As the world's best female footballers descend on France for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, at least one little girl in the southeastern city of Lyon – which will host the competition's semi-finals and final – has her sights set on future editions.
Salomé Munnia-Vincent, aged ten and in her last year of primary school, plays for FC Gerland, a local girls’ football club that has been running for three years. Fittingly based at Stade Gerland, the former home of League 1 powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais (OL), its alumnae include OL Féminin's 18-year-old defender Selma Bacha.
For Salomé, whose bedroom is adorned with posters of her OL heroines as well as France's national women's team, this makes Bacha an easy choice for her favourite player. She adds: “Sometimes she comes to see us and I think she’s really nice, because she takes the time to come and see us and she’s a professional, and professionals need a lot of time to train.”
Salomé spent the first six years of her life living in the US, in Boston, where football (or soccer) was for a long time, thanks to the dominance of American football, considered a women’s game.
She says: “When I came back [to France] I had already started watching soccer games. And then I went to the birthday party of my friend and we had fun playing soccer so I was interested in it, so I searched and I found FC Gerland.”
She likes football because “it’s outside and you can run” and says that she would like to be a professional footballer, but if it turns out not to be an option (“if one day I’m not good enough or I get hurt”) she would like to teach sport.
Her team at FC Gerland often plays against boys' teams for the simple reason that there are far fewer girls' sides to play, but Salomé says that when they do get the opportunity to play against other girls, they relish it.
“[The boys] get more mad, when someone says something opposing them, and the girls, they get less frustrated. Sometimes we win against boys, but it’s not very often because they’re a bit stronger. And when we win it’s [because] we’re all together in a group. The boys are more like individuals, they still play well but we have more of a team spirit.
“Sometimes I hear boys saying oh, she plays soccer, that’s just weird, and I’m just like no, it’s not really weird, because everyone can play soccer. At the beginning boys at school would say that, but now I think they’ve got used to it and learned to live with it.”
She plans to watch all the World Cup games with her father Serge, who often referees the FC Gerland matches, and the pair have tickets for the semi-finals – at which Salomé is confident she will see some of her OL idols.
Despite a notable increase in media interest in the Women's World Cup, Serge says that living in Lyon means he hasn't noticed much difference in terms of the visibility of the sport and its stars. “In Lyon, it’s a special place, because we have Olympique Lyonnais, and we’re at the top of the [women’s game].
“We were in the south of France and people were very surprised to see Salomé playing football, so I think it’s different depending where you are. In Lyon, soccer for women is very popular.”
His wife Nathalie, however, says: “But that’s right now. When you were a kid you weren't watching women’s football, only men’s football, even in Lyon. So I think it’s more visible now.”
The phenomenal success of OL Féminin has given them a record unmatched by any football team, male or female. They have won the UEFA Champion's League a record six times, most recently beating FC Barcelona to the title, hold a record nine Coupe de France titles and have topped France's highest female football league, Division 1 Féminine, a record 15 times.
The team's unfettered dominance is most often attributed to the culture of equality fostered at the club. The attitude of president Jean-Michel Aulas is that OL is one club, which happens to have two teams, men's and women's, rather than a men's club that happens to also have a women's team. OL Féminin players have access to the same training ground, the same facilities, the same medical team (and the same chartered jets) as their male counterparts.
FC Gerland coach Toàn Nguyen has no doubt their local club's success is a boost for the girls on his team, and those hoping to join it.
“The OL women’s team is a big driving force for these girls here. They know all the players by heart. Women’s football has become more and more popular with the World Cup coming up, and the media coverage, and the girls of OL and of the French national team. It’s more visible and more accessible.
“We had two doors open days, with 20 new girls who want to come next year. We did that at the end of May, and we’ll probably do it again at the end of June because the World Cup makes women’s football more appealing.”
Unsurprisingly, OL are Salomé's teammate Emilie's favourite team too. Her preferred women’s players are American Alex Morgan, who will be playing at the World Cup, and OL's golden girl – and arguably female football's current biggest star – Norwegian Ada Hegerberg, who will not. Hegerberg has been boycotting her national squad since 2017, citing the disregard she believes her country has for women’s football.
Emilie, 13, has been playing for three years and says she hopes to continue to professional level, which she believes holds additional challenges for girls. “They [hold us to] a higher standard because we’re girls and they want us to stand out. I think it’s maybe easier for boys to do it, but for girls it’s still possible.”
On playing football with boys, she feels any differences are only to do with how well she knows them. “When we are [playing] at school they know me, so they give me the ball more, but at the football club we don’t know each other as a team, so it’s more complicated to trust each other. But the way we play is the same in general.”
Nguyen has noticed similar behaviour in mixed teams, saying: “When girls play in a girls’ team it gives them confidence. When a girl is isolated in a team of boys, the boys struggle to have confidence in the girl and won’t pass her the ball, so she loses confidence in herself. When girls play together in a team they grow together, they progress together.”
Fellow FC Gerland coach Marie N’diaye says that for girls, any difference in ability can often be attributed to having to catch up. “Most of the girls started playing later so we have some girls who are 14,15 who are just debutantes, but they are actually learning really quick so it’s fine.
“I think when I was a young girl it was really the case [that girls were not encouraged to play football] but now things are starting to change slowly but surely, so it’s good. We have some girls that start playing at five, six. So I think that it won’t be an issue in future years.”
Not that it was for N'diaye, who started playing football in her neighbourhood, the only girl among local boys, at the age of five. However, she didn't play for a club until she was 18, saying that this was not something that would have been accepted at the time, but that upon turning 18 she decided: “I’m a grown-up now and I want to play soccer, so let’s play.”
In terms of changes for women in the sport, she feels that while grassroots football has opened up enormously to girls, it's at the higher levels where inequality is still an issue.
“The young girls I [train], they are not discriminated against. I mean, we have the same pitches, the same coaches, the same club, the same structure as the boys – but at a higher level it’s different. The rewards are not the same.
“But most clubs are trying to evolve and to make women’s practising conditions as good as men’s, so I hope that we will achieve this aim of equality. Things are starting to change and if you ask the girls around us today, they are dreaming of being football players and some of their idols are women players.”
To this, Nguyen adds: “The main difference is when girls play, there is less showing off. It’s not all Ronaldos and Messis, even if there are beginning to be female footballing idols.”