In Women’s World Cup Origin Story, Fact and Fiction Blur

HAZEBROUCK, France — There is no plaque at the tiny stadium here. Nothing to commemorate the long-ago match. Some players say they had no idea of its immediate significance until the final whistle. One of the best players was absent, unable to get the day off from work.

And only decades later did the men’s officials who long ignored women’s soccer, and allowed it to be banned in England, France and Germany, append a larger, contrived meaning to the game. As if history could be attached like an artificial hip.

On April 17, 1971, a chilly Saturday night, France defeated the Netherlands, 4-0, at Stade Auguste Damette. About 1,000 spectators showed up to watch the French midfielder Jocelyne Ratignier dazzle with a hat trick. Afterward, some French players say, they were informed that it had been a qualifying match for an unofficial Women’s World Cup to be played in August of that year in Mexico. Some remember a toast of Champagne.

At the turn of the 21st century, FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, decided to recognize that France-Netherlands game as the first official women’s international match. It was no such thing. England and Scotland had played in the late 1800s. In 1920, a French team played a team from England, before which the captains kissed each other on the cheek for good luck and sportsmanship — eliciting perhaps the first international media moment for women’s soccer.

A photograph of the kiss appeared in newspapers from Australia to South America to Asia, according to Jean Williams, a sports historian from Britain.

“I call it the kiss that went around the world,” Williams said.

Still, the 1971 match serves as a revealing origin story for the current Women’s World Cup, and a helpful illustration of how the sport has evolved in France and elsewhere. The players from that France team are being honored with appearances at French matches this month. It was a team that was strictly amateur. Many players were students; some were still in high school. They often faced a dismissiveness, told to go home and cook and darn socks. Today, the French national team consists of professionals honing their skills in a thriving domestic league.

The 1971 match also serves as a tacit admission by FIFA that it had failed women’s soccer for decades. Not until 1991 was there an official Women’s World Cup. And even then, the designation was added only in retrospect, so wary was FIFA of sharing its most valuable brand with a women’s event featuring 12 teams playing 80-minute games.

“It’s amazing how there has been a change of mentality,” Colette Guyard, 67, a midfielder on France’s 1971 team, said through an interpreter. “Women are no longer washing socks.”

Organized matches between women’s teams in France actually began in Paris in 1917, and a French women’s league was formed in 1919, according to the historian Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff, author of a history of French sport called “The Making of Les Bleus.” But in 1941, a year after France was overtaken by the Nazis, the collaborationist Vichy government banned women’s soccer under the pretext that “there was too great a risk” that the sport would make women “more masculine,” according to a study by a French research organization called Iris.

That stereotype persisted in France as late as 1965, according to an article on FIFA’s website in 2011, which pointed to an article in France Football magazine that declared, “in our opinion, football is only for men.”

But attitudes about women and sports began to shift in the late 1960s, a period of social upheaval and second-wave feminism. In 1970, the French soccer federation officially recognized the women’s game. That same year, said Ghislaine Royer-Souef, a goalkeeper and central defender, her French club team from Reims toured several American cities, playing matches against an Italian team.

“We were told we were the ones bringing women’s football to the U.S.,” Royer-Souef, 66, said through an interpreter. “I’m very proud of it.”

The coach of that Reims club, Pierre Geoffroy, also coached France’s national team. For the 1971 match against the Netherlands, players remembered training on sandy hills and taking long hikes through a forest.

A surviving poster from the match, now part of a touring World Cup exhibition, mentions that it was preparation for the “world championship.” Royer-Souef remembered Geoffroy telling the team “to play well because with a victory we would be able to go to Mexico.” France scored early, she said, and the team was able to relax.

Other players remember Geoffroy withholding news about the unofficial World Cup, perhaps trying not to make the team overly nervous.

“We only knew after the match,” Guyard said.

One of the team’s best players, a wing named Michele Wolf, missed the game, teammates said, to work her shift at a grocery store.

“We were amateurs, not professionals,” Royer-Souef said. “She had to work to be able to eat. She was not going to lose her job for a football match.”

Wolf also missed the unofficial World Cup that August in Mexico, teammates said. That tournament featured six teams: four from Europe and two from Latin America. The teams’ travel expenses were paid by Martini & Rossi, the Italian beverage company that organized the tournament, and brazen chauvinism prevailed in the pretournament buildup.

A United Press International dispatch appeared in The New York Times on June 27, 1971, under the headline: “Soccer Goes Sexy South of Border.” The goal posts would be painted pink and the players would wear shorts “as close as possible to hot pants,” the article noted, adding that there would be “beauty salons” in the dressing rooms “so the girls can present themselves for interviews and public ceremonies complete with false eyelashes, lipstick and an attractive hairdo.”

A photograph from the tournament appeared to show that the goal posts indeed were painted pink and white. But other photographs indicate that organizers might have showed some restraint when it came to uniforms and beauty salons in the dressing rooms, according to Williams, the historian.

Ratignier, the former French midfielder and a recently retired professor of physical education, said she had no recollection of organizers trying to make the players appear more sexy.

Denmark won the 1971 world championship, defeating Mexico, 3-0, in the final before an estimated crowd of 110,000 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. France finished fifth, defeating England, 3-2, in a consolation match. Royer-Souef scored the deciding goal.

The French players sang La Marseillaise, their national anthem, and Royer-Souef said she felt proud to represent a renewal of women’s soccer. But, Guyard said, in some ways it did not feel as if she and her teammates were representing their country the way the current players are.

Unlike nowadays, there was little news coverage in France of the 1971 tournament. “No one knew women were playing in Mexico,” Guyard said. “How does that make you feel?”

Ratignier, 65, said that she retained complicated feelings about the arc of women’s soccer, in France and elsewhere. Speaking through an interpreter, she explained that she felt “very lucky” to have played in a World Cup, even an unofficial one, at age 17. And she applauded the recent advances in women’s soccer, while noting that they had come slowly and were “still not enough.”

“We played in 1971, and it took another 20 years for the first official Women’s World Cup,” Ratignier said. “I feel happy about the evolution. I just don’t know how to feel about it when it takes so long.”

Jeré Longman is a sports reporter and a best-selling author. He covers a variety of international sports, primarily Olympic ones. He has worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dallas Times Herald and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.

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