by Nola Solomon
The United States had tough competition in Wednesday’s 2011 Women’s World Cup semi-final game against France. Though team USA will move on to the finals against Japan this Sunday, the French team gave them a real run for their money. Nola Solomon's story reflects her experiences playing with the Paris University Club (PUC) women’s semi-pro team in 2010.
The young woman’s nails clawed into my back.
“Pardon!” she exclaimed.
After having pulled me off the soccer ball by my skin, her contrition sounded bizarre. My American college coach had taught me “never say sorry for banging into someone.” But here in France, as traditional etiquette dictated, an apology followed every foul.
This was my first league game with the Paris University Club (PUC) women’s semi-pro team since moving to France two weeks earlier. We were playing against Nanterre, a Parisian suburb known for its violence and poor, immigrant population. Soccer, or “foot,” is a culture all its own in France. Although the men’s game dominates TV channels and the front pages of newspapers while the women’s game is virtually invisible, a surprising number of French women are excellent players.
Though the exact same game by rule and tactic as men’s soccer, female players have more to overcome to garner audience interest. Hence, the women’s world cup is a tournament of strong-willed and determined women, who would sooner boulder through a blatant foul than sprawl melodramatically onto the grass in the men’s style. Women are expected to be weak and therefore female players take the challenge to heart making women’s soccer one of the most physically grueling sports in the world.
“We learned by watching the men play since infancy,” my French Tunisian teammate, Faten, explained. “Organized women’s soccer is new here.”
Two hours before game time I had met my teammates at the PUC Stadium, Stade Charlety, on the southern periphery of Paris to carpool to Nanterre. I arrived fifteen minutes early dressed in my usual pre-game soccer wear - comfortable sweatpants and a t-shirt. Faten was the first of my teammates to show up, mere minutes before departure. As if stepping straight out of Vogue, she wore black booties, skinny jeans, a men’s blazer and violet scarf. Her short golden ringlets were styled as if to effortlessly frame her face. The others arrived also chicly dressed. Despite believing that my attire was more game-day appropriate, I felt underdressed.
The Nanterre locker room looked like a grey metal jail cell. It had a communal shower and a toilet sans seat. Our team settled onto the cold aluminum benches that lined the perimeter of the lockers. While our captain doled out clean uniforms and socks, the rest of us opened our gym bags and dug around for our cleats and shin guards. A musty odor of dry sweat and grass emanated from the soccer gear. The scent was a welcome reminder that, despite cultural differences, the game smells the same everywhere.
Moments later my teammates transformed our dismal locker room into a French picnic zone. Our captain sipped a café crème, bought from a vending machine in the hallway outside, and bit into a tuna sandwich. Our goalie, a professional baker, had brought a bag of chouquettes, small puff pastries served plain or filled with cream. My teammates’ eagerly reached into the pastry bag for the treats. Then, without regard to the impending ninety minutes of cardiovascular exercise - or the no indoor smoking law, which the French contest at every opportunity - half the team lit up.
My college coach once berated our entire team because one person ate too much peanut butter three hours before a match. What reaction would nine smoking and dining soccer players elicit? Coach Eric came in, looked around, and strode towards our goalie. He reached his hand into the bakery bag, pulled out a handful of chouquettes, and stuffed one into his mouth before going over tactics.
In contrast to the Astroturf field at PUC stadium, the Nanterre field was a dirt desert with sparse patches of grass. It was fenced in by a landscape of highway, smoke stacks, and housing projects. The goal nets’ faded orange mesh were knotted with string to the posts and crossbar. Our starting eleven filed around our half of the centerfield circle. Both teams gazed at the waving red, white, and blue flag. A recording of La Marseillaise crackled out from the bleacher’s speakers.
The first half of the game devolved into a shoving match between our two teams. We knew that the Nanterre women would be rough, but nothing could have prepared us for the onslaught of fouls and taunts. Not caring where the ball was anymore, we hurled insults and elbows at each other. The Nanterre team jeered at us for being from Paris, threatening to boot us back to our “ville bêcheuse,” meaning “stuck up city.” At one point, a few of us held our captain back as cursing she surged forward to throw a retribution punch to the opposing captain.
The blow of the underused whistle signaling halftime was music to our ears. The game was yet scoreless. We hobbled off the field to our bench where Eric summoned us into a huddle. The claw marks on my sweaty back stung as my teammates’ arms pressed around me. Instead of the expected pep talk and tactical discussion, Eric announced:
“We’re forfeiting the rest of the game. We can’t have anyone else get hurt.” He added, “I want all of you to leave as a team. Go to your cars together. I’m afraid you might get jumped.”
The women, competitive as any of the teammates I’d had in the States, grumbled at the suggestion of forfeiting the game. But realizing that discretion was the better part of valor, we digested our bitterness. As dusk descended, we retreated en masse to the parking lot and headed back to our “city of lights.”
About the Author:
Nola Solomon is a dual French/American citizen and grew up in Washington, D.C. She graduated with a BA in English and French from Vassar College. She works at a literary agency in New York City and writes fiction. Previously she worked as a journalist at local newspapers in Poughkeepsie, NY and Washington, DC. She has lived abroad in Rome and Paris, where she played soccer for the Paris University Club. She speaks English, French, Italian and Spanish fluently.