The 12th Woman: Breaking Barriers as a Female Soccer Fan in America and France

By Pola Henderson pola@jettingaround.com 

Parc des Princes (2)“What is this cunt doing here?”

Whoa! I looked at the screen again and the words were still there. I was reading a message board of one of the original supporters groups of the Chicago Fire Soccer Club. These guys had a whole thread about me, the newly-elected Director of Marketing and Merchandise of Section 8 Chicago, the independent association of Fire supporters. “Thanks for the warm welcome,” I replied in Polish. “Great to know that my countrymen are so eager to work with me. Vodka shots, anyone?”

This was 2007, my first year as a season ticket holder. I had been a soccer fan all my life, but new to the ultras world.

Growing up in the Krakow area, which has two competing clubs and one of the most charged derby clashes you can imagine, I was never encouraged to follow either team or go to games. Stadiums were not considered a safe place for a teenage girl. I focused on playing basketball, but always thought of football as the sport and watched international competitions on TV. Then I went to Chicago.

 

Major League Soccer
Fire became my first club, even before I was settled in the city. I had seen a game during the team’s sophomore season and never forgot Section 8. At that time, it didn’t cross my mind that I would become one of them. But I did, and I wanted to use my marketing communications background to help promote the beautiful game in America. It was in my European DNA.

“You’re actually pretty cool,” replied the Polish ultras, stunned to hear from me. Vague excuses followed, something about how people “often say they will get involved, but end up doing nothing.” Is that a reason to call me names? Would you say the same to my face? Did you start a thread about those other people?

A few days later I got an email with apologies. Not from anyone involved though. It came from one of the group’s leaders and Section 8 founders, who happened to know me. He had my back during the rough start and we are still friends today.

***

Thanks to fundraisers and merchandise sales at tailgates, watch parties, and away games, I got the association out of debt and was re-elected to the Board the following year. Fire supporters became my community, at the stadium and outside of soccer.

We partied together, traveled together, celebrated life events together. Sometimes we stood up to the league together, back when the supporter culture was new in the United States and our passion frequently mistaken for rowdiness.

Since then, it has become commonplace for supporters to work closely with teams, and for women to be involved. The current Section 8 Vice Chair is one example, and at one point the Board was 50% female. There is also a group of women supporters, CF97 Sirens. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, given how many girls play soccer in America.

Not so much in France, where I currently live.

***

Parc des Princes (1)

I have been following Paris Saint-Germain since 2009, my second visit to the city and first match at Parc des Princes. Moving to Paris was only a thought and didn’t happen for seven more years, but something clicked that evening. Maybe it was the reverberating “Allez Paris!” chant, exchanged by supporters on both ends of the stadium. Maybe the three Paris goals. Or maybe the connection that I felt with the city had permeated to the stands. “I hope they never play the Fire,” I recall saying.

They did a year later, in the Chicago Sister Cities International Cup. It was a friendly tournament but tormenting for me. I couldn’t be against my home club, yet I knew I would regret rooting against PSG, should I move to Paris. So, I stood there at Toyota Park, somewhere between supporters of both teams, wearing colors they shared.

It’s not the only time I have opted to look neutral.

France Ligue 1

“You like football? But you’re a woman! French girls like tennis.” I first heard this line three years ago, when I was splitting time between Chicago and Paris in preparation for the big move. At the time, I didn’t realize that female supporters in France were few and far between and how different things would be for me.

The clue came as I was walking down Champs-Élysées during a raucous celebration of a Champions League win over Chelsea. My PSG shirt quickly attracted unwanted attention. And when police officers guarding the avenue spotted me, they suggested I take a different route home. That night, I learned the importance of bringing a jacket.

Hardly a month goes by without a surprised reaction to my interest in football, coming from male clients or acquaintances. It is at times endearing, at times somewhat annoying. Questions range from, “Are you really a fan or just want to attract men?” to “You think Neymar is cute?” and my favorite, “Do you go to matches when it’s cold?” Breathe…

***

PSG shirt (2).jpg

It’s my second year as a PSG season ticket holder. As a nod to the 2009 match I had attended, I chose a spot in the same area. Close enough to ultras for the atmosphere, far enough to learn the chants at ease. Going to matches alone and being one of the few women in the stands may feel intimidating at times. More if you’re not fluent in the language yet and know only one person in the 49,000-seat stadium.

There is no tailgating, where you can meet other fans. Luckily, that one person can make a difference. He is a long-time PSG supporter and one of my closest friends in Paris. We watch games in bars, travel to away matches, chat at half-time from opposite sides of the Parc. Knowing him makes me more connected to the club.

Recent events have only reinforced this connection.

PSG has a large fan base overseas, including Chicago. A few months back, a group of Parisian supporters from the US was flying over to attend a match. They had found out about me through online communities and invited me to join them on the pitch. I happened to be the only woman representing the fan clubs. Someone called me “one of the guys,” which was nice, but not a validation I was seeking.

My personal “broken barrier” was that I no longer felt like a newbie supporter. Another one was chanting in French with confidence, which I finally managed at one away match and every home game since then.

***

Sport goes beyond entertainment. Humans are tribal; we are drawn to what unites us and gives us a sense of belonging. In my case – a two-time expat – supporting the Chicago Fire and Paris Saint-Germain helped me feel at home in new cities. The game may still be a predominantly male pursuit, but times are changing. When we are out there in the stands, sharing the same passion, we are all the 12th, err… player.

 

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