Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Male Gaze and the Women’s World Cup

My recent post on Louisa Necib has been the most visted post I’ve ever written on this blog. That’s a great testament to the burst of interest this Women’s World Cup has generated around the world. (France’s semi-final  game, for instance, attracted 4 million viewers in a country that has been very slow to adopt women’s football). But a small but significant minority of those who found their way to the article did so after typing in “Louisa Necib nude” or “Louisa Necib hot” – or in a few desperate cases, “Louisa Necib boyfriend” on a google search. Jennifer Doyle — who has, for years, written brilliantly on the topic of the representation of female athletes — reported similarly recently that the title of her blog post, “Allez les Nudes” created a jump in her blog traffic. It turns out, then, that our high-falutin’ blogs are partly being sustained by people looking for naked pictures of female soccer players.

In 1999, Brandi Chastain famously (or infamously) posed naked — though demurely covered with soccer balls — in a series of photographs published in Gear magazine. The photographs were partly an attempt to get attention for the Women’s World Cup team, and they generating tremendous debate at the time about the merits and consequences of such a strategy. That, coupled, with the famous “bra” moment at the end of the 1999 World Cup final, generated a memorable controversy at the time.

Times have changed since then for U.S. women’s soccer. But with the drama of the World Cup suddenly over, it might be worth asking how issues of sexuality and representation played themselves out in this tournament — particularly in the U.S. and France — and what that might mean for the future of women’s sports.

In the past days a flood of people have effusively praised the U.S. women’s national team. That’s a beautiful and just thing, and hopefully will end up producing at least some devoted new converts to women’s soccer. Some commentators have moved beyond calls for equality for women’s sport, insisting that female athletes are actually superior to men in crucial ways. We seem to be long way from the representation of Women’s soccer as it briefly appeared in the best sports series in recent years, “Friday Night Lights”: in the figure of a slightly crazed, mystifyingly angry female coach bandying a deflated soccer ball and demanding to know why she couldn’t get any funding while the football team got all of it. Though of course, as a number of more wary commentators have been noting all along,  all this enthusiasm may prove fleeting: it remains to be seen whether the profound inequality in the funding given and media attention paid of women’s sports gets addressed. Many seem eager to burden the U.S. women’s national team with the burden of converting a nation to soccer. But the reality is that if anyone is to blame in the comparative marginalization of the sport, it’s a soccer federation that has never given it as much support as it deserves, and a media that doggedly refuses to foreground women’s soccer even as they feed us a steady diet of mediocre spectacle from other sports.

Much of the explosion support for the team is very straightforward and simply enthusiastic. But there’s also been plenty of more coded twitter-love showered on the stars of the U.S. team — a quick search will turn up any number of amorous declarations, requests for marriage, links to photographs with descriptors like “hot!”, and banter — variously charming and smarmy — about the comparative sexiness of players. Today, @Futfanatico wondered what to make of the various marriage proposals proffered to Alex Morgan on her facebook pageOne response was pretty clear: “I think it’s creepy + pathetic.” There is similar chatter surrounding the French team, and I assume other teams as well. Some of the marriage proposals were made in a much more public way.

Crushing on athletes is, of course, itself an energizing and widespread sport. And the objectification of athletes — sexual or otherwise — is chronic and institutionalized. The endlessly entertaining and clever site, Kickette, excels at providing gregarious coverage focused largely on the sexiness of various football players. Princeton English Professor Jeffrey Nunokawa, who has recently been profiled in the New Yorker for his series of remarkable Facebook essays, considers Fernando Torres perhaps his greatest muse. And, as one visitor to this blog noted pointedly in a comment on an earlier draft of this post, there are certainly many women also gazing at and admiring the stars of the World Cup, and some who — at a WPS game in New York just after the tournament — publicly proposed marriage to Alex Morgan.

