French freestyler Lisa Zimouche is the nutmeg queen
In celebration of Women's History Month, espnW presents "In Her Shoes," a series of essays and features highlighting women, their journeys and perspectives on sports.
On the rooftop patio of Brooklyn's newest indoor soccer facility, Socceroof, onlookers stare at a young woman balancing a ball on the sole of her upturned shoe. At 5-foot-3, she's dwarfed by a yellow and black Puma bomber jacket, her wild mane of thick, dark hair pulled into a ponytail. While moving to a seated position, she continues juggling all the way to the ground, her feet parallel to the ground and each other.
She then starts to rise, balancing the ball on her forehead like a seal while sneaking a glance at a wide-eyed young girl emerging from a crowd of over 100. They wave to each other.
Her name is Lisa Zimouche, 19, one of the most visible and influential talismans in soccer's freestyle subculture.
And she's just warming up.
Freestyle is soccer's equivalent of a guitar solo: skillful juggling and trickery alone. It's Stevie Ray Vaughan soloing behind his back, Jimi Hendrix plucking notes with his teeth. There are no goals to score, no possession to maintain -- just art in motion.
Born 3,600 miles from this rooftop in the south suburbs of Paris to Algerian emigrants, Zimouche took quickly to organized soccer.
"I brought my ball everywhere," she says with a laugh.
Zimouche can hardly remember walking down the Champs-Elysees without one in hand.
Even as a zephyr sends hammocks spinning over themselves, Zimouche clutches tighter to the ball tucked beneath her arm.
"I grew up with my ball. So much so that, one day, my mom said, 'I think it's time we sign you up for a team,'" Zimouche says.
She'd wind up at Paris Saint-Germain's youth academy, but by 10, she became fascinated with street soccer, freestyle and panna, a one-on-one game in which each player tries to nutmeg (or place the ball through the legs of) their opponent. In panna and freestyle, players compete in tight circles to a chorus of whoops and hollers. In either, getting nutmegged is the kiss of death, simultaneously a coup de grace and a personal affront. Zimouche began competing in both while still at the academy.
On July 27, 2013, Zimouche posted her first soccer video to Instagram: a blurry clip of her freestyling, balancing a ball on her forehead, neck and shoulders while whirling about. She began to make videos, juggling and playing one-on-one, when she wasn't at practice, school or competing. They were shaky at first, made with and by friends, but the nutmeg was already her specialty. The backdrops were various rooms in her home, gyms and anonymous swaths of Paris pavement, set to thumping Jay-Z and Drake tracks.
Around that time, Lisa met Sean Garnier, the world's most prominent street soccer star, who has more than 7 million followers and subscribers on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube combined. Garnier thought Zimouche would make a fine addition to his freestyle crew Street Style Society, known as S3. (Lisa would make videos and appear with S3 for a spell before breaking out on her own.)
By September 2014, she'd amassed 10,000 Instagram followers. She also started to realize she felt constrained by the limitations of organized soccer. (Imagine telling Edgar Degas how to paint.)
She had to choose freestyle and panna or organized soccer.
"I wanted to make freestyle my thing and my work," she says. "Freestyle, it's football, it's dance, it's a good mix of what I love."
She left PSG to focus on freestyle and panna competitions, as well as her own videos and brand, full time.
"With freestyle, I can play with my hands, my head, sit down; there are no rules. I can play with people in the streets, I can be in a show. I can bring everyone together."
In 2015, a year after leaving the academy, she was the Female Panna World Champion. That August, her Instagram following had grown to 300,000. Her videos were no longer set against run-down basketball courts; she was at Parc des Princes, impressing Marquinhos and then-PSG winger Lucas Moura.
"[PSG] was good. I learned how to play, how to be fit," Zimouche admits. "But with freestyle, I have no coach. I'm alone with my ball and I can do whatever I want."
She was making waves in the inherently primal worlds of freestyling and panna. Another pattern had also emerged: Zimouche's videos often featured her embarrassing cocky young men. Her most transcendent moments? Performing in high heels.
"Soccer is still considered a man's sport for many," Zimouche said through her manager, Martin Leroy. "Unfortunately, I have received multiple messages saying I have no place on the field. So, at first, playing in heels was a way to have fun, bring something new and powerful to freestyle.
"But also, to show that even in heels, I can nutmeg you."
It's a point of pride that she has now amassed more than 3 million combined Facebook and Instagram followers -- not to mention a legion of devout fans -- through freestyle, a largely male-dominated coterie.
