Player strike sheds light on reality of French women's pro soccer

At first blush, France seems like a bastion of women's soccer.

France will host the 2019 Women's World Cup in nine cities. Lyon, the reigning European champion, offers salaries unmatched in the world. Paris St. Germain is not far behind.

But it's a struggle for many of the clubs in the Ligue 1 Feminine. Last Thursday, players at En Avant de Guingamp decided they had enough.

French national team coach Corinne Diacrescheduled a trip to Guingamp to watch practice and talk with the four Guingamp players she's used since she took over as national team coach last fall, but Guingamp players refused to leave their locker room.

Cameras were rolling when they went on strike, but it brought memories of the strike by French men's national team players at training at Knysna during the 2010 World Cup.

Guingamp, 10th in the 12-team Ligue 1 Feminine, immediately suspended everyone -- technically, they were "rested" -- for Sunday's French Cup match against second division Brest. With head coach Sarah M'Barek and her players watching from the stands, Guingamp played with a team of U-19 players and lost, 3-0.

Two days later, they ended their strike after Guingamp management agreed to appoint a new head of its women's program, a position that had been vacant since Gilbert Castel left for personal reasons.

Like most French women's clubs, Guingamp pays its pros on a sliding scale. Ten players make about $12,000 to $45,000 a year before taxes, depending on the number of hours they are with the team each week.

The players' disagreement with management was over bonuses for the Brest game, but it extended to a general dissatisfaction with their working conditions. Their situation is not unique: women's programs at most pro clubs bring in little revenues and are often treated as an afterthought.

Among the grievances the Guingamp players have: They have to bus to away games -- Marseille is more than 700 miles each way -- and they have no medical staff assigned to them. It's bad enough they have to practice in St. Brieuc, 20 miles outside Guingamp, but they are often bumped off their practice field.

What makes the situation so glaring is that En Avant de Guingamp is the home club of French federation president Noel Le Graet, who has championed the promotion of women within the federation -- its CEO and its general secretary are both women -- and led the French bid to win the World Cup 2019 hosting rights.

Philippe Piat, the longtime head of the French players' union, has come in to help open a dialogue with management. Having someone in charge of the women's program at Guingamp will be a start.

"We're looking for an amicable solution," Piat said.

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