But as the World Cup wound down, the inimitable Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA, declared: “A great thing about the women’s football is they don’t cheat. It might not be the same in their other lives.” The statement, which I’m sure he and those who will rush to his defense in the coming days consider innocuous and amusing, is not only further proof — as if any such proof was needed — of just how geriatric, corrupt, and out-of-touch FIFA’s ruling class is with the sport they purport to represent. It’s also an important reminder of how thoroughly embedded sexism of various forms truly is within sporting institutions. And in a world structured by patriarchal power and discourse, sexual objectification doesn’t work the same way in both directions. That much is clear when you read certain pieces about the World Cup, of the “We’re guys and this is how we are, and if we poke fun at ourselves we’re allowed to be sexists” variety that occupies an important place in the sports blogosphere.

As Brandi Chastain did in 1999, some in France this year  tried to put the sexual attractiveness of players to use in campaigns to gain attention and support for women’s football. French photographs featuring nude players — including striker Gaëtane Thiney —  sought to pull in viewers with sultry, seductive photographs and then, in the corner, admonished them: “Is this what it’s going to take for you to watch us?” In a very different vein, photographer Sandrine Lambletin also made a set of photographs of players, including Louisa Necib and Elodie Thomis.

The situation in France is very different from that in the U.S. on so many levels, as the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn case has illuminated. And women’s football is much better supported and established here than in France. But I’m curious to hear how people view the experience this roller-coaster World Cup, the sudden shift from general indifference to passionate and patriotic attention, the marketing campaigns, twitter conversations, and everyday discussions surrounding the team. What difference does it make that the athletic heroes of the moment are women? How different is the situation today than it was in 1999? Should we celebrate progress and simply enjoy the fact that these athletes are finally gaining the attention and adoration they have long deserved? Does the adoration, by men and boys, of women’s players represent something “wicked cool and a big step forward in gender relations,” as one writer has put it? Or does all of this just cover up how far there still is to go in the struggle for true sporting equality?

Into the Blue

A tremendous game today: the polar opposite of U.S.-Brazil, and indeed of France-England, but as riveting in it’s way. That was a relief, since I’m not sure I could have handled the kinds of emotional ups and downs that this past weekend delivered. Tonight, instead of the drama of confusing calls and the absurdity of penalty kicks, we had a clean, flowing game, one won through determined and brilliant play-making by the U.S. France played well, and indeed dominated possession, but in the end couldn’t convert their technical brilliance into goals. We’ll get to see them play once more, against Sweden, this Saturday, where they’ll battle for third place.

France go brought a dynamic and exciting kind of play to the pitch that no other team in the tournament really did. My hope — and I realize it’s a somewhat utopian one — is that the success of the French team in this World Cup will help prod the French Football Federation to do more to train and support women’s players, and will help the expansion of the women’s professional leagues as well. The players on the team have, for a moment, become celebrities in France, drawing many people disgusted and alienated by the problems with the men’s team back to football. As I told Marco Werman on “The World” today, that will only be meaningful in the long-term, of course, if it helps spur on institutional and cultural changes that open more doors for the women’s game. I’m rather pessimistic about how much the leadership French Football Federation — which has shown itself to be remarkably sclerotic institutionally, and indeed prone to bouts of blame-the-victim racist delirium — will actually respond to that call. But one can hope that, as was the case in the U.S. after 1999, the grassroots support and development of French football — coupled with a furthering commitment on the part of the fine French academy system — will contribute to the continuing rise of French women’s football.

