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.”