French women footballers are enjoying unprecedented interest back home. But when they face World Cup favourites USA in Wednesday's semi-final match, a lot more than the tournament will be at stake.
Women footballers in France are finally getting some attention. The national team, a youthful and tight-knit group, has squeezed through to the Women’s World Cup semi-finals, bouncing back from defeat against hosts Germany in the group stages to beat England in a heart-stopping quarter-final that ended in penalty kicks.
The performance of "Les Bleues", as they are known in France, has been followed back home with unprecedented interest, with double page spreads in the press and live televised broadcasts of the matches.
According to television ratings groups, more than 1 million people tuned in to watch Saturday’s quarter-final against England, which hit a record 3.2 million viewers when the match went to penalties.
But the footballer’s fairytale campaign, and all the new hype, could come to a sudden end if France stumble on Wednesday. On their path to glory stand the United States, now the tournament’s uncontested favourite.
Team USA, World Cup winners in 1991 and again in 1999, are also the reigning Olympic champions. French coach Bruno Bili admitted during a pre-game press conference that the task ahead of his team was monstrous.
"They are the number one nation in the FIFA rankings. They have 2.5 million club players. It's sure that it's easier to find 21 [players for the national squad], than when you have 55,000 club players to chose from," Bini reminded journalists.
In the 40 years since its establishment, the French women’s football team has played the US 14 times and only managed to win two of those contests.
Different playing fields
The pool of available players, to which the French coach referred, is not the only important difference between the two countries when it comes to women’s football. According to Jean Williams, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture (ICSHC) at De Montfort University in the Midlands, attitudes toward the sport are at the heart of the issue.
“FIFA and UEFA have not been at the forefront of popular culture,” Williams said, arguing that European football authorities have touted the false idea that men are simply not interested in women footballers, and have reinforced stereotypes of the game as a men-only affair.
The successes on the field of US women footballers have worked hand in hand with the sport’s commercial triumph at home, in turn providing fertile ground for a higher level of play.
The opposite has been true in France and Europe in general. “Europe seems to assume there are no new markets, so the commercial potential of women’s football is not exploited,” said Williams, who is leading a UEFA study on the migration of semi-professional and professional women players.
As evidence that women’s football is a prospective goldmine in Europe and in developing countries alike, Williams points to the success that US striker Mia Hamm brought to the US sporting wear giant Nike. “The second largest building on Nike’s [Oregon] campus is named after Hamm. After Michael Jordan, she has been their second biggest athlete,” she said.
Raising the bar
Those different visions will be on display on Wednesday, embodied by the players that will defend their country’s colours on the pitch. Both sides have identified their talismanic player in the tournament, but the contrast between the two stars is revealing.
France’s Elise Bussaglia, the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder whose 88th-minute equaliser on Saturday propelled Les Bleues to their first ever semi-final, is first a primary school teacher. While she is taking a career break next season to focus on football, this year she trained with the national squad only after teaching classes.
By contrast, majicJack striker Abby Wambach, who headed in a last-minute cross on Sunday to save the US against Brazil, has been a full-time professional footballer since 2002. Counting her sponsorship deals, Wambach probably earns around 300,000 euros per year – almost 10 times more than France’s Bussaglia.
The seemingly insurmountable challenge could work in favour of the French, who have thrived in the World Cup on throwing themselves head-fist at every match, without regard to expectations. But despite the brave effort that has won the French women new followers, few analysts think the dream can live on beyond the tournament.
“The World Cup is happening at a time when there is no other football on, and fans consume what they find… There is almost no chance that future [television] ratings will be as important as they have been,” predicted Cédric Gründler, who runs the blog lemarketingsportif.com.
The ICSHC’s Williams agrees that the future of women’s football in France is on the line. China’s absence from the tournament is proof that a success story can turn into failure without sustained support, she pointed out. “Success at the World Cup does not ensure that an upward projection will continue. It all depends on the attitude of national federations,” Williams insisted.
Date created : 2011-07-13