More broadly, in a France shaken up by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, which raises profound questions about gender, power and politics in the country, the symbolism surrounding the French women’s team is important. The question of gender equality in France is a fascinating one: while socialized medicine and excellent state-subsidized childcare provide an advantage for women, in terms of the division of domestic labor, salaries, and workplace politics, the country actually lags behind the U.S. and many other Western European countries. This could well be the time for younger women in France to begin to take on a political and social that remains oddly patriarchal. The players on the French women’s team have not, so far, taken political positions of the kind for which Lilian Thuram is famous. Yet it was significant that today, as Jennifer Doyle pointed out, the anti-discrimination statement read by the French team included a mention of homophobia — which the English-language statement read by the U.S. team didn’t explicitly. I’m not sure who wrote that statement, and whether the players or the coach were at all involved — it may simply be a federation product — but it’s intriguing. In addition to the question of whether this team’s run might help push women’s football ahead in France, there is also an interesting question about how the players who have gained some notoriety this summer may end up acting as public figures, media symbols, and perhaps even political voices. France is in desperate need of fresh thinking right now, and it would be interesting if women’s sport could at least contribute to a shift in cultural mores and public discourse around gender.

Whether any of this comes to pass, we are left with the tremendous the joy of watching players like Delie, Necib, Abily, Thiney and Bompastor, of seeing French football at it’s best, for once. For that, we have those players — and their poetic, and slightly hazy coach Bini — to thank. We will get to see them once more, in the third place match, before they head home.


In this game, though, the U.S. certainly proved itself superior, not always in technical skill but in the overall handling of the game, and of course in finishing those goals. Sometimes semi-final matches in World Cups are a disappointment, but this wasn’t. And now the U.S. will face another blue-clad team, Japan, the revelation of the tournament and clearly a daunting foe, as Germany and Sweden have already learned. It promises to be one more fascinating match. Already, though, I feel a twinge of regret that, after today, there will only be one more game left in this transporting World Cup.

Referees and Redemption: On the U.S vs. Brazil World Cup Match

Of all the things that impressed and elated me about the play of the U.S. team yesterday against Brazil, one might come as a bit of a surprise. It was this: during the waning minutes of the game, before Rapinoe’s cross and Wambach’s brilliant header, at least two players did their best to draw penalty kick calls against Brazil. It’s always dangerous and highly subjective to try and make clear distinctions between a legitimate fall and a dive in football.  People can, and frequently do, engage in discussions of almost Talmudic proportions about this — and I won’t say I know for sure. But I will say this: if they were dives, as I’m sure many Brazilian fans believed they were, and if one of them had led to a penalty kick and a goal for the U.S., I would have been delighted.

As it turns out, the U.S. got a goal in a much more elegant and satisfying way. But I mention this here as we look ahead to the semi-final game against France because I see it as one of the truest signs of how terrific and skilled this team is. They used all the tools at their disposal yesterday, brilliantly and victoriously.

Football is a full spectrum sport: it takes as much mental as physical agility, as much tactical sense as athleticism, and as much theatricality as forthrightness. It is notoriously, even constitutively, unfair. With glaring and frustrating consistency, referees make a huge and often decisive difference in a game, as Jacqui Melksham did yesterday. That is how the sport is structured, and it means that any decent team is constantly directing a certain amount of their energy towards influencing the referee in their favor, through words or performance.

You can lament this fact about football, as many occasional viewers of the sport in the U.S. do, dreaming up some different game in which none of this would be the case. But football as it is has, over the course of the past century, conquered the world. It’s international competitions are the largest theater that has ever existed in human history. If that is true it is precisely because it’s form — with all its infuriating unfairness — is precisely what allows the kind of unforgettable drama we watched yesterday to unfold and take hold of our imaginations.

All of this is partly to explain why the way in which the Brazilian players — and especially Marta — were booed during the game and vilified afterwords left a pall over the experience for me. There was, as Jennifer Doyle noted this morning, a “dark undercurrent” in many comments about the Brazilian team (and Marta in particular) on twitter, and an unappealing and at times gloating tone to some of the on-air commentary as well. Perhaps much of this is inevitable — sports fans are, of course, not known for the empathy towards the other team, and in the rush of a game emotions take hold. But, the morning after, it is worth thinking through precisely what happened on the field yesterday — in order to understand why the U.S. win matters so much.

