It was on a modest pitch in a northern Paris suburb where the six-year-old Kylian Mbappé began to shine. Long before he became a star of the World Cup-winning France team last year, his talent and renown grew at the Stade Léo Lagrange in the banlieue – suburb – of Bondy, which now, thanks to him, has a permanent place in French football history.
Today, on an overcast June afternoon, the pitch at Léo Lagrange is filled with the shouts of girls, 130 of them, many with the name of Bondy’s favourite son emblazoned across their backs. They are competing in a tournament – an all-out battle of the banlieues – to mark the start of the Women’s World Cup.
It may be a casual contest but the competition is fierce, the pace blistering and the talent plain to see.
In the first match the girls from Mbappé’s first club, AS Bondy, face off against a team from the nearby Clichy-sous-Bois. It goes to a penalty shootout. Bondy’s captain steps up confidently to take her shot but the ball goes straight into the keeper’s hands. When her counterpart then slots it past Bondy’s keeper, a group of girls on the sidelines in Clichy tracksuits let loose yells of joy.
“Clichy, Clichy, Clichy,” they chant, streaming across the pitch to embrace their players, just as two nights earlier the France captain, Amandine Henry, had sprinted across the Parc des Princes to celebrate with the bench having put the home side 4-0 up against South Korea in the World Cup’s opening match.
This is the type of football Bondy has become famous for, the type that has led the Paris banlieues to be dubbed “the laboratory of football” because of the talent they produce. But if the path to international superstar is not easy, and if only a select few such as Mbappé and Paul Pogba get to play for the biggest clubs in the world, opportunities are even scarcer for girls.
Mohamed Wague, a youth worker at Bondy and the tournament’s organiser, says the suburb produces five or six professional footballers from its boys’ ranks each year. But Bondy added a girls’ side to their ranks only four years ago due to strong demand in the neighbourhood. Until then young footballers such as Shenice Laclef had to go to nearby suburbs such as Pavillons-sous-Bois to play.
Laclef, 18 and a defender, wanted to turn professional like Mbappé – she even trained with him once at Bondy – but she says she never quite made it. “I had the hope to succeed at women’s football, and I did lots of try-outs,” she says. “I persisted, persisted, persisted, but I never had a callback.”
Part of the problem is getting seen – the banlieues are awash with scouts hunting for the next big male talent but Jean-François Suner, the sports director at Bondy who famously trained Mbappé, says they very rarely see scouts on the lookout for girls.
Even Lyon, described as the most dominant professional team in any sport, played by any gender, anywhere on the planet – rely largely on their boys’ recruitment team to flag significant talent to the women’s department, says Sonia Bompastor, the director of their women’s academy. Bompastor, who captained France from 2004-06, says the club has only one scout dedicated to unearthing female talent.
If a girl does get scouted by a professional club such as Lyon – who, Bompastor says, dedicate the same resources to girls’ and boys’ development – the path will be different to her male counterparts’. Girls at Lyon are required to stay at school until the age of 18 whereas boys are allowed to drop out at 16, she says. Because girls need a back-up plan.
“The economy for women’s football is different from men’s,” she adds. “When we finish our football career, we suddenly have to think about getting a job.”
Inequality in French football goes well beyond salaries – in the days before their World Cup opener the France women’s team were ushered out of the national training facility at Clairefontaine to make way for the men, who were preparing for a low-stakes friendly against Bolivia.
It’s a problem familiar to the girls at Bondy. “Even here we don’t have the same rights,” says Océane Jourdain, a 16-year-old forward with the club. “The girls train on the grass while the boys train on the synthetic pitch … There are lots of things that are different.” Suner says next year the club will get a second artificial pitch, which will allow them to cater better to the girls’ team.
Still, things are changing in French football, and it is as apparent at Bondy as it is in the top-notch facilities at Lyon. Mbappé’s name may be everywhere but there were others on the lips of the players at Sunday’s tournament.
“Wendie Renard, I love you,” declares 17-year-old Bintou Dabo, citing France’s best player from the opening match, the defender who scored two goals against South Korea.
Even in her short life, Dabo says she has seen things change for female footballers. “Women’s football has really started to become integrated into society,” she says. “It’s such a great pleasure to see, because it’s really growing in comparison to previous years.”
Wague says the girls’ sides in the banlieues are gaining in strength and numbers year by year, and he has seen an appreciable boost in sign-ups in the lead-up to the World Cup. “I can’t say it’s similar to Mbappé – everyone has their own path and their own story – but we have very talented girls at Bondy,” he says.
Almost single-handedly, and at the age of 19, Kylian Mbappé launched this banlieue into football’s firmament. Now there are hundreds of girls in Bondy who want to do the same in the women’s game. If one makes it, she will have big boots to fill. “Maybe one day a girl from Bondy will join the French team, and we’ll be happy,” Laclef says. “But Mbappé is Mbappé.”