We’re finally here, one week before the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in France, and the excitement continues to build. On June 7, Les Bleues will play South Korea at Parc de Princes in Paris, some 21 years after the country hosted its last senior-level football World Cup (it hosted the women’s U20 tournament last August). Those two decades passed in a snap, but they’ve left an indelible mark on the French game.
I should know; I was there in June 1998 after a semester abroad, and there was such non-excitement for the competition that I didn’t even know it was going on! Of course, at that time I was not focused on French sport, let alone football, but those four weeks in Summer 1998 changed everything, for myself and the world.
As a historian, I focus on how and why things change when they do, as well as how these transformations fit into larger movements and the big picture. Mediatization, commercialization, the Internet and more have transformed the global game, and France emerged at the forefront in certain key ways. While the English Premiere League remains the world’s elite championship, French footballers are integral corps to top EPL teams, a trend began in the 1990s with coaches like Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger and players like Manchester United’s Eric Cantona. Today French footballers in England are permanent EPL fixtures, giving a new twist to the popular Frog and the Rosbif pub in Paris.
Winning two World Cups put the French youth development programs and its federation training center at Clairefontaine on the map. Their best-in-class system was observed by top sides around the world, including Germany, which sought inspiration to rebuild their own national program from the ground-up.
But France has also surprisingly emerged as a terra firma of the professional women’s game, despite myriad obstacles and long-held preconceptions of football being too masculine for them to play. What the New York Times recently dubbed the “World’s Most Dominant Team” is Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, which just won its sixth Women’s Champion’s League and 13th consecutive domestic D1 titles.
Part of what makes this summer’s competition so special is that it’s the first real litmus test of the French Football Federation’s plan to ‘feminize football.’ Implemented shortly after Noel Le Graet was elected federation president in 2011, the project has had marked multi-spectrum success. Importantly, it has facilitated greater access for women and girls to train and compete at all levels, investing money and resources to develop more opportunities. This has helped increase the number of female football licenses granted, the number of players who register to play in organized clubs, a key metric. Today there are some 185,000 licenses, and a 140% increase of players since the 2011-2012 season (86,787 licenses). That’s huge for a country where the women’s game was long stagnant.
There’s also new mediatization and marketing of Les Bleues. On May 2, head coach Corinne Diacre appeared on television during primetime to announce the list of players retained for the World Cup, something that’s become routine for the men’s national team coach to do but not the women’s. The FFF is utilizing the same marketing tactics and efforts to publicize Les Bleues as they did last summer for Les Bleus, and most recently organized a ‘family dinner’ between the women’s, men’s, and junior national teams at Clairefontaine. Despite the recent flap about the men’s team forcing the women’s to displace from their lodging at the national training center, which reportedly was not the federation’s doing but the result of a FIFA dictat, there’s much positive improvement in how women’s football is treated, perceived, and consumed in France today—a sea change from just 10 years ago. Will it be enough to serve as a tipping point?
If the team succeeds in its objective to contest the final on July 7, then the answer could well be a resounding ‘yes.’ France has long had the talent and technical finesse to go far in international competition, but has often been edged out psychologically during big matches. But this summer, the team is reinforced by a rising generation that has only known a France that wins, one of the lasting legacies of that magical 1998 World Cup win. Don’t be surprised if the combination of playing at home plus the feel-good winning vibes still kicking around the hexagone from last summer’s championship victory rub off on Les Bleues.