The series of referee calls that ended up producing Brazil’s equalizing goals were, at the moment, totally baffling. What’s interesting in looking back at them, however, is that each of them, on their own, seems to have been technically justifiable. (I won’t say “correct,” since there’s always plenty of latitude in interpretation here.) Many in the U.S. obviously feel that the foul call against Marta was unjustified. But she was taken down while heading for what seemed likely to be a goal, and many referees would have done what Melksham did yesterday and awarded a red card and a penalty kick. Ian Darke in fact made this point on ESPN at the time. The decision was on the harsh side, but certainly within the bounds of normal refereeing practice.

It was, to be sure, a huge and shocking blow to the U.S. team. Which is why what happened next seemed particularly, excruciatingly unfair. There’s still confusion about precisely why Solo’s save of the first penalty kick was disallowed. (FIFA’s penchant for secrecy carries over to the way it organizes post-match press-conferences with referees, which are vague and almost always useless.) But it seems, at least according to some commentators, that the reason was not that Solo moved off the line (which she didn’t do) but because one of the U.S. defenders encroached into the area just before the kick was taken.

The law against encroachment is applied infrequently, and often seems a little superfluous if not absurd. But it is on the books for a reason: when a penalty kick is taken in the course of the game, the ball is still in play. If the goalie blocks it, and players from both teams can try and score a goal. The problem with a player encroaching on the area before the kick is taken is that it gives that player an unfair advantage in the scrum around a blocked penalty kick.

Last year in South Africa, during the Spain-Paraguay quarter-final match, the referee made an encroachment call — one as infuriating to Spanish fans as the one yesterday was to U.S. fans. (I was at the game, and like most people in the stadium had no idea what was going on.) In that case, Spain was given a penalty kick and scored, but it was disallowed because of encroachment by Spanish players. (In that case, to be sure, the encroachment was more blatant than it was yesterday, involving several players, as you can see in the photograph below, part of a longer discussion of the refereeing of the game). The second penalty kick was then blocked by the Paraguayan goalkeeper. If the game had gone differently — if Villa had not eventually scored — that encroachment call could well have kept Spain out of the World Cup final.

The final controversial refereeing decision yesterday came when Marta scored her second goal — a brilliant shot — after what may have been an offside by another Brazilian player. Here too, there’s still confusion — I’ve seen replays and photos (like the one below) but am still not sure. But if we wanted to start listing all the times a goal was allowed with an offside, or disallowed because an offside call that turned out to be wrong, we’d all be here for the rest of eternity. What is perhaps more significant  is that the fact that Shannon Boxx was busy lobbying the referee for an offside call was actually what gave Marta the space to score the goal — a mistake you can see clearly on the replay. It’s always better to depend on your feet than on the uncertainty of a referees’ call.

Melksham was, without a doubt, a highly interventionist referee — irritatingly so. Her style contrasted markedly with the referee in the previous day’s France-England match, who was much more low-key and hands-off. Melksham’s mistake was in failing to reach some kind of balance in the game. I doubt there has ever been a football match that was perfectly refereed, or one in which neither side had a grievance with the officiating. But the best referees establish authority and keep themselves out of the game as much as possible while still policing it. At its worst, their authority becomes overbearing, as it did yesterday. Piling on the red card plus a penalty plus not allowing a penalty after it was saved because of a what was at worse relatively minor technical violation was simply too much: it felt like a curse. Melksham seemed to be attempting to balance things out when she disallowed the first U.S. penalty kick, which was blocked by the Brazilian keeper, because she moved off the line. By then, of course, she’d lost the confidence of most who were watching, and was probably just desperate to get away from an experience that must have been quite hellish for her as well. Refereeing football, after all, is a particularly grueling job, and indeed I think it’s kind of a miracle that anybody is willing to do it. Those who do certainly deserve much less grief, and more sympathy, than they generally get.

Here’s the thing, though: in none of these cases did Marta do anything particularly egregious. Nevertheless, frustrated at the referee, the crowd in the stadium and the virtual crowd on twitter attacked her, booing her whenever she touched the ball. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in football, of course, and we all have our villains (I still can’t get over Suarez blocking the ball with his hand during the Uruguay-Ghana match). But to me it felt ugly and unnecessary.

