The Culture of Soccer in France
As the world tuned into this year’s Euro, we are all expecting to see absolutely top level football being played as no one can deny that Europe is where this sport truly flourishes. There are leagues upon leagues of professional players in each European country, and the Euro is where the best of the best come together to play for a shot at international glory. In an atmosphere so charged, and in nations where football is lived and breathed, one would think that it would be popular as a recreational sport as well. In France it sure is – oh, just not for girls.
Moving to France from a nation such as Canada, where everyone, their brother, and their mother (literally) plays soccer, I was excited to see what the soccer scene was like here. I couldn’t help but think they must have tons of teams and rigorous training to have so many players achieve the level we see in various League matches. My very first week, as I adjusted to life in a small village, I asked my host family if there was a soccer club around where I could play –just recreationally of course, you know, like a Sunday night co-ed pick up league or something, nothing serious.
The first reaction from the family (which includes two young girls) was ‘You…play soccer?’ I was rather taken aback, I mean, this is Europe, doesn’t everybody? The next part of the reaction was ‘well there are lots of clubs, but I don’t know if any of them have a women’s team’. I couldn’t understand what they meant, surely each club had at least ONE girls’ team for every age group – I mean, even in Canada, a country which is by no means known as a soccer powerhouse, each club has both house league teams and travel teams for girls in each age group. Well maybe they just mean they won’t have a recreational team, I thought to myself, no problem, I used to play rep, I’ll be rusty but I can manage! Boy was I wrong, and not about my skills.
The next day we went to the soccer club in the next town over to see if there was a team for me. Nope. No girls teams. Not only that, I found out, but girls are legally not allowed to play on a boys team after the age of 13, even if there is no team available to them. Wait, WHAT? I can’t play on a men’s recreational team even if I’m good enough to keep up? I was thunderstruck.
My soccer paradise was turning into a sexist nightmare. I started to question whether I was ever going to find somewhere to play. Later that week my host mother came home with a list of all the clubs in the area which might have a girls team, and I started to call down the list to ask. As luck would have it, there was indeed a senior women’s team in a town about 10 minutes away, so I found out about their practices and arranged to join one that week.
When I got to the practice, I was in store for even more surprises. This was the club’s only girl’s team, giving it and age range of 14 to 45, with skill levels ranging from what I’d call ‘rep’ (Canadian classification) to girls who had started just last season. On top of that, these teams aren’t even full teams of 11-a-side. They are so few players that they play 7-a-side on a half field. I didn’t even know how to process this information. Here is a club in a little suburb of the city which is home to the Ligue 1 champions, there are 3 full senior men’s teams, and we don’t even have enough women to field ONE team?! I hadn’t moved to soccer paradise, I’d moved to female soccer HELL.
I tried asking my host family why women’s soccer was nonexistent here, and their only response was ‘soccer is a man’s sport, girls dance or play tennis’. Oh dear, I’ve not only moved continents, but apparently time periods as well. A man’s sport? There’s no such thing as a man’s sport! We have female boxing, women’s rugby, the WHL, and yes, so much women’s soccer in Canada and the US. Apparently Europe decided to hop off the equality train right as it was heading into sports.
Not just in France either, in England, though it’s almost impossible to believe, women’s football was banned until 1969! Almost all of Europe seems to have an odd prejudice against female football that can’t be explained. In Canada on the other hand, women’s leagues are absolutely flourishing, with an estimated 360 000 females playing soccer there (second only to the US and Germany). With such a tiny population to begin with, Canada is certainly ahead of the curve when it comes to female soccer which is awfully pride-inspiring, but it’s not just about the game.
Soccer is a sport that requires mental toughness, strength, creativity, perseverance, determination, confidence, teamwork, discipline, leadership, desire, self sacrifice, and above all, dedication. When girls and women are playing such a sport, and are encouraged to do so, they are developing all of these characteristics – characteristics which are useful both on and off the field. They are being given the opportunity to develop the tools they need to be successful in all aspects of their lives, and are learning to fight to achieve their goals (no pun intended), then strive for even more.
Europe’s lack of women’s teams is not just a loss for the overall development of the sport, but also a loss for the personal development of the girls and women of the region and it’s a shame that even now, over 20 years after the first FIFA Women’s World Cup, women’s football is still a cultural pariah in Europe