Meet Eugénie Le Sommer, France's World Cup star whose mum says can get 'revenge' on those who shattered her own footballing dreams

Claire Bloomfield
Eugenie Le Sommer will be competing at her third World Cup for France - www.alamy.com

Claudine Le Sommer has watched her daughter Eugénie claim every title there is to win with club Olympique Lyonnais - multiple times over. She too was a footballer, only her journey was one blighted by gender discrimination, financial difficulties and a struggle for any sort of recognition.

Tomorrow the mother of nine will watch Eugénie walk out in front of a sell-out crowd at the Parc de Princes in Paris for France’s opening game of the Women’s World Cup against South Korea. It’s an experience that would have been almost unimaginable for Claudine 25 years ago.

She was player for Paris Saint-Germain back in 1982 at a time when football was very much considered unsuitable for women. Like in many European nations, it was a game deemed too rough and a devaluation of femininity. This stigma even sometimes resulted in women participating in secret.

“It’s not that I didn’t want Eugénie to play football, it’s just that after having played the game and having been a relatively gifted player like she is, I was aware of the challenges that women faced,” she says, speaking on the phone from her family home in Bretagne, eager to reminisce about years gone by. “The sport was not recognised at all.

“I used to say to Eugénie, ‘when you are a little girl football is fun. You can play with your friends and with the boys at school, you can win games and score goals, but there is nothing for us after that.”

Eugenie's mum was reluctant for her to play football  Credit: Getty Images

If it hadn’t been for Eugenie’s unwavering persistence her interest in football probably wouldn’t have gone much further than a kick about in her own back garden.

“It was a bit complicated in the beginning,” says Eugénie, 30, as we meet at Lyon's state of the art training complex. “Both of my parents played football when they were younger but when I told my mum that I wanted to play too she was reluctant to let me join a local club.

“I was only four years-old when I started playing so I had no idea what had happened previously and I was too young to understand her reasons,” adds Eugénie, who is preparing for her third World Cup campaign with France.

Despite eventually giving into her daughter’s pleas, Eugénie reveals her mother adopted various strategies to coax away from football – even if that meant also trying her hand at alternative sports.

“My mum even took me to a judo club in an attempt to make me forget about playing football but it didn’t work. Although it turned out that I liked judo, football was my passion,” says Les Bleues’ number nine, who eventually dropped lessons in martial arts in favour of football - although not before becoming judo champion in Bretagne.

“None of my other children wanted to play football as much as Eugénie did,” Claudine adds. “For her it was the only thing that mattered. Every day after school she used to drop her bag and go outside to practice dribbling, shooting and keepy uppies. Apparently I used to do that when I was little, too,” she smiles, seemingly amused by the uncanny similarities. “I was not allowed to show my skills in the playground, though. I went to a religious school and the only time I kicked the ball I got punished,” she adds.

Eugenie Le Sommer has won 24 trophies with Lyon Credit: AFP

Parents Claudine and Thierry identified Eugénie’s extraordinary ability when she joined Trélissac FC at the age of seven.

“I remember watching the children practice training drills. They would receive the ball from a cross into the penalty box and shoot on the volley,” she recalls.

“Eugenie was so comfortable with both feet that she was putting away all of her chances. That’s when I realised she was a cut above the other children.”

With a sense of nostalgia, Claudine then begins to unravel a complex amateur career history that saw her captain l’equipe de l’Ouest in 1975-76, and enjoy spells with Vannes, AS Cannes and Lorient Sport among many.

“I signed for Paris Saint-Germain in 1982, shortly after having my first daughter” she says. “I was living in Paris at that time and I wanted to keep playing.”

Claudine would pause her football career again after the arrival of her second child. “I remember writing a letter to PSG’s president to tell him I would be leaving the club. It was becoming too difficult with two small children and my husband was away for the most of the time,” she said, recalling how the family were frequently relocating as a result of Thierry’s job in the police.

Despite the family growing rapidly in size, and childcare issues often preventing her from travelling to away fixtures, Claudine continued playing competitively for amateur teams across France until the age of 47 - even though her teammates were then 30 years her junior.

Lyon have been the dominant force in the domestic league in France Credit: Getty Images

“I didn’t stop playing football because I was getting old or because the game was becoming too fast, I stopped because of an injury. I tore my hamstring during a game and I thought, ‘right, that’s it now’.”

Considering the constant struggle to find a team, many of which would fold through financial troubles, plus derogatory comments from colleagues at work, it’s clear why Claudine hesitated to let Eugénie – baby number five - attempt to pursue the sport further.

“One to two years was the usual life span for a women’s club at the time. There was no budget and no spectators and that meant no income or sponsors.”

“Women’s football was nothing more than a curiosity back then. I probably have enough stories to write a book but it would bring back too many painful memories,” adds Claudine.

But times are changing and Eugénie, somewhat of a poster girl for the French national team is part of an era reshaping the landscape of women’s football. And now she’s reaping the rewards too.

In addition to earning a salary since the women's domestic league in France turned professional in 2010 and a long-standing deal with Puma, the World Cup has brought a flurry of sponsorship agreements Eugénie’s way. Brands such as Visa, Wella and OPI have all been keen to capitalise on the striker’s popularity ahead of the tournament on home soil.

In stark contrast her mum didn’t earn a penny from the game and often even the basics were too much to ask. “I didn’t receive any financial compensation whatsoever,” she said. “I can even remember coming on as a substitute in a Division One match and because I had not been named in the starting XI I was not allowed to have an Isostar sports drink during the game. I couldn’t believe it.”

Should France emulate the success of Didier Deschamps’ 2018 World Cup winning side this summer, Eugenie could feature in a final in familiar territory on June 7.

“It would be a dream come true to play in a World Cup final at the Groupama Stadium in Lyon,” she beams, admitting it’s been difficult not to look that far ahead. “I see that stadium every day and playing there in front of sell-out crowd would be magical. I hope we will be there but it’s going to be tough.”

Luckily for Eugénie, she’ll have a strong army of supporters cheering her on from the stands – including fiancé Florian who she will wed later this year.

Claudine admits watching her little girl compete in a home World Cup will be an emotional experience. “I’m proud every time that Eugénie plays for France. All the family will be there to watch her play, but I’m sad that my father died before he got chance to see his granddaughter represent her country.”

Eugénie, who is just eight goals shy of surpassing Marinette Pichon’s record (81) to become France’s all-time top scorer, heads into the World Cup on the back of completing the treble with Lyon. It takes her trophy tally with the club to a staggering 24.

“There are absolutely no regrets about allowing Eugénie to follow her dreams in football,” says a clearly thrilled Claudine. “I am very happy for her, for women’s football. There’s also a sense of getting revenge over everybody who criticised me over the years; here’s to all those people who said it was a man’s sport, that football was violent and that I would get hurt...”