The most infuriating action on the field came late in overtime when Erica ate several minutes of time — precious to the U.S., and dangerous for Brazil — with what a feigned injury. She did this in a particularly unabashed and obvious way, but it is a classic technique, one deployed traditionally in many, many games. Indeed, if the roles had been reversed and the U.S. had been up, I would have expected our team to do whatever they could to waste time — taking slow goal kicks, throw-ins, etc. Erica went too far with the tactic, and it came off as particularly cynical. But it wasn’t  outside the bounds of all sporting behavior, nor was it — as some seemed to feel — an affront to Western Civilization. It was just cynical, unappealing, desperate football. And, as several people who commented on this post have pointed out, Melksham did give Erica a yellow card for this — something quite rare. And in an interesting twist, it was during the time added to the clock to make up for that incident that Rapinoe and Wambach made their now-canonical goal.

In the midst of a game like yesterday’s, it’s easy and convenient to forget how many football matches have been shaped by refereeing as or more  egregious than what we saw yesterday. In fact, such controversies are so common that they pretty much have to be considered a core aspect of actually-existing football. It might seem ungracious to cite the most famous game in the history of U.S. women’s soccer to make this point, but it’s worth doing so. In 1999 — twelve years to the day from yesterday’s match — Briana Scurry famously stepped off the line and blocked the third penalty kick taken by China. It was a pretty blatant violation of the laws of the game, and she and others admitted it afterwords. The referee didn’t call it. That call put China one point down, allowing Brandi Chastain to win the World Cup with her legendary goal. Did we care? No. Should we? Probably not. (The truly moral course of action, presumably, would have been to forfeit the trophy after a public admission of guilty). We should be glad that, in the wild mess of football refereeing, we happened to luck out in that particular case. But do China fans have the right to feel like victory was stolen from them by a referee? They do, just as we could have blamed the referee if the U.S. had lost yesterday.

Indeed, fans of Brazil have their own grievances with the referee from yesterday’s game: as one reminded me almost as soon as I posted these thoughts this morning, I forgot to mention Carli Lloyd’s intentional hand-ball earlier in the game, which some thought deserved a yellow card — which would have gotten her expelled from the game and totally changed the dynamic at that point, presumably in favor of Brazil. Each game, in fact provides what anthropologist Christian Bromberger describes as an “inexaustible terrain of interpretation,” a kind of infinite regression into which we can all pour our analysis — and our rage — without ever coming to a clear consensus about right and wrong, fair and unfair.

It’s very satisfying to feel aggrieved, as the reaction to the U.S.-Slovenia game last year demonstrated. We in the U.S., it turns out, can do it as expertly as anyone in the world. It a useful response, and helps particularly as a form of angry mourning after a defeat. You can keep it up for decades, in fact: talk to a French football fan of a certain age about the 1982 semi-final against Germany, and they will tell you about bad refereeing.

But the crucial thing about yesterday’s game was that, while commentators in the U.S. were busy feeling persecuted and sorry for themselves, the players on the team didn’t waste their time with that. Instead, they played, and fought, and kept pushing until they finally broke through and scored. That was the key to their victory: they did what the greatest of teams to, bouncing back and pushing on, without letting the fury they must have felt get in the way of brilliant playing and clinical penalty kicks. That is what makes them a great team — one of the greatest the U.S. has ever seen.

Those skills will serve them well against France on Wednesday. The two teams come into the semi-final with a remarkably parallel experience in this tournament. They both did well in their first two group games — France with more panache than the U.S. particularly in their game against Canada — but then lost the third against tough opponents. They both went through grueling quarter-final matches and won on penalty kicks — and both showed tremendous mental strength, pulling out goals late in the game and taking their penalty kicks with cool power. They’ll both be tired physically, but mentally charged up from their victories. They have different styles of play, and the conflict promises to be riveting.

