playing soccer has increased, so has the level of play: in the past four years, France has won the U-17 World Cup and the U-19 UEFA European Championship.

The future is promising for women’s soccer in France. And hopes are high for this year’s World Cup. More people are watching than ever before, and the expectations for the team have never been higher. It is, Henriques said, “the moment for us to prove that our progress is not only for the friendly matches.”