Sports Nut

The Other Red, White, and Blue

Why Americans should root for the French team in the Women’s World Cup.

In advance of Wednesday’s Women’s World Cup semifinal between the United States and France, we’re exchanging some good-natured (and some less good-natured) trash talk with our friends at sister site Below, Clément Noël and Grégoire Fleurot offer four reasons why all Americans should root for France. And elsewhere in Slate, David Plotz argues that all French people should pay homage to the American women’s soccer team.

The French national soccer team

We know soccer (and you don’t): The United States considers Landon Donovan to be a real soccer player, when everybody knows he has never been able to stand out on a European club. And to think that America pays Thierry Henry a fortune, when the man—who indeed used to be a superb player once—should now sit at Madame Tussauds rather than run on a soccer ground. No offense intended, of course, but it is obvious that Americans don’t know much about soccer. For them, catenaccio, Clasico, and Garrincha are pizza toppings. Apart from those Americans of Latin heritage, very few of them are willing to rise at the crack of dawn to watch a game or to hold forth for hours on end in a bar on the subject of whether the goal posts were square.

But here in la douce France, as in the other European countries, soccer is Number One. Dramatic confrontations on the lawn have replaced the bloody battles of yore. Any Frenchman will tell you that the last big defeat against Germany did not take place in 1940, but during the semifinal of 1982, when the German goalkeeper Schumacher perpetrated an ignominious attack against a son of the fatherland, Battiston, in collusion with the referee. Therefore, even if the United States is a much stronger and prestigious adversary in this Women’s World Cup, it was far more important for French supporters to beat England beforehand. Because Joan of Arc shall not be that easily forgotten.

It’s time for a change: As everybody knows, American women are the best when it comes to soccer. The U.S. national team is first in the FIFA rankings, they’ve won an endless amount of medals, and the American professional league draws the best female players in the world. French female soccer players, on the other hand, are about to participate in their very first World Cup semifinal, which is not bad considering it is only the second time they’ve taken part in this competition.

By defeating England in the quarterfinals, the French women also qualified for their first Olympic Games, a competition that the American female players have already won three times. In short, Wednesday’s game promises to be absolutely unbalanced (even bookmakers say so), a replay of David and Goliath in studs and shorts. What could be more boring than a game that conforms to all predictions? Well, American soccer fans could take this opportunity to adopt a typically French habit: support the outsider against the big favorite, the eternal loser against the implacable winner.

For art’s sake: The French soccer team has always been known for its sophisticated and refined playing technique. This is personified by first-class players such as Platini and Zidane, stars who made a difference with their extraordinary technique and smartness rather than with the physical dimension of their game. The French women obviously share these qualities: Wednesday’s game will show a drastic confrontation of styles, between the American bulldozer that banks on intensity and a French team physically weaker but able to compensate with the sophistication of its play.

However hard they practice, the American women will never be able to make up for the natural talent and aesthetic perfection of the petites Françaises. If you love to see a beautiful game and are keen on a certain romanticism in soccer—that is, if you prefer to watch FC Barcelona to Italian soccer—then your heart will favor the French side on Wednesday.

Yes we (also) can: You have Obama. We have our soccer teams. If France is a few decades behind the USA in terms of ethnic diversity in politics and corporate leadership, we compensate with the variety of our soccer teams. The French team that won the 1998 World Cup was globally celebrated as the symbol of a multicultural country, an incarnation of the French model of integration as opposed to American communitarianism.

Granted, more than a decade later, we’re not that enthusiastic about our men’s players. The French team made a fool of itself in front of the whole world last year, with social tensions destroying the team from the inside. It has also been shaken by a scandal including quotas based on the players’ skin color. But hey, compared to an all-white American team—OK, there’s one player who’s half-Cuban—one can say that the racially mixed French roster reflects a multicultural nation and illustrates the success of the French integration model. Non?

Translated from the French by Bérengère Viennot.