Interestingly, there will be two models of training and player development up against one another on Wednesday. U.S. women’s soccer has long been sustained by college and university programs (notably UNC) which have produced our greatest players. In France, players take a different route: most of those on the team went through state-supported player academies, notably the national academy at Clairefontaine. In both countries, however, the existence of professional leagues has been crucial in supporting the women’s game — many of the French players are together at the leading women’s team, Lyon, and it shows in their cohesive play on the field.

Though the French players and the team in general was far less known than the Brazilians before this World Cup, players like Louisa Necib and Marie-Laure Delie have shown brilliance on the field and, alongside players like Wambach, Solo and Krieger, can lay claim to being among the great stars of the game. When they face off against the now canonized Wambach, Solo, Rapinoe and Krieger, it will — hopefully — be for another remarkable match.

Then again, maybe not. Sometimes quarter-finals are the best games of the World Cup. And there’s always the chance that a bad referee will mess everything up — or else, as Melksham did yesterday, set up the very conditions of possibility for a story of heroism and redemption that is one for the ages. For now though, between the giddy haze of yesterday’s victory and the pleasant expectation of more to come, we should remember that it is precisely the mad and infuriating form of football that delivers all of this: the sense of history, of being in precisely the right moment at the right time, of seeing things unfold as they should, as they must.

The Global Future of Women’s Football

Today’s World Cup matches, alternately exhilarating and devastating, were a powerful demonstration of the global strength of women’s football. Though of course both German and England fans are deeply disappointed tonight, the upending of traditional hierarchies in the game — exemplified by Japan’s surprise victory over Germany — can be read as a good sign for the future of the game. The competition is fierce, diverse and surprising, and it is so despite long-standing inequalities and lack of support from national federations: it is where it is because of the work of devoted and talented coaches and players, a number of whom we say play themselves literally into the ground today.

I expected the France-England match up to be the nail-biter of the day. It certainly was one: grueling for the players, and pretty grueling for fans of both teams too. I went into the game rooting for France, who played beautifully. When you root for France, you often find yourself twisted around on the floor, unbelieving, because so often beautiful play doesn’t lead to wins or goals. Today I felt that sinking feeling several times, and in fact was convinced England was going to win for much of the game, down the end.

The drama of the games was enough to pull my son — normally impervious to the seductions of football — into the fray, and he drew a picture of Jill Scott’s goal against France that somehow captures for me some of the anguish and madness of the game. (He has an illustrious history of drawing soccer games.)

I never stopped rooting for France, but somehow I also started rooting for England too. (I realize this is not really good for one’s mental health.) I couldn’t root against them, as they broke up the French attacks, soldiered on incredibly well despite injuries, into additional time. Their play was tenacious, heroic, and in it’s own way epic. At a certain point, I just couldn’t stand watching the game anymore. I left the room twice — during the last minutes of the game, and again during PKs. I missed France’s last-minute goal, and I watched the penalty kicks out of the corner of my eye, with the sound turned off. Either outcome seemed somehow tragic, for both teams had brought an incredible level of play to the field. Watching this again later, though, I was impressed by the relatively cool and clinical way the last 4 French players shot their kicks, especially given the fact that Abily’s was blocked. Congratulations to France for going to the semi-finals for the first time in history, and equally strong condolences to England who should and could just as easily have been there.

My afternoon plan — to follow the certain triumph of Germany from a distance — was disrupted by the brilliant play of the Japanese. I was pulled back to the screen. That game will probably overshadow the England-France game in the history of the women’s World Cup for many for it’s thoroughly unexpected,  course and outcome. I can only imagine the sorrow emanating from the pores of many German fans, but can’t help feeling elation too for the history-making Japanese team. How are we supposed to live with so much contradictory emotion, so many cross-currents of loyalty and meaning? Football is enough to drive you crazy on a day like today.

