CHICAGO — “Maybe in France, one day, it could be like this.”
That’s what a young Brigitte Henriques thought when she traveled with the French national team to play matches in the United States. Those were the days when players like Mia Hamm were bringing U.S. women’s soccer into the limelight – and becoming superstars within the overall sporting landscape.
France will get its chance to step into the women’s soccer spotlight this summer, when it hosts the World Cup in June and July. Henriques is the French Federation’s vice president and was in Chicago Thursday for a panel at the United Soccer Coaches convention. She — along with federation secretary general Laura Georges, who played at Boston College and for the French national team – presented for an hour, touching on everything from ticket sales, the country’s goals for its hosting experience and the perception of women’s soccer in France.
Georges also spoke of the women’s soccer culture in the United States. Young soccer players in France only recently have had star women players from their country to look up to. But superstar women’s soccer players have existed in the U.S. for many years, dating back to the 1999 World Cup win.
“What I like and what I wish we could bring in France is the atmosphere, the support of the game,” Georges said. “To have role models – because in France, now it’s starting, players are role models. When I came to the U.S. … it was already in the culture, a woman’s football player, you’re a role model.”
Passion for French soccer in general has certainly been on an uptick since the men’s national team won its own World Cup last summer. But Henriques and Georges were careful to reiterate that their goal wasn’t to simply jump onto fans’ passion for the men’s game, but to instead fortify interest in the women’s game as its own entity.
The World Cup is not just a month-long event: It’s a chance to build the women’s game, Henriques and Georges said. Their objectives included five main components, which they listed on their convention presentation slides. Success on the sporting side and full stadiums were obvious ones, but the last one was “leave a strong legacy for women’s sport.” This World Cup, with more media attention and more expensive TV rights than ever, will perhaps be an unprecedented platform to do just that.
Part of building the “legacy” is being successful with ticket sales. There are 1.3 million tickets on sale. About 295,000 tickets are already sold (77,000 of those to Americans). Ticket packages for the semifinal and final matches in Lyon were sold out in six hours.
But another important aspect of building the women’s game, Georges and Henriques said, is taking advantage of the cities in France that want to be part of that evolution. There was some debate initially on whether the last matches of the World Cup should be held in Paris or Lyon. Paris wanted to “welcome the world” with the first match of the tournament. It’s certainly the city most people think of when they think of France. But eventually, Lyon became the landing spot for the tournament’s capstone week.
“I think Lyon is the best place for the semifinal and final,” Henriques said. “It’s really difficult in Paris to make people come in for the women’s sport.”
Added Georges: “We wanted to make sure the cities hosting the World Cup were really willing to bring something to the women’s game.”
All host cities are expected to have “fan zones” of some type, or viewing areas where people without tickets can watch the matches and still experience some of the atmosphere.
Still, tickets for the matches were highly affordable. Packages for three matches start at 25 euros, which averages out to about $10 per match.
Despite the tournament’s affordability, Georges and Henriques said free tickets were never an option. Part of the country’s plan for the World Cup is to make sure the women’s game is valued.
They hope that men’s teams in the area – who traditionally have more resources and much larger platforms – will recognize that value as well, after their work with the World Cup is done.
“What we expect is to have more men’s professional teams supporting the women’s game,” Georges said. “Make sure that they really think: ‘We are doing it because they ask us? No, we are doing it because it’s worth it.’”