PARIS (Reuters) - With Olympique Lyonnais leading the way at club level, France is ready to complete its women’s football development when it hosts the 2019 World Cup, the French federation’s vice-president has said.
Lyon have won a record five Champions League titles, claiming the last three editions, while France now lie third in the FIFA rankings and they rely heavily on their youth training to reach the top.
FFF vice-president Brigitte Henriques, a former France international, dates the revolution back to 2011.
“It all started with OL’s victory in the Champions League. That year we also had the first players coming out of the ‘Pole France’, a youth training programme in which the girls would have training every day for five years,” Henriques told Reuters in an interview.
Between 2011 and 2018, the number of registered female football players rose from 53,000 to more than 140,000 with 180,000 women holding a licence to play or be employed by a club.
In 2017, France had around 105,000 players registered, similar to England, with Germany leading the way in Europe with 209,000, according to a UEFA report.
Spain (32,000) and Italy (26,000) were lagging far behind.
“When Noel Le Graet was elected president (in 2011), his first mission was to boost women’s football and he put financial and human means into it,” said Henriques.
“Women now have a bigger place in the landscape as 38,000 of them holding an executive role - compared to 25,000 in 2011.”
The FFF also changed its approach of international matches.
“The game have been advertised the same way the men games are advertised and we have developed a ticketing system, not just relying on invitations like before,” she explained.
“There has been a cultural shift and becoming a candidate to host the World Cup was a natural thing to do.”
Six World Cup games are already sold out and the FFF say they have sold half of the tickets available for the June 7-July 7 competition, which Henriques expected to be seen on TV by ‘one billion people’, adding that TV rights revenues had sky-rocketed.
“In 2015, (TV channel) W9 paid 850,000 euros, this year, TF1 and Canal Plus are playing 12 million,” she said.
While England is developing the women’s game from the top, with Barclays to sponsor the Super League for 11 million euros (9.5 million pounds) over three years, France, whose first division is not entirely professional, first wants to consolidate.
“We are hoping to break the barrier of 200,000 women with a licence after the World Cup,” said Henriques.
“After the men’s World Cup in 2018, we gained 15,000 women with a licence. From the 1970s to 2011, we would gain about 1,000 a year. The 2019 World Cup will allow us to step into another gear.”
Henriques also expects the youth programmes to help the game spread across the country and unearth talents from the furthest regions.
“Our youth training programme is a model, just like our men’s,” the 48-year-old said.
“Our conviction is that if you don’t have a large base it’s hard to find the talent who are going to raise the level of the game to make a good show that will generate money.”
French men’s clubs have often seen their best young talents move abroad to more powerful leagues such as the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga.
Henriques is confident, however, that France will keep its talented female players.
“We are not afraid of the competition because we are developing a strong base,” she said.
“And today, it’s the foreign players coming to our league, not the other way around. Our league is attractive.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge