The France World Cup 2019 kicked off with a dominant performance by the hosts, Les Bleues, a start to their campaign to extend the feel-good vibes from last summer’s victorious Russia World Cup 2018. And after a sprint to the airport, I was there among the more than 45,000 spectators at Parc de Princes to help launch the biggest event in women’s football.
The evening was magical, and not just because France won. I recognized how significant and symbolic it was that a sold-out crowd came out on a Friday evening in the national capital to watch a women’s football match—as did the French audience members and team. For we all knew that only eight years ago, something like this just would not have happened.
As many of you know, I’ve worked on French sports in one capacity or another since 2001 and at that time there was very little of anything about the women’s game, let alone much about Les Bleues. While it existed, it was not mediatized, thus there was nothing in the press or archives on which to work from. The French Football Federation only launched an elite training section for girls in 1998, a legacy of hosting the World Cup that summer, and the first teenagers to matriculate, like Laura Georges, were just about to finish the program.
Women’s football in France has come a long way since then, as it has around elsewhere in the world. And it’s hoped by many French—at least, many in the French sports world—that 2019 will serve as the same “before” and “after” event that the 1998 World Cup was for men’s football. 1998 champion Bixente Lizarazu reminded readers of influential sports daily L’Équipe on June 7 of the need to remember that even men’s soccer wasn’t very popular or popularized until the country hosted the 1998 World Cup. “The football that I knew before was very confidential and it did not become ultra-popular or mediatized until after ,” he noted.
Which brings me to my last point: when writing or talking about France hosting the World Cup this summer, remember that the country has a very different sports culture than what Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, or New Zealanders are used to. In fact, most French would admit that they really don’t have much of one, and certainly not a football culture like people are used to vis-à-vis the English, Italian, German, or Spanish varieties. If you’ve read my book or understand sports in France, you’d know this. If you’ve done neither, drop me a line and I’m happy to talk about exactly why this is J
That’s why all of the Anglo-Saxon critiques on a lack of World Cup spirit, public displays of advertising, large sports bar or café viewership of games and more is so misinformed. For example, aside from English, Scottish, or Irish pubs, there’s really not the same culture of sports bars in France in the way that they’re ubiquitous in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere.
So when a friend I wanted to watch France’s last group match (against Nigeria) Monday night, I asked a French football journalist I know for suggestions, all of which were spot-on. While we did not have time to get to the section of Paris where there’s a large Nigerian diaspora, we did make it to a place, one of the few to have nothing but enormous television screens (and a disco ball?), where it very quickly became packed with (French) people wearing France shirts and with the token flag every few tables. So the lesson for today is: kick back and enjoy the show as we enter into the knock-out phase of the France World Cup 2019, and seek out the culture that’s behind your favorite (or foe) football team this summer.