France and the United States will square off in the World Cup quarterfinal today. The oddsmakers have the United States as a narrow favorite, but regardless of who wins the match, France has already won the tournament.
Playing a World Cup on home soil has spotlighted the great strides made in the women’s game over the past eight years — its acceptance, popularity, growth, viewership and sponsorship — and moved the needle in terms of opportunities for French women and girls to play.
France’s role as host is the result of a push by the French Foreign Ministry to host major sporting events, including the 2024 Olympics, an element of its focus on sports diplomacy. It’s also part of a push by the French Football Federation (FFF) to create more opportunities for women and girls to play and increase the representation of women within the FFF’s executive suite.
But France wasn’t exactly a natural choice to be feted as a champion of women’s soccer or women in soccer. Just a decade ago, national team players had to resort to posing naked to get public and media attention, the result of a deep-seated cultural disdain for women’s soccer, the last vestiges of which the current tournament is finally erasing.
French soccer has a long pedigree. The game was introduced in the late 19th century by the sons of the bourgeoisie, who learned to play while attending school in Great Britain, as well as British engineers and commercial agents, who played while on business in France. The game was democratized and popularized by the First World War, when it served not just as entertainment for troops and prisoners of war but also as part of the recovery program for wounded soldiers.
Ultimately, soccer was conceived of as a game by men for men.
But French women also started playing soccer during this era, especially in urban areas, and took advantage of new freedoms and opportunities afforded by wartime conditions. The first known organized game in France took place in September 1917, when two teams from the Femina Sport club faced off in Paris. The first international match took place in 1920, when a French team played England’s Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C., which led to the world’s first viral soccer moment.
French society’s resistance to women’s soccer inhibited — and after 1941, prohibited — many from playing. By 1919, when the FFF was founded, soccer officials, doctors, journalists and sportsmen argued that soccer was too masculine, too rough and much too violent for women to play, for it endangered their reproductive health. Other countries, including England and Brazil, banned women from playing soccer in the 1920s; the Vichy government in France followed suit in 1941.
Women’s soccer in France wasn’t resurrected until the 1960s, when the shock waves of the global counterculture movement turned institutions and long-held social norms upside-down. France faced dual crises: It had to figure out how to assimilate an unprecedentedly large generation of baby boomers into the state, its schools and society; it also had a dismal sporting record in international competition, coming in 25th place in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome in terms of medal count.
This humiliated France and reportedly enraged President Charles de Gaulle, kick-starting multiyear plans designed to get children into sports and enable athletes to prepare for elite competition.
This resulted in more French women and girls taking up sports, but not necessarily soccer. It wasn’t until the feminist movement and the upheaval of 1968 that women began to play again. Organized games were held in the late 1960s; in 1970, the FFF recognized the women’s game and, in 1971, a team of French women contested the unofficial women’s World Cup.
Even then, many obstacles remained for those who wished to pursue the sport. Although the FFF created an amateur women’s league in 1974, resources were scarce, and there were few female-only teams. Girls and women who wished to play had to join a local boys’ or men’s team, a phenomenon that lasted well into the 21st century.
They also had to fight long-held stereotypes about women who played soccer. Many female players, past and present, recall being called tomboys, lesbians, unfeminine, big-thighed and worse. This harassment left parents hesitant to let their daughters play.
Change began after France hosted and won the men’s World Cup in 1998. That’s when the FFF started to invest in developing elite female players. But 2011 was the watershed year. Noël Le Graët, known for his skills in marketing and increasing revenue, was elected president of the federation. He moved quickly to create more opportunities for women and girls to play, including establishing more girls-only teams and training schools. He also worked to increase the number of registered female players from 54,386. (That was already an increase from 34,997 in 1999, the earliest year for which statistics are available).
Le Graët’s vision entailed “feminizing” the organization’s executive team. One of his first acts was to appoint former Les Bleues midfielder Brigitte Henriques as secretary general, the FFF’s third-highest post. Following his 2017 reelection, he promoted her to vice president and tapped former defender Laura Georges as her successor.
In 2011, the French discovered their national team, just in time for that summer’s Women’s World Cup. It helped that the men’s team had imploded in a very public way the year before, creating an opening for the women’s team to capture the public’s fancy. Thanks to a robust social media presence and a willingness to engage with fans — which dispelled old stereotypes about what kind of women play soccer — the team was well-positioned to capitalize on the opportunity.
Making it to the World Cup semifinals helped build the team’s popularity, too. Suddenly media outlets started to pay attention, and the country’s major newspapers and broadcasters began to devote more resources to covering the national team. France’s semifinal loss to the United States in 2011 set a record at the time: About 2.4 million French viewers tuned in, a number shattered during France’s 2015 World Cup appearance. Still, for a country of some 66 million people, it was a small showing.
This year’s events and their coverage show how much the game has grown over eight years: Not only did the team make the quarterfinals, but small media armies also are covering it, putting it much closer to, if not on par with, the men’s team. The influential daily sports newspaper L’Équipe assigned a dozen reporters to cover Les Bleues — a dramatic increase from 2015, when they only sent two.
The country has set new television viewership records, too. More than 10.6 million viewers tuned in for the match against South Korea, and 11.9 million watched the match against Brazil.
This attention translates into unprecedented support for the team, which is crucial to the growth and sustainability of women’s soccer. All of France’s matches have sold out. The team has attracted hundreds of well-wishers at its open practices this month, and Les Bleues credit their fans with helping them narrowly defeat Brazil earlier this week.
All of this is important, because the national team serves as the motor of the wider game’s popularity, and the changes since 2011 have produced tangible results. During the past eight years, the number of female soccer registrations has increased nearly 60 percent to more than 160,000, the most rapid growth of the women’s game in Europe. Proponents hope this summer provides a “World Cup bump” and encourages more women and girls decide to try the sport.
That’s why, regardless of today’s results, this World Cup is already a win for France. The country has provided a blueprint for how investing in the women’s game can generate success.