“Est-ce que tu joues?” When asked if I play, I instinctively know that the inquirer is referring to tennis. France has an absolute love affair with the sport of tennis, which is more than just physical activity. It builds a whole social network for the individual who joins a club.
My husband, when he played in Texas, was ranked among the top in the state. In France, he spent his young life training and travelling to participate in tournaments, building his game as well as augmenting his rank. While less aggressive now, he still competes on two équipes. His body of friends were all acquired as he played at different clubs. Because he approaches tennis as more of a hobby than a career now, his national rank has declined. Though, upon making an acquaintance, the second meeting is nearly always over a tennis match.
Not my sport of choice, though one I enjoy playing and watching, one of the first questions I’m asked upon meeting someone is whether I play. “You should join a team, just for fun,” they suggest. I smile and nod without the intention of a such a commitment.
Unfathomable to French men and women alike, the piece of trivia Stéphane delights in sharing is that I played soccer competitively for seven years. Why does a country with an infatuation for “foot,” such as this, disclude women from the sport? Though French schools don’t offer the opportunity of participating on sports teams, in the U. S. there are still plenty of private clubs that offer seasonal competition.
France, a country where the population watches glued to their TV sets as local teams battle, strangely does not foster as well the opportunity for youth to play. With tickets to a few matches, I witnessed the riotous competition first hand as Paris Saint German played in their St. Cloud stadium. The crowd painted in blue, red and white cheered on favourites, while a rowdier section lit fireworks that filled the stadium with a hazy red glow. After each victory, the streets erupt in a noisy chorus of honking as supporters find their way home. The darlings of the World Cup French team, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry have been making their country proud. With the same respect and salary that would be given an NBA player, European footballers are celebrities.
I remember while watching my younger brother compete in the finals his first year of playing, feeling the pangs of desire to join a soccer team. Holding a hand decorated “Defeat the Eagles” banner, I didn’t want to be a cheerleader secluded to the sidelines. I desired to become part of the action, covered in a sweaty glisten after pursuing team victory, though there weren’t many, if any, options to join a team composed of girls. After moving to suburban Houston, I welcomed the opportunity to learn to play during the dawn of girls’ teams. Growing up strong, defending, prepared me to join the high school varsity team. School started early in the morning, before the winter sun rose, and, on-season I was there earlier running laps and passing balls. My involvement allowed me to experience Europe for the first time as I accompanied the school’s boys team to a friendly competition in Germany. Given a chance to play with the boys, I was no longer intimidated. After being carded for an aggressive slide tackle, imagine the referee’s shock when he realized I was a girl!
I spent the past weekend at a picnic, where, after gorging ourselves with bar-b-cue, we voted to start up a match in the interim before dessert. After slipping out of my sundress and into something more appropriate for playing, I passed a ball to one of the adolescent boys. “She’s going to play with us?” he demanded to his father in French. The women, equally stupefied, were surprised as I took the field to join the men and boys. Not in the same shape I was, after a nine-year recess since playing regularly, I did my best to defend the keeperless goal. As I marked my husband, he commented, “You play aggressive Cherie!” One mother who watched as I stole the ball away from her high school-aged son nodded in appreciation of my rusty skills. Today I’m feeling sore, loving every minute of it.
There is the rare football team for women here, but all in all, a female jouer is a rare phenomenon. I wonder how long it will take France to catch on to the constructive opportunity this sport provides for girls given the chance to become skilled in its tactics. When will the feminine French population be seen as equals on the soccer field, as they are on the tennis court?