France's World Cup title will again help women's soccer
"Tonight, I want us to be remembered by all the French people who are watching," France's Paul Pogba urged his teammates, "by their children, their grandchildren and their great grandchildren, too."
The stirring locker room pep talk before the recent World Cup final served as a rallying cry for Les Bleus' 4-2 win over Croatia, a victory that won more than just a second star for their collection.
The nationwide celebration unleashed that night capped more than two months of speculation over France's fate in Russia and the inevitable comparisons to the nation's 1998 World Cup-winning team. But following the July 16 victory parade and ceremonies, the French Football Federation (FFF) reminded people that, "after Russia, the next one is at our [house]."
France hosts the next World Cup, the Women's World Cup, in 10 months, and the women's U-20 World Cup is also underway in Brittany, France, this month. Hopes run high that Les Bleuettes and Les Bleus will continue the soccer revelry. But if history is any guide, France's second World Cup win will also serve as an accelerator for women's soccer.
One of the often overlooked legacies of France 1998 was that it launched a new era for girls and women who wanted in on soccer. That summer's champions inspired people of all ages, especially children, to start to play and develop dreams of emulating new heroes like Zinédine Zidane and Lilian Thuram.
Kani Konté, a former top-level player who now coaches at VGA Saint-Maur in the southeastern Parisian banlieues, was one of those kids. While Konté grew up playing with her brothers on the local soccer field, the France versus Brazil showdown on July 12, 1998, sticks in her memory and whetted her appetite for the sport.
"It was really what propelled me to pursue it, to get a license and play with a club," she said of the spark that year's World Cup victory generated.
In France and in many other countries, people register each year with their sport's federation to obtain a license that certifies them to play in organized club competitions. It's a way to gauge a sport's popularity, but more importantly, helps in the allocation of funds, coaching personnel and other resources.
When a national team wins, there's often an uptick in the number of people who start playing. Such was the case in 1998, and the "World Cup bump" increased the number of licensed soccer players, including girls.
"The men being world champions, that really boosted women's soccer in France," Konté said.
While greater enrollment enabled the FFF to devote more resources to growing the game, opportunities for women and girls remained somewhat limited and reflected their still relatively small numbers. For the 1999-2000 season, there were only 34,997 licensed women and girls out of some 1,871,771 players, or 1.8 percent of the entire soccer-playing population. This translated into lack of resources, such as dedicated clubs for girls.
For Konté and other young women, this meant enrolling with local clubs and playing mostly with boys. But for a select number of elite-level players, 1998 left a different legacy.
Part of the heritage of hosting the World Cup was the creation of a training program for teenaged girls at the country's famed nexus of elite soccer in Clairefontaine. Located in the woods southwest of Paris, the National Football Institute was long recognized as a producer of youth soccer stars, including 1998 winner Thierry Henry. But the institution of a center for young women was a turning point that enabled the FFF to train a new generation, one that helped put the country on the world's soccer map. (The training program for girls at Clairefontaine was relocated to the National Sports Institute (INSEP) in Paris in 2014.)
Laura Georges, a member of France's women's national team from 2001 to '18, was part of the first generation formed as part of this 1998 legacy.
"What makes Clairefontaine unique is the quality of the formation," said Georges, who recently retired but now serves as the FFF's Secretary-General. "It's what you learn, and you are taught by some of the best coaches in France."
During Georges' five years at the center, during which she also finished school, the then-aspiring defender often trained with the boys' section and coaches.
"For me it was a kind of 'wow,'" she said of the exposure. "But it was one of the best experiences, to play with the best. Some of those boys are now professionals."
One of those boys was Blaise Matuidi, who helped propel France to its World Cup victory last month.
But titles alone don't tell the whole story. Clairefontaine alumna like Georges and Amandine Henry have helped improve the quality of Les Bleues' play over the course of their careers, as have women who passed through a parallel training track within some of the professional clubs, notably Olympique Lyonnais (OL). As a result, France is today one of the top-ranked programs in the world (fourth by espnW and third in FIFA's latest rankings), and two of FIFA's 2018 Best Women's Player nominees are French-born and trained (Henry and OL's Wendie Renard).
Today there are nearly 160,000 licensed female players in France, according to the FFF. That's a still relatively small percentage of the country's overall soccer-playing demographic (7.8 percent), but a significant uptick since 2011 (59,409), Les Bleues' breakout year with a fourth-place finish at the Women's World Cup and the year that Noël Le Graët was elected president of the FFF on a platform to invest and grow the women's game ahead of hosting in 2019.
"I think there will be lots of young people playing football after this summer," Le Graët said in a video on the FFF website on the eve of the historic win. "The World Cup ... in terms of image, it's massive."
Konté has also observed that the dividends of the men's 2018 championship will benefit all of French soccer, including the women's side.
"Today, when one wins in France, there are many more women who speak about soccer on television," she said, pointing out that lots of girls watched the tournament and its festive aftermath. "There are many more girls who play soccer because today the image of women is changing. That's why the image is so important."
After weeks of training at Clairefontaine, Les Bluettes launched their own run for the podium this week, inspired by the men's side. Goalkeeper Mylène Chavas was an infant when France won its first FIFA star, but for her, the energy and example set by Matuidi, Pogba & Co. this summer is contagious.
"Look at the images of their victory and of the entire competition," she said in an FFF video during a recent training session. "That really gives us desire to do the same and to also have the Cup at the end."
Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian and author of "The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010." Follow her on Twitter (@Lempika7).