The only consolation, perhaps, is what a powerful statement both teams made today about the power and drama of women’s soccer, it’s capacity not just to equal but in many ways surpass men’s teams, and the future it certainly deserves — if only the media and football federations can understand that. These games should push us to begin to think carefully, and comparatively, about how the various professional leagues and academies in different countries have enabled countries like Japan and France to do so well in this cup. We tend to think about this in the U.S. in relation to the high of 1999, and the question of why women’s football has struggled professionally and in a way never gotten back to the level of interest it garnered then. But there’s a much larger global story at work here: the U.S. women’s team deserves tremendous credit for having pushed forward the women’s game internationally, putting pressure on other federations in other countries to catch up. The intensity of the competition this year is a testament to the fact that the U.S. (along with traditional powerhouses like Germany, or else Norway and China which didn’t even qualify this year) will never again be able to assume dominance in the global competition. That is hard, of course, for those teams, but it’s a sign of the health and vigor of the game worldwide.

We obviously should not to be too sanguine about what all this means for the future of women’s football. There has been so much holding back the development of the women’s game, as Jennifer Doyle and John Turnbull have eloquently explained in recent pieces. The low level support given to many women’s teams is despicable, media coverage is still unequal and dogged by sexism, and FIFA and many national federations should be held to account for cynical policies and a lack of commitment to the coherent development of the women’s game. If we are able to be so enthralled by the play in this World Cup, it is only because — against the odds, generation to generation — players and managers have shown a commitment to the development of the game that shone through in today’s exhausting and exhilarating performances.

Louisa Necib, Algeria, and the Redemption of French Football

Watching the France-Canada game of the Women’s World Cup yesterday, I was exhilarated by the playing of the French side. Their dominance in the game was a surprise to many, and to me, and also a little ghostly: suddenly, I was watching the sort of flowing, graceful, entertaining French football which for the past years had existed mainly in my imagination. As she so often does, Liz Hottel (@thegirlatthepub) summed up the experience perfectly on twitter: “So now we know why the #FRA men showed no class, cooperation, or magic last year. The #FRA women had stockpiled it all. #impressive.”

Everything was, for an instant, perfect. The French team wasn’t wearing those ridiculous striped jerseys fobbed on to us by Nike (though I think the might be later in the tournament): they were clad in the traditional blue that makes the chant “Allez les Bleus!” actually feel appropriate. There was not, hovering over the field, the specter of either: a. prostitution scandals; b. crazed coaches; c. player strikes. There was, for an instant, just beautiful football.

Not that one could forget, for very long, the broader context of sexism that shadows the Women’s World Cup. The French media has rather unenthusiastic (to put it politely) in it’s coverage of the event, though of course that might change now that they smell a happy story unfolding. As was the case in the U.S. in 1999, some players felt driven to participate in an advertising campaign in which they appeared nude (with arms demurely covering themselves — rather than, as in Brandi Chastain’s famous case, soccer balls) in photographs that attempted to simultaneously satisfy voyeurism and post-modern disenchantment and distance with a small caption that read: “Is this what it will take for you to watch us?” As painfully, the players also were included as often slightly uncomfortable-looking lip-syncers in an official French Football Federation video, which somehow (like a fair amount of French popular culture), just comes off as depressing.

We’ll have to see what happens now — which will depend of course on whether the French team continues to play well or not; it’s next fixture against Germany will be a defining one. Even though both will likely go on from their group either way, the victor in that match will have, at least in principle, an easier opponent in the next round. Right now, the goal differential secured by France with it’s stream of four goals (coupled with Germany’s tough win over Nigeria) has placed it, to many people’s surprise, at the top of it’s group.

