“I hope it’s just a total shitshow circus,” American soccer star Megan Rapinoe said this week of the United States women’s national team’s looming World Cup quarterfinal match against France. “It’s gonna be totally awesome.”
Even before the ball drops on Friday afternoon, it’s shaping up to be. Few times in the history of the Women’s World Cup has a more anticipated match come this early in the tournament’s knockout stages. The top-ranked Americans against fourth-ranked France. The defending champs against the tournament hosts. The quadrennial favorite against a team hoping to win its first major international title. A rematch from earlier this year, when France beat the United States, 3-1, and announced themselves as legitimate contenders.
The winner of this fight will emerge as the clear favorite to lift the World Cup trophy a little over a week from now.
But while millions of people worldwide, from Los Angeles to Le Havre, will focus their attention on the field Friday afternoon, the stakes of the match extend well beyond it, especially for the hosts. The United States is after its fourth World Cup crown, a title that would remind a world in which women’s soccer is becoming increasingly competitive that its oldest power still reigns supreme. France might need this even more, if only to keep winning over the attention of a French public that, despite rapid growth and newfound success, is still waiting for Les Bleues to prove they’re the real deal.
Women’s sports are always a precarious business, in which the athletes face constant burdens to prove their worth and justify support from fans, corporate sponsors, their federations and even FIFA. Winning isn’t just a goal, it’s a necessity ― a cruel dynamic in a tournament where losing is, for every team but one, an inevitability.
No one knows this better than the Americans, who 20 years ago, in a situation not dissimilar from the one France is now immersed, staked its present and future on the ultimate prize in a World Cup held on home soil. They won in spectacular, sports-bra-revealing fashion, and it set the U.S. women’s program on a path to stardom and success. The United States women now pull in a lot of money, even in comparison to the men’s team (which didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup) and have continued to fight for more as they demand equity in all aspects of the game ― arguments that are bolstered, more than anything, by their continued victories on the pitch and their entrenched place in American sporting culture.
“You’ve got the captain of the women’s national team telling the whole world she doesn’t want to go to the fucking White House,” Shireen Ahmed, sports activist and writer, told HuffPost. “[The USWNT] are at a level of establishment and support that’s undeniable.”
France has spent two decades building to that point, developing a women’s program from an afterthought that missed the World Cup entirely just 12 years ago into a team that insists it’s now among the world’s elite. Now they have their biggest chance to show it ― they just have to knock off the world champions to do it.
“There’s been so much investment and support put behind this team at this World Cup,” said Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, a historian and expert on women’s soccer in France. This team, she said, is the “pinnacle” of achievement so far for women’s soccer in the country, but its growth has also brought pressure to turn that investment and development into a title.
“France does need this win more than the U.S. does,” Krasnoff argued. A win, she said, “not only keeps the dream of a podium finish alive.” It also means “greater attention, greater support, greater sponsorship coming for the national team. And in France, the national team is the main motor for women’s soccer.”
France has taken a different path to this point than the United States, where Title IX ― the federal legislation that demands equity in sport in any federally funded educational institution ― helped give the Americans a leg up on most of the world at the dawn of the Women’s World Cup era, which began in 1991. France has no such law, but it does have state infrastructure that supports soccer and has had such a massive impact on the sport that the French team has surged to become contenders in a decade’s time.
“The French state is one of the countries in the world that puts the most money into [sport]. Not just high-level training but also in municipal sports infrastructure,” said Laurent Dubois, a Duke University history professor and author of “Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France.” And so, “you have a serious infrastructure so that the ones who want to then also can play on a serious team. All the regions have this.”
Dubois acknowledges that there is always less for women, but the substantial impact of these resources for girls and women is clear from a glance at Les Bleues.
France’s famed soccer training center, the Clairefontaine academy just outside Paris, opened to women in 1998, and the French team made its debut at the Women’s World Cup in 2003. After missing the World Cup in 2007, the investments paid off in a major way: France finished fourth at the 2011 World Cup and reached the quarterfinals in Canada four years ago.
The national team has benefited, too, from investment into France’s domestic club league, which is now home to the most dominant team in, perhaps, all of sports. Olympic Lyonnais, which calls home the stadium that will host the World Cup final on July 7, won its fourth Euoprean Champions League title this spring, and Lyon stars form the backbone of the French national team too.
It has built to this moment, and the chance to hoist a World Cup trophy on home soil, just as the French men did in 1998.
There were concerns early in the tournament, though, that perhaps the French public hadn’t quite come around. In Paris, it was often hard to tell the tournament was taking place, and even though the city is known for its snobbish approach toward football, it was a marked difference, Dubois said, from the way French fans treated the men’s team a summer ago, when it won its second World Cup title in Russia. “If you’re in France during the World Cup during the men’s World Cup,” he said, “you can’t not be aware of it.”
Dubois told me he believes that “if France is in the final, people are going to be into it.”
Away from Paris, however, it’s clear that many already are. Despite less-than-stellar attendance numbers for the overall tournament, France has sold out its first four matches of the tournament, and it drew more than 10.1 million television viewers, on average, according to FIFA. (France matches drew less than 2 million on average in 2015, and just 200,000 four years prior to that.) Their knockout game against Brazil in the Round of 16 not only set a record viewing audience in France for the Women’s World Cup (which is comparable to viewership during last year’s men’s World Cup), it was, thus far, the most-watched event on France’s most popular network this year.
Krasnoff says “there’s been such mediatization of the team” this year. “That might not have been apparent necessarily to visitors unless you’re reading the sports press, unless you’re reading the national press, unless you’re watching the nightly news there.” She calls the coverage “unprecedented.”
With or without a win, France and its federation still have progress to make, especially when it comes to efforts to include more diverse communities. France’s intense secularism coupled with sexism and Islamophobia has led the French Football Federation to ban the hijab on the pitch, a move that naturally excludes many women from the country’s Muslim population. There are also grassroots efforts in France to spread the game to more girls and women, and to deal with sexism and homophobia within the world of French football.
“Women’s football [in France] isn’t even at an inclusive level yet,” Ahmed said. Making French soccer more inclusive and open shouldn’t depend on success on the field, but perhaps with the heightened level of awareness of the sport, further challenges to the hijab ban and sexism and homophobia within the sport’s culture will emerge too.
There are fears among many that France’s progress overall could be temporary. “One of the questions that those of us within the French sports circle” are asking, Krasnoff said, is if “the interest and the popularity and the attention and media exposure and sponsorship, everything that’s come with this tournament, with this team this summer, is it going to be sustainable? Will it be a lasting thing? Is this truly a turning point or is it going to die out?”
No one knows the answer, but Les Bleues seem aware of what a victory over the United States, and two more after that, could mean for the future of women’s soccer in France.
“A trophy for us will be a turning point for women’s soccer in France,” Wendie Renard, the team’s star defender, wrote in The Players’ Tribune before the tournament. Beyond that, though, “with this tournament little girls all over … in Martinique, and in France especially, they will see us. They’ll see us out there. In our own space. And they’ll know that women play football, that it’s their job, too.”
France has sent a powerful message, no matter Friday’s result. A win, though, could signal the emergence of a new women’s soccer superpower.