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Bend it like Le Sommer: French women eye football breakthrough

Tobias Schwarz, AFP | Striker Eugénie Le Sommer celebrates after scoring the winner in France's opening match of the Euro 2017 tournament on July 19 in Tilburg, Nertherlands.

With “Les Bleues” among the favourites, France is hoping the women’s Euro tournament will help spur interest in the game – and lay old prejudices to rest – ahead of the 2019 World Cup, the first to be held on French soil.


Whatever you do, don’t call it women’s football. “I’m watching Germany play Sweden as we speak,” says Dominique Crochu, the first woman to hold a senior management position in France’s Football Federation (FFF). “They’re playing football, not women’s football. It’s the same sport as the boys, with the same rules” – and the same results, one might add, given that Germany almost always win.

Not this time, though. In the first game of their Euro campaign, Germany’s formidable six-time champions failed to find a way past the Swedish keeper, eventually settling for a goalless draw. Crochu was among one million viewers who watched the match live on public broadcaster France 3 – a relatively small primetime audience for the channel, but a huge leap forward for the women’s game.

The Euro 2017 tournament, which opened in the Netherlands on Sunday and runs through to August 7, marks the first time a major women’s championship – and not only the French matches – is broadcast live in France on free-to-air channels. Football officials are hoping it will serve as a springboard for the next World Cup, which will be played on French soil.

“When Eurosport [a subscription channel] acquired the rights for Euro 2011, it was an electroshock. Now that the matches are free to watch, we can take the game to an even wider audience,” says Crochu, stressing the importance of women’s visibility in football and “having role models that can inspire young girls”.

When football banned women

The women’s game has come a long way in a relatively short time – though it is yet to recover the heights reached in the years after World War I, before women in several European countries were banned from playing football. It was only in 1970 that French football authorities lifted the ban. UEFA, the European football body, organised the first women’s Euro in 1982. It would take another decade for FIFA to agree to a women’s World Cup. Before then, girls took part in unofficial “pirate” tournaments.

In recent years the sport has gone from strength to strength. In Olympique Lyonnais and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), France boasts of the top two clubs in Europe. Their all-French Champions League final clash last month was watched by 2.7 million people live on national TV. At the grassroots level, the number of licensed players has almost trebled between 2000 and 2016 to pass the 100,000 mark, joining a group of pioneering countries that include Sweden, Germany and England.

Across the Channel, the English Football Association (FA) has set itself an ambitious target of making women’s football the second biggest team sport – behind men’s football but ahead of men’s rugby or cricket – by 2018. The 2015 World Cup in Canada, which saw England win third place ahead of the mighty Germans, generated more than 100 hours of TV and radio coverage, further boosting the women’s game.

But a survey carried out by the FA last year showed gender-based prejudices are still present. When asked what sport they would encourage their daughter to play, English dads placed football only in seventh place, behind swimming, gymnastics, netball and martial arts. Over one fifth of fathers polled said they thought football was a “man’s game”, 17% said it was dangerous for girls, 16% deemed it “unladylike”, and a further 14% feared people would see their daughter as “butch”.

In France, another survey found that the women’s game had a “positive image” for a strong 81% of people surveyed (against a mere 31% who approved of the men’s big-money, scandal-prone game), but that this favourable perception didn’t translate into genuine interest. 74% said they had little or no interest in women’s football. The women polled were even less likely to watch it than the men.

“We’re making progress, but there’s still some way to go,” said Crochu, suggesting football, like many other sports, remains a bastion of sexism, especially when it comes to managerial positions. She added: “It is probably still easier for women to become CEOs or astronauts than it is to become big shots in the world of football.”

Women pioneers

A trailblazer in French football, Crochu is well placed to talk about institutional sexism. The first woman to be appointed “director” at the FFF, in charge of digital development, she remains a rarity in a world that is still largely the preserve of men.

Just how challenging it is to penetrate that world was obvious two years ago when French club Clermont became the first in a major European league to appoint a woman – former international centre-back Corinne Diacre – as manager of the men’s team.

Though Clermont played in the second division, with a tiny budget, Diacre’s appointment attracted international media attention. The pioneer manager had to fend off questions about her private life, her salary, and whether she would step into the men's changing room. On the latter issue, she pointed out that men regularly coach women's teams and yet are never subjected to such prurient questioning.

Some critics dismissed Clermont’s move as little more than a publicity stunt. But while the media circus soon moved on, Diacre has continued to deliver results and entertaining football, earning the respect of her peers and an award for manager of the year on her debut season.

‘Two-speed system’

As the women’s game develops, several top European clubs have jumped onto the bandwagon, eager to benefit from the positive message it carries. In Italy, a country where girls are traditionally channelled towards other sports, Fiorentina’s female football team has just won the league barely two years after it was founded amid much PR spin. Archrivals Juventus are now rushing to set up their own female squad, hoping to poach Florentine players in the process.

“Clearly it’s become fashionable to have a women’s team, and I’m certainly not going to complain if it means money is being invested for girls,” said Crochu, though warning that the new focus on big-spending clubs belied the fact that most of the women’s game, including the top French league that PSG and Lyon play in, remains amateur.

“We have a two-speed system in which the big clubs spend big because it looks good for PR, while the smaller outfits scrape a living and their players have part-time jobs,” she explained. “Perhaps we shouldn't rush to copy the men's game, because the whole economy that underpins it, including TV rights and sponsorship deals, is not in place yet for women.”

Pressure on Les Bleues

That’s where football officials are hoping a strong showing at the Euro will come in handy, further raising the profile of the women’s game and luring sponsors in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup. As the team’s veteran skipper Wendie Renard put it, “TV coverage [of the Euro] is a great opportunity to showcase football, because we cannot develop the sport without visibility.”

While French clubs have emerged as dominant forces in Europe, the highly rated national team has so far failed to pick up any silverware. On paper, this is Les Bleues’ best chance to break their duck. They are ranked third in the world and have just won the preparatory SheBelieves Cup, routing world champions USA 3-0.

France’s opening Euro game on Tuesday, however, was anything but straightforward, their opponents Iceland putting up a stiff resistance. When Renard hit the crossbar with a towering header late in the game it seemed the French players would once again flatter to deceive. But a last-gasp penalty eventually lifted them past the diehard Icelanders.

“We needed the win, and we got it,” said France’s star striker Eugénie Le Sommer, whose smoothly taken penalty sealed the win. Having been dumped out of the last two Euros after gruelling penalty shoot-outs, Le Sommer’s teammates can only hope the Lyon striker keeps on delivering throughout the tournament.

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