Women restore reputation in France
France is home to a demanding soccer public. It took St Etienne reaching the 1976 European Cup to truly fire the imagination, and even Aime Jacquet’s legendary 1998 World Cup winners were booed while losing to England in Montpellier just 12 months before. France is always waiting for a genuine exploit to impress it.
On that count, it’s already job done for Les Bleus in Germany. A year on from the humiliation so keenly felt by the nation after the mutiny perpetuated by the men's team in Knysna, in the ‘Bus Of Shame’ incident during last summer’s World Cup, its female counterpart is riding the crest of a wave, rehabilitating France’s soccer reputation – and just as importantly, retouching its self-image.
Three different national television broadcasters ended up showing the quarter-final win over England, with viewing peaking at an impressive 3.2 million during the penalty shoot-out.
On Tuesday, the day before the semi-final against the USA, women’s soccer received a prestigious first-ever cover feature in the influential France Football. An action photo of the team captured celebrating the moment of victory against England being sealed is boldly splashed with the simple headline: “On vous aime!” ("We love you!"). The squad is stacked with heroine potential; a talented, yet modest and amiable set of players, light years away from the cliques and in-fighting that ruined the men’s squad in both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010.
Coach Bruno Bini gave the players Monday off to recover from their weekend exertions and go shopping ahead of a light training session, but even their free time was spent in typically modest fashion. “I didn’t buy anything today, because I already found my fair share of things last time," center-back Laura Georges told Le Parisien.
It is little things like this that show why Les Bleus are so successfully endearing themselves to the French public. French supporters and media have always been especially uneasy about money’s annexing of soccer (and, to a lesser extent, the sport’s increased professionalism in general in the modern era), and this vibrant team is the perfect antidote to that.
Nevertheless, the women’s game in France is poised to make hay while the sun shines. Perhaps taking a leaf from the book of the German game - whose outstanding organisation, professionalism and commercial savvy has been plain for all to see in this resounding success of a tournament - the French Football Federation (FFF) is already looking ahead. It announced on Monday its intention to invite bids for rights to televise Division 1 feminine, the top level of women's domestic competition in France, for the period between 2011-14. The FFF has set the deadline for July 25th, with the idea being to strike while the iron is hot.
Much of the allure of the league is based on Lyon’s current strength, with the presence of ten of the reigning Champions League holder’s number in the 21-strong France squad having added considerable momentum to the World Cup push. French sports daily L’Equipe’s billing of Lyon's win over German giants Turbine Potsdam in the final as 'France's third European title' (after Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain's men lifting the 1993 Champions League and 1996 Cup Winners' Cup respectively) is an indication of what an epochal step forward it was – and the clear potential for the women's game to enjoy genuine status in the Hexagon.
The experienced Bini explained to journalists this week his frequent contention that leading the French under-19 women's side to victory in Euro 2003 was another turning point, for him personally as well as French soccer, defining him as a coach. "I lost twice in the final (with the under-18s in 1998 and with the under-19s in 2002) and I thought I'd never get there," he admitted to L'Equipe. "After, I was never the same. I began another life. It's the culture of 'it's possible.'
Taking charge of the senior side in 2007, Bini has authored a series of further steps forward. Euro 2009 saw France reaching the second round in a major international tournament for the first time, before losing on penalties to Belgium. On the occasion of France's first Women's World Cup semi-final a huge task awaits against the USA – a nation in which the likes of Camille Abily and Sonia Bompastor have previously made their living – but the exits of Germany and Brazil have seen an opportunity open up for the pre-tournament outsider.
The French side is guaranteed a €3,500 (US$4,900) bonus per head thanks to its achievements thus far, and each player will take home €15,000 (US$21,000) should France win the competition. To put this into proper perspective, Germany's players would have earned a €60,000 (US$83,800) bonus each had the home nation gone on to be crowned world champion again.
Yet whatever happens from here on in, it is evident that French women’s soccer is on the rise. The next game – or maybe two – could go a long way to decreeing the speed of that ascent.
Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.