'You can feel this surge': how France has caught Women's World Cup fever

Whether at the stadiums or in front of the television, enthusiasm for the host team is exceeding expectations

France has seen a huge surge in enthusiasm for women’s football, with TV viewing figures for the World Cup double what was predicted, national-team games packing stadiums, France shirts selling fast and players swiftly becoming household names.

As France prepare to face Nigeria on Monday in Rennes, sponsors and TV commentators have revelled in the increased interest. More than 10 million French TV viewers have tuned in for each of France’s matches. The top TV channel TF1, the main broadcaster of the tournament, had expected up to five million viewers for the first match. It got around double.

Significantly, twice as many viewers watched France’s 4-0 win against South Korea in the tournament’s opening match than tuned in for the men’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Andorra the night before.

According to Mediamétrie analysts, 54% of French TV viewers of Les Bleues’ fixtures are men under 50. Many of them are praising the “superior quality” of the game. A large amount of families are watching on TV, as well as going to watch the teams in stadiums, where young boys can be seen in the special kits being sold in support of the women’s team.

Amandine Henry, captain of the France team, talks to Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president, after the opening game of the tournament against South Korea
Amandine Henry, captain of the France team, talks to Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president, after the 4-0 win in the opening game of the tournament against South Korea. Photograph: Joosep Martinson/Fifa via Getty Images

Players such as the France captain, Amandine Henry, the star striker Eugénie Le Sommer and the defender Wendie Renard have become household names and the team are regularly on the front pages – an increased visibility that has led commentators to predict an increased interest from sponsors.

The crowds turning up to France’s training sessions have swelled, with children calling out to players by their first names for autographs. The France manager, Corinne Diacre, has also swiftly become a household name for using dead-pan humour in response to being portrayed by media as overly strict and severe.

The number of hotel bookings in towns hosting matches is said by tourism groups to be unexpectedly high, although for most matches not involving France the stadiums have been far from full. Bars screening the matches report a good turnout. “There have been a steady number of people watching it live,” said a staff member at Au Metro, a Paris bar known for screening sport.

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France’s second match, a 2-1 win against Norway in Nice, played to a packed stadium, despite women’s football in the city previously seeing much smaller audiences in recent months.

“You can feel this surge of momentum behind the sport – the TV viewing figures are staggering,” said Virginie Bachelier, a sports correspondent for Ouest France, France’s biggest-selling regional paper, which is devoting a large amount of coverage to the event. “Six months ago, if a women’s football match got one million TV viewers, that would be considered good. But now 10 million viewers are tuning in on the basis of the team’s skill and performance. People want to watch them because they are world-class players. And in football, you have to get into people’s living rooms for it to count.”

The France and Norway teams shake hands before kick-off in front of packed stands in Nice
The France and Norway teams shake hands before kick-off in front of packed stands in Nice. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Bachelier said she was hoping for a substantial leap in support for the women’s game in the way that France transformed into a football nation when the men’s team won the World Cup in 1998. She said of the France-Norway match: “I thought the crowd might be largely made up of women or women footballers but not at all; it was people of all ages, lots of families, young boys, pensioners and groups of guys. I met a group of five young men who’d come from Toulon. They said: ‘We’re here because we’re looking forward to watching a good game.’”

The turnout in Rennes on Monday is predicted to be large – Brittany already has a strong tradition of supporting women’s sport.

Although France are considered potential favourites to win the tournament – the hosts want to build on the men’s team’s win in 2018 to become the first country to hold both World Cups at the same time – the country is typically wary of building up too much bravado. But many are hoping the growing interest in the women’s game – with sponsors sensing the potential for higher returns – could help redress the pay imbalance in the sport.

Vikash Dhorasoo, a former France men’s international, has started a petition against “sexist and salary discrimination” in football, where the women earn far less than their French male counterparts.

The satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo – which has long derided all types of football – ran a cover this week mocking the women’s World Cup by showing a football on a woman’s genitals. It sparked criticism, with the French tennis player Lucas Pouille slamming it as “shameful” on Twitter before deleting his tweet.