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 US college coach had taught me to never say sorry for banging into someone. But here in France, as traditional etiquette dictated, an apology followed every foul.
The referee didn’t call the foul though. He had been ignoring what should have been instant red cards all game. He gave an opposing player only a verbal warning even after she broke one of my teammate’s ankles by slide tackling her from behind with cleats up. As she wailed, our Cameroonian coach Eric carried her off the field.
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 competing against Nanterre, a Parisian suburb known for its violent plays and poorer, immigrant population.
Soccer, or “foot” in slang, is a culture all its own in France, but the women’s game is still developing and recruiting. Although the men dominate TV channels and the front pages of newspapers while the women’s game is virtually invisible, there remain a large number of French women that are excellent players.
“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, just 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 effortlessly styled to frame her face. The others arrived also dressed chicly. Although I believed that my attire was more game-day appropriate, I still felt underdressed.
The Nanterre locker room looked like a gray 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. 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, which are 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 (and 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 would he say to nine smoking soccer players stuffing our faces?, I had to wonder. 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 put one in his mouth before going over tactics.
In contrast to the Astroturf field we were used to 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 faded orange mesh of the goal nets was 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 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, or “stuck up city.” At one point, a few of us held our captain back as she cursed and surged forward to throw a retribution punch at the opposing captain.
The blow of the clearly underused whistle signaling halftime was music to our ears. The game was still 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.”
Then 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.”