REIMS, France — Daybreak is just before 6 a.m. this time of year. As the sun rises, it splinters through the windows lining the two towers of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, where at least 25 French kings were crowned through the centuries.
It’s the Coronation City, where Joan of Arc led Charles VII through enemy forces to liberate the French from the English nearly 600 years ago.
Champagne country, where the Iron Ladies of Champagne were among France’s first businesswomen. Their innovation and inventions more than 100 years ago created the bubbly brut drink so well-loved around the world today.
This is the place many credit for the rebirth of women’s soccer because the Pionnières de Reims took the field more than 50 years ago when France and England continued to ban women from the sport.
This city of Reims, with so many boundary-breaking women throughout its long and complicated history, is a fitting setting for a United States national team largely considered a trailblazer itself. The U.S. will open the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup against Thailand at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Reims’ Stade Auguste-Delaune, where that pioneering women’s team played for the first time in 1968.
“Knowing that Reims has such a history of successful women, or women who have stood up for what they believed in and have fought for work they were either banned from or that had barriers along the way, is incredible to be a part of and to be able to play in this city, do what we love and use this platform to continue to increase the access to girls and women in sport,” U.S. striker Alex Morgan said.
In addition to setting records on the field — entering the tournament as reigning world champions with three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals — the Americans are fighting for fair pay, launching brands, preaching equality, working to break down gender stereotypes and taking political stands.
All of that doesn’t come without controversy and critics, some who disagree or think they should keep quiet and just play the game. But the city of Reims is not one of them.
During a welcoming ceremony when the team arrived, deputy mayor Stéphane Lang gave a short speech about Reims’ history and said the city “supports you in your fight for salary equality.”
Most of the U.S. players didn’t know about the city’s history upon arrival. After learning more, defender Julie Ertz said she felt honored to play there.
U.S. forward Christen Press, who recently launched a lifestyle brand called re-inc with two teammates, said the context was “a nice reminder for us that what we’re doing is so much bigger than just a game.”
Just being in Reims makes you part of something bigger.
Walking the worn brick road lined with leafy trees that lead to the cathedral and its ornate facade full of gothic carvings, restored after burning to a shell during World War I.
Turning onto Rue Jeanne d’Arc, stopping in front of Square des Victimes de la Gestapo and passing through the iron gates of its entrance with a rising lump in your throat.
Visiting theMusée de la Reddition, better known as the little red schoolhouse, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s former headquarters where the Germans officially surrendered to end World War II.
“You have many, many important events taking place here,” said Cecile Depresles, a staff member at the Reims tourism center. “More than 50 percent of the city was destroyed during the first World War. That’s why you have many art deco houses, because 50 percent of the city has been rebuild. You have many battlefields around Reims, many cemeteries. The coronation of the French kings. Joan of Arc.
“She came here to the cathedral in 1429. Joan of Arc is very important. There is a statue on the place of the cathedral.”
Other notable women in Reims’ history include Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, better known as Madame Clicquot, who took over the Veuve Clicquot champagne cellar from her deceased husband in 1805 at the age of 27 to become the first businesswoman in the male-dominated industry.
She then created the first recorded vintage champagne in the region, according to the company’s official historical timeline, overcame a continental embargo and invented the first riddling table, which revolutionized champagne from a sweet, cloudy, large-bubbled drink to the brut style known today. Other women in Reims, such as Madame Louise Pommery, later went on to make waves in the industry.
And there’s the Pionnières de Reims. Women played soccer in front of large crowds in the early 1900s, but were banned from the sport in France in 1940. Reims’ local newspaper, L’Union, put out an ad looking for women to play an exhibition match at an annual fair and received an overwhelming response, according to various accounts in L’Union and other French media outlets.
After the initial match in 1968, the team continued to play and pushed for the French Football Federation to recognize women’s soccer, a fight won in 1970. Four years later, the Stade de Reims women’s team became one of the inaugural members of the renewed Division 1 Féminine and won five national championships between 1975 and 1982.
Now, the 2019 Women’s World Cup and the USWNT will be part of Reims’ history, too.
“I think this World Cup is going to be the most watched,” Morgan said. “And so to have the start of this World Cup in Reims is very fitting.”