“In the U.S., a Girl Can Make Her Dreams Come True!”

For many years, Marinette Pichon was France’s top goal scorer, with 81 in the back of the net. The striker and former national team captain was also the first French female soccer player to sign a professional contract when she joined the Philadelphia Charge in 2002. Now working as a coach in Quebec, Marinette Pichon has hung up her cleats but continues to campaign for women’s sports and LGBTQ+ rights on both sides of the Atlantic.
Marinette Pichon in the France-Brazil game in Washington D.C., during the Women’s World Cup, September 27, 2003. © Tim Sloan/AFP

France-Amérique: Marinette, a biopic based on your autobiography, was released in French theaters and screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring of 2023. What was that like?

Marinette Pichon: Seeing your own life and struggles on film is something really unique, that’s for sure! I was very involved in Virginie Verrier’s project. I hope that this movie [the first biopic about a French sportswoman] will help young people to get through a situation that isn’t always easy, and to fight for their dreams.

You talk about the difficulty of making it in women’s soccer in France. Could you tell us more?

It’s 2024, yet the majority of French people are still unable to name a single French female soccer player! I see this as the main difference with the United States. The team that won the first Women’s World Cup, in 1991, has set an example. Since then, America has won three more World Cups, including the one held in France in 2019, along with four Olympic gold medals. That brings people together. Players like Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Tiffeny Milbrett, or more recently Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, are all icons young American girls can identify with. French girls don’t have such references.

How do you explain the disparity in how soccer has developed on both sides of the Atlantic?

In the United States, soccer is an integral part of the national culture and there is no gender discrimination. It’s a discipline open to all, and there are as many little girls as little boys on the field. That’s the way we should be educating our children in France, not putting up barriers and maintaining stereotypes like “This sport is for boys, that sport is for girls.” In the United States, a girl can make her dreams come true!

Marinette Pichon (center, in her Philadelphia Charge jersey) is played by Garance Marillier in Virginie Verrier’s biopic Marinette (2022). © Vigo Films

What inspired your passion for this sport?

When I was five years old, I saw a team of kids playing while I was walking with my mom. They looked so happy! The first time I actually kicked a ball, I discovered that I had a gift. My goal then became to seize the right to develop that gift.

What opportunities did you have as a young woman dreaming of becoming a top-level soccer player?

Not many! There were very few opportunities because there were only one or two dedicated youth athletics training academies in France in the early 1990s. Women’s soccer was much less developed than it is today. [The French Soccer Federation, which has only recognized female players since 1970, currently offers eight training centers for girls aged 16 to 18.] In those days, if you wanted a shot at a professional career, you had to go abroad. In 2002, after eight years with the French national team, I was lucky enough to be recruited by an American league.

And you joined the Philadelphia Charge at the age of 26 without speaking a word of English!

Soccer is a universal language. American women have a very athletic, pro-offense style of play – when you play with American women, you know it’s going to be rough! – but we speak the same language on the field. The positions, the retreats, the strategies are all the same. That being said, the language barrier did sometimes complicate things. When the coach or the assistants spoke and I didn’t understand, I’d try to figure out what they had said by looking at their body language, or I’d ask my new American teammates.

What were your first impressions of the United States?

I felt out of place, lost. Everything was big, the buildings were gigantic. I was with my mother, and we both wondered what we were doing there! The evening I arrived in Philadelphia, I was introduced to the Charge fans and swept up in a whirlwind of media appearances and culture shocks. I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m totally unprepared.” I come from a small town of 5,000 people [Bar-sur-Aube, between Reims and Dijon]! It took me a while to get used to the excess and extravagance of America. At first it was frightening, but then it became magical. I don’t eat meat anymore, but for a long time I was a huge fan of Philly cheesesteak!

You were the first French female soccer player to play in the United States, the first to sign a professional contract and earn a salary. Did you realize that you were a pioneer at the time?

I made this transatlantic journey selfishly – for myself, to experience something, to have the right to play. I hoped that my experience would push French female soccer players into the spotlight. I thought I might be able to bring some ideas back to France, that the federation might look to the U.S. for inspiration in professionalizing women’s soccer. There was a desire for change in France, but not necessarily the right people in the right positions to make things happen. It’s only with hindsight that I’ve come to realize the significance of what I did. Today, I’m delighted to be able to fight for women’s soccer in France.

Your American dream was short-lived. In 2002, the Women’s United Soccer Association – the world’s first women’s professional league – awarded you the titles of Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year, before filing for bankruptcy the following year. What was that like for you?

I wasn’t ready to go back to France. I knew that the disconnect with American soccer culture would be immense. I didn’t feel capable of going back! In 2003, I rejoined les Bleues – France’s national team – to take part in the Women’s World Cup in the United States. Not only was I back on my home turf, but I was also playing in a French jersey! It was magical. I then joined the New Jersey Wildcats [then a member of a pre-professional league]. Admittedly, the level was lower, but I was with my friends again. However, I realized that my future was no longer in the United States, so I went back to France in 2004 with my head held high. I set out to find a club that suited me, both in terms of performance and personality, and I ended up at the Paris Football Club in Juvisy. Then I met my wife. We wanted to start a family and I needed to be free; travel fatigue was starting to get the better of me. I retired in 2007 to become a TV broadcaster.

Marinette Pichon and the French national team after their victory against Great Britain and their qualification for the Women’s World Cup, October 16, 2002. © Stéphane Ruet/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

You’re the first French female soccer player to come out. In your 2018 autobiography, Ne jamais rien lâcher (“Never give up”), you also condemn homophobia in French soccer.

All I did was talk about how I felt. I started feeling comfortable with my sexuality, without hiding it, in the United States. I could hold my partner’s hand without being afraid, and no one cared! It has to be said that American women’s soccer is an enclosed, very safe environment where you can freely express your identity. This is less the case in France, and even less so among men. Society is resistant to change. For many people, the ideal family is a dad, a mom, and kids, and they find it hard to understand why anyone would want to step outside this box. I’ve always lived my life the way I wanted to, without asking for anyone’s approval. I just think that when you have the opportunity to promote the LGBTQ+ cause, you should do it.

Since 2019, you’ve been coaching players at the Lac Saint-Louis regional club in Montreal. What inspired this return to North America?

Back in France, I had become caught in an intense spiral of work. I was a broadcaster at the Olympic Games, European Championships, and World Cups. I had also founded the Football Académie in the Drôme département to train young girls and pass on my experience. I no longer had enough time for my family and our son, who we had after a long IVF process. It was painful not getting to see him grow up or to help raise him. Moving to Quebec was a lifestyle choice, because Canada is a country that supports families and encourages the development of women’s soccer. It was the ideal destination. In fact, a new version of the Football Académie is set to open in Montreal this summer.

When he awarded you the Légion d’Honneur last June, the French ambassador to Canada applauded your fight against “the differences in media coverage [and] the marginalization of women’s sport.” How has the situation changed since you started playing soccer?

It’s hard to say if there has been much change as everything is still so recent. But we’re getting more and more spokespeople for our sport, and that’s encouraging. The launch of a professional women’s soccer league in France this July is another inspiring sign!

The Goals She Scored

French National Team (1994-2007): 81
Philadelphia Charge (2002-2003): 28
New Jersey Wildcats (2004): 28
Paris Football Club (2004-2007): 103

Ne jamais rien lâcher
by Marinette Pichon, with Fabien Lévêque, First Editions, 2018.

Interview published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.