"I started playing because men told me not to," Zimouche remembers. "Back home, people watch women play and say, 'They're not good, they can't play, it's a male thing.'
"I said, 'No, watch me.'"
The endorsements were next, working with Nissan, Kellogg's, the IOC and ASOS and filming Adidas spots, one with fellow France compatriot, Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Puma then swayed her from Adidas with a global ambassadorship, alongside Rihanna and The Weeknd. By 2016, Paris' most intriguing parvenu was juggling at the Great Pyramids at Giza and on the beaches of Martinique. (Leroy is reluctant regarding income, but notes Lisa makes enough "to live from her passion" without competing in freestyle and panna tournaments anymore.)
Michael Bliss, a freestyler who focuses on the photography and video side, remembers when he and a financially strapped group were to perform in Australia and found places to crash through Instagram.
"Competitions bring in little to no money. We turn to social media or elsewhere to make a living and the amounts vary greatly [by person]," he says.
But everyone was reaching out to the French sprite who nutmegs men for a living: She impressed Drake, Odell Beckham Jr. and Usain Bolt. She has made Gianluigi Buffon, Ronaldinho, Arsenal and Germany defender Shkodran Mustafi, Jesse Lingard, Luis Suarez and PSG's youth academy look foolish.
Now she can barely find a man to take her on.
"Now they won't challenge me because they know what I can do," she says, chuckling. "Now they want to nutmeg me."
The day of Super Bowl LII, Zimouche posted a video of herself juggling a football. A fan from India was so blown away, he mused that the sun, moon and planets were the only objects she hadn't yet juggled.
Zimouche was flattered. But, despite her massive digital footprint, she prefers performing; she's prone to "[social media] breaks" and "posts less regularly" than other influencers.
"I don't get this online," she says after a fawning college student at Socceroof tells Zimouche that her videos kept her playing after multiple torn ACLs. "Doing events, it's nice to actually feel the impact."
Bliss notes that the reception of viral freestyling is divided.
"Social media has helped the sport grow, but it causes confusion," Bliss notes. "It makes people aware but strays from what freestyling actually is."
Or in the words of Zimouche, "Freestyle is art."
Zimouche takes selfies with young fans decked out in academy garb. Another freestyler, Daniel Dennehy, AKA @danielgothits, warms up. He'd been recruited to perform a juggling demonstration with Zimouche.
Dennehy's cobalt blue hair is parted down the center, metallic fronts coating his top and bottom teeth. He's also the author of an e-book, "How to Become a Pro Freestyler," which fetches $47 on his website.
Unlike Zimouche, Dennehy has no qualms about social media.
"I used to watch games all the time. Now? I just check my feeds: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Everything I need, right there," he says.
Nearby, Zimouche crouches to meet a fan, smiling ear to ear, for a photo.
"The Internet ruined f---ing everything," Dennehy finishes.
Zimouche and Dennehy head indoors to a small-sided field. Dennehy posts a clip to his Instagram story: At Zimouche's shoulder, he beckons his 369,000 followers to turn up. "She's gonna nutmeg everyone," he promises. Sure enough, in the dark of the arena, Zimouche slips a touch between his legs as he signs off, leaving Dennehy writhing in faux apoplexy.
A spotlight illuminates them and a raucous circle forms. A sea of cellphones take aim at Zimouche and Dennehy. More than 50 people livestream the event and, though mere feet away, watch it unfold through the milky glow of a screen. (Ten days later, "Socceroof" will hit peak Google popularity.)
Dennehy and Zimouche take turns doing foot stalls, neck stalls, and frenetic around the worlds, passing the ball back and forth. Then male challengers, one by one, enter the circle to take on Zimouche. She dispatches each -- tweens, teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings -- with ease. The men are bashful when she inevitably slides a ball through their legs, a ribbing from friends awaiting. The young boys give each other gleeful high-fives after their bouts.
"Can't believe you lasted that long!" one says to his newly vanquished friend.
Though the spotlight still blares, she steps out of it to sign the occasional autograph, snap photos and pick Leroy's brain. He assures her she was a hit. Draped in shadow in the corner of an indoor field in Brooklyn, speaking in hushed French, she returns to anonymity.
Zimouche knows this path won't last forever. Lifespans in the age of social media are short, but Zimouche takes the days, the appearances and the posts, each one at a time. Money and fame are peripheral. She has her ball, opponents to conquer, a thumping beat to dance to and art to create.
This life is all she wants.