Louisa Nécib is the next coming of Zinedine Zidane—and she’s ready to lead Les Bleues to glory
In 1998, 11-year-old Louisa Nécib watched, spellbound, as Zinedine Zidane led France to World Cup glory. She told Le Progresse, “J’ai flashé sur la Zidane,”—a slang expression that roughly translates as “falling in love at first sight, being hooked in a flash.” Partially, she explained, it was the heritage—like her, he was of Algerian descent, and like her, he grew up playing on the streets of a poor neighborhood in the immigrant port city of Marseilles. But mainly, it was the way he moved, the way he played. “The elegance, the small gestures,” said Nécib. “He is beautiful to see, and he makes you want to play.”
Also like Zidane—who told the Guardian, “My passion for the game comes from the city of Marseilles itself”—Nécib is proud of where she comes from. She wears jersey No. 14 in homage to the 14th arondissement, Busserine, where she grew up. “In football and family, I learned everything in Marseilles, Busserine … For me, Marseilles, it is everything.”
Originally she was a gymnast. “She was so beautiful when she did gymnastics,” her mother told Le Monde, “but it was football that gave her the most pleasure.” Every day on her way to gymnastics she’d see the neighborhood boys playing on the corner, until one day she went down to the asphalt to do “the same as the guys.” She played there, at the bottom of a building in La Busserine, for five years. She told FIFA, “I didn’t plan to join a club because, to be honest, I didn’t know girls’ teams existed.”
While she describes foot de rue, street football, as “the most beautiful school,” she acknowledges that “you don’t learn everything. We so much loved having the ball that we tended to only play when it was near us.” At age 14, she joined a more formal playing environment with local Marseilles clubs, and in 2004 she was invited to attend the French Football Federation’s CNFE Clairefontaine Academy. One year later she was playing for the national team.
At the onset of her professional career, the comparisons began. At the 2004 UEFA European Women’s Under-19 Championship, coach Bruno Bini told UEFA, “We have one new player who can do everything—it’s like watching Zinedine Zidane.” The nicknames haven’t stopped since then—la Zidanette, Ziza, Titou (after Zizou).
At the Women’s World Cup in 2011, the French mainstream media became clued in, with headlines declaring the arrival of “The New Zidane”—a petite brunette with blond highlights, blue eyeliner, and manicured fingernails who is as soft-spoken and shy as Zidane himself. When she roamed the center of the midfield, she had the je ne sais quoi developed on the street—like Zidane, a gift for both the crafty and the breathtakingly simple. And while Nécib is quick to say, “There is only one Zidane,” she, too, like Zidane, is beautiful to watch.
And after a long drought in beauty on the men’s side—handballs, prostitution scandals, player boycotts, embarrassing early exits, and a lack of class dominating recent memory—the French drank in the women. The team had never before qualified for a World Cup and not much was expected of them. But with each game, more people tuned in, discovering a football that made them nostalgic. In the quarterfinal against England, a million viewers watched; television ratings climbed to a record 3.2 million viewers during the shootout. As French football scholar Laurent Dubois wrote, “Their dominance in the game was a surprise to many, and to me, and also a little ghostly: Suddenly, I was watching the sort of flowing, graceful, entertaining French football which for the past years had existed mainly in my imagination.”
Until the 2011 World Cup, the female Les Bleues had largely been ignored. Ahead of the tournament, three stars posed nude, with signature French flair, delivering an ad meant to rebuke at the same time it tantalized, their portrait above the caption: “Is this how we should show up before you come to our games?”
While the public and the media may have ignored women’s football, the French Football Federation and Aimé Jacquet, who coached the men to the 1998 World Cup title, did not. Under Jacquet’s guidance, they created the women’s Clairefontaine national technical football academy, allowing the women to benefit from the same opportunities and facilities as the men. (At Clairefontaine in 2006, Zidane and Nécib met and swapped jerseys.) Additionally, the men’s premier professional teams have developed women’s teams. Both moves have had clear impact, nurturing a new era of talent. French team Olympique Lyonnais has been in the Champions League final in the past four years, winning twice. Ten of the 26 players on the women’s national team play for the Lyon side, which helped create the intuitive, mind-reading style that the world admired at the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
The coupling of male and female teams not only contributed to the success at the national level; it also helped grow the sport at a youth level. Former French head coach Bruno Bini explained, “A girl might say to her father, ‘Papa, I want to play soccer.’ He’s going to respond, ‘No, it isn’t a sport for girls.’ But if she says, ‘Papa, I want to play for Olympique de Marseille,’ he will say yes because she isn’t playing soccer, she is playing for OM. Even the most macho parents can do nothing about it.”
Nécib’s own father is an example of the shifting attitude in France. Originally he was reluctant to see his daughter play football, much preferring the more gender-appropriate gymnastics. Now he describes his daughter’s game as a “gift from God.” The French media are changing, too. With initiatives like “24 Hours of Women’s Sports,” major media distributors have pledged to give more attention and airtime to women’s sports.
And so, come June, Louisa Nécib and Les Bleues will take the stage, aiming to inspire a new generation, just as Zidane inspired them.