From what I understand, American parents yell and cheer so loudly at their children's soccer games that many leagues now have to police the rowdy behavior. That's never been a problem in France, where the loudest noise from the sidelines is often the sound of cigarette lighters snapping on.
As fall approaches, we are readying ourselves for another season of watching French soccer moms and dads do what they do best: stand around, look at their watches and leave for coffee.
That's if they show up. Last fall, I volunteered to drive to the first away game for my son Henry's team. Henry was only 6, so I wanted to be there for his debut. My American friends tell me parental game attendance on their side of the Atlantic runs around 100 percent.
I got a clue that things operated a little differently here when the coach responded: "Thank goodness you can do it. If there aren't enough cars, we can't go."
On the appointed Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the gathering place and immediately was entrusted with a carful of first-graders. Some of the parents didn't even ask my name. "This is Pierre; this is Paul. Bye, boys," said one dad as he turned over his two sons. I managed to get his cell phone number before he departed. I was glad I had that number; he was nowhere to be seen when we returned four hours later.
(Other cultural differences: When I told the kids in the car to put their seat belts on, two of them didn't know how. And when we got to the game, I discovered I was the only parent who insisted on shin guards, to Henry's humiliation.)
As play began, the parents--about one-third of the children appeared to have a relative present--straggled around the sidelines, muttering to each other. I thought one father was going to wax enthusiastic after he called out a soft "Bravo, Jean-Paul!" when his son made a good kick. Next time I looked, he was heading away from the field toward a nearby cafe, where a number of like-minded adults were holing up until the afternoon ordeal was over.
This blase attitude seems fairly widespread. Other parents tell me games involving older children also are conducted in near-silence. Games rarely start on time, and the parents who are there talk more on their cell phones than they do to their children or the coaches. Paris teams sometimes have to forfeit games in the suburbs because there are not enough drivers or because no one has a map and the whole convoy gets lost and goes home.
In Paris, the physical facilities devoted to children's soccer are not very impressive, either. Henry and his teammates play on asphalt, on a poorly lit basketball court at the French equivalent of the YMCA. Other fields I have seen are made of cinders or artificial turf. So unaccustomed are my children to real soccer fields with real turf that when they saw one during a visit to the United States this summer, Henry's first question was: "Can I walk on the grass?"
French soccer parents don't call the coach and complain about his decisions, either. They can't; they usually don't know his name. Henry's team last year was coached by four different young men who seemed to come and go at random at the center where he played every Wednesday afternoon. They seemed amiable enough and knew who Henry was, but warm and fuzzy they weren't.
It's not that the French don't like soccer, or don't care about it, or don't play it well. France, as no one here needs to be reminded, won last year's World Cup. The final, against Brazil and played in Paris, gave rise to a rare outburst of national pride--in fact, it was one of the few times the French were truly demonstrative over anything but protest marches. The United States finished last out of the 32 qualifying teams. (The French, incidentally, were little impressed by the U.S. victory in the women's World Cup this year. The newspaper Le Figaro devoted two pages the next day to the one-year anniversary of France's masculine triumph and a three-sentence brief to the U.S. women's success.)
Every French village seems to have its own soccer field. One million young people--96 percent of them male--play organized soccer in France. Even if only one-third of the parents attend games, that's still a lot of people standing on the sidelines.
Christian Bromberger, an ethnologist at the University of Aix en Provence who studies soccer, pointed out that the behavior I witnessed is probably more typical of Paris than of the rest of France. Bromberger said he has seen French parents ream out the coach, and go at each other with umbrellas. At higher skill levels, parents also tend to be more belligerent on the sidelines. But he agreed that the atmosphere at youth games here is considerably calmer than in the United States. Perhaps, he said, that is because soccer here is more regulated. Every player from age 6 to 60 plays under the auspices of the national French soccer federation. Every coach, even of the youngest children, must undergo at least nine weeks of full-time training. So when parents turn their children over to a team, they presumably have less reason to question the coach's decisions--or at least less hope that things can be changed by objecting. "There is no self-management. Everything is regulation by institution," Bromberger said. "If the coach doesn't play the child, the parent can protest, but there is a structure against him."
France is also a country where people don't get all that excited about sports. Pro soccer games here are not subject to hooliganism, as they are in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany; the cheers from the stands are muted and sporadic. In this centralized country, people don't feel pressure to conform in sports as they must in educational achievement or stylish dress. Perhaps half of Henry's school friends play on a soccer team. "In America, government is democratic and sports are autocratic. In France, it's the other way around," quipped an American friend.
For better or worse, parents generally inject themselves less into their children's lives here. Many schools, even elementary schools, don't allow parents in the classroom. (On the first day of school in our first year in France, we had to leave our children in the front courtyard with teachers we had never met and whose names we didn't know.) Parents cheerfully send kids as young as 8 or 9 away on ski vacations or to summer camp with what seems to us little concern or even interest in how well they will be supervised.
Certainly the lack of adult enthusiasm doesn't seem to discourage the children. One thing we notice here: kids playing soccer everywhere, all the time. In the parks, in the courtyards, on the street and, at least in Henry's case, in the front hall of the apartment. When Henry goes to the nearby park, as often as not other boys are already playing there. Goals are backpacks or jackets laid in the dirt, lines are either drawn in the sand or nonexistent. Just last week I drove by a soccer field in the suburbs and a boy was out there, alone, practicing shots on goal.
We see parents playing soccer with their kids, too. Henry's teammate Adrien is often out in the park with his dad, practicing headers or corner kicks. But that same dad said hardly a word during the game last fall. Maybe he just knows the right time to encourage his son, and at what volume.
Anne Swardson is a correspondent in The Washington Post's Paris bureau.