Tweeting from a rather dreary-sounding pub in Southwest France, Jennifer Doyle reported on what I imagine is actually probably a relatively frequent comment made by viewers of France’s team: “I heard ‘At least the women aren’t all black’ four times today, from neighbors & fellow barflies.” Indeed, the make-up of the French women’s team perhaps reminds fans more of the 1998 team that won the men’s World Cup: a diverse team, mostly white, with a few key players of North/West African or Caribbean background. Marie-Laure Delie is the child of immigrants from the Ivory Coast, while the tremendous defender Laure Georges and Elodie Thomis — who came off the bench to score France’s fourth goal — were born in metropolitan France to parents from the French Antilles (like Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Eric Abidal, and several others). If you were tempted to succumb to what seems like misplaced nostalgia, you could even dub the French trio of Delie, Thiney, and Necib, “black, blanc, beur,” the way the players of 1998 were.

Though she didn’t score any goals yesterday, the player who stood out most was Louisa Necib, one of the current stars of women’s football in France. Though it’s not as if she’s been lavished with attention by any means, the media has dubbed Necib the “new Zidane,” or as Nacym Djender, writing for the Algerian football newspaper Le Buteur put it in May 5, 2009 interview, a “Zidanette.” You always have to be weary of these kinds of nicknames, of course, though Necib’s playing yesterday — smooth, silky, technically superb and fun to watch, and central to the construction of the French game — does have something of Zidane about it. Djender wrote that Necib is an “artist,” a “Brazilian,” and even declared that she might be capable of “dethroning” Marta as one of the best players in the world. Necib told him she thought the comparison as a bit “over-exaggerated,” — “Zidane is still Zidane!” — though admits she’s flattered. The comparison comes easily, of course, because Necib, like Zidane, grew up in the poorer sections of Marseille, the child of parents from Algeria.

As she explained in a February 16, 2009 interview with now-defunct online magazine Les dessous du sport, she grew up playing football in her neighborhood, mainly with boys, and didn’t know that there even were women’s teams. As an adolescent, she learned about a club in Marseille, and signed up. In 2007, she was recruited by Olympique Lyonnais, the leading women’s team in France. She is one of a group of ten players on the national team who play together at Lyonnais right now, which is certainly one reason why the team looks so good. Last year’s Spanish men’s team made quite evident how useful it is to have a national team composed of a core that plays together professionally; similarly, the 1999 U.S. women’s World Cup team depended on a core of players who had been together at UNC. This French team makes clear how crucial the existence of a women’s professional league system is to improving the quality of international play.

Because of her background, Necib shares with Zidane something else: the curious burden of being a prominent French-Algerian. In the 2009 interview by Le Buteur, Necib was asked about her relationship to her parent’s country. “France is now ‘stealing’ our girls, too,” the journalist wrote in the introduction to the interview, lamenting the “loss” of talent to France.

Necib’s father had migrated to France from Biskra, and her mother from Oran, and she explained that she only went back occasionally on family visits. So, like Zidane, Necib could have applied for Algerian citizenship and played for the Algerian team. Of course, between France’s women’s team — ranked 7th in the world today — and the Algerian women’s team, ranked 78th, there isn’t much doubt which would provide better conditions or exposure for Necib.

Though, as her interviewer pointed out, at Lyon she was surrounded by Algerians: her coach, Farid Benstiti, is of Algerian background and grew up in France, and had played as an international on the Algerian team. The President of the women’s club, meanwhile, as “more Algerian than all of us”: Paul Piemontese was born and raised in the Kabyle region of Algeria, part of the European settler community, and after independence migrated to France but retained many ties with Algeria. As Necib put it: “You can tell he’s really tied to Algeria. There’s no doubt, he’s a real Algerian.” Something of the hauntings of the history of Algeria here came through here, but charmingly: Necib and her coach Benstiti are really French, of Algerian background, while Piemontese strikes them as a “real Algerian,” speaking often about a homeland that he knows better than they do.

At the end of the interview, Necib was asked the kind of question often posed to Zidane as well: Did she regret playing for France instead of Algeria? Or did she, rather, see herself as “representing all the Algerians who live in France”? Her answer was as masterful as her playing on the field: “You know, my heart is so big that it can hold love for two countries: France and Algeria. . . . When I play for France, there’s no doubt that my heart also stays Algerian.”