Why do so few girls play football in France?

    Story highlights

    • French women's football has long been marginalized, stereotyped as a sport that is too rough and masculine for girls to play
    • In recent years an increased television presence has raised the profile of the game, especially broadcasts of the women's World Cup
    • Enrollment statistics remain low with only about 50,000 licensed girls under 20 years of age compared to almost 1 million boys

    (CNN)Football is the most widely played sport among French youths. Yet, it struggles to attract and retain girls. How can football serve as a tool of socialization when it remains the domain of young boys and men?

    Algeria coach Christian Gourcuff, who has a coached a number of Ligue 1 clubs, notes that for a long time, women's football "was a sport totally marginalized."
      Stereotypes abounded that the sport was too rough, too masculine for girls to play. They were much more likely to compete in basketball, ride horseback, or dance, such as Maïmouna Coulibaly, whose dance company, Les Ambianceuses, is internationally recognized (though overshadowed by her brother, Amedy Coulibaly, the kosher supermarket shooter in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre).
      But change is afoot. Since the late 1980s, the French Football Federation (FFF) has promoted the sport to women and girls.
      "Over the past 10 years, there has been a considerable development of the women's game," said Gourcuff.
      Former player and ex-Paris Saint-Germain official Jean-Michel Moutier concurred. Over the past decade "girls have significantly increased the level of play," he said. "I am agreeably surprised by the quality of certain female football matches."
      The sport's increased television presence helps significantly, especially broadcasts of the women's World Cup.
      "That has changed a bit the image of women's football," Gourcuff said, "notably among young girls."
      Farid El Alagui, who now plays for Scottish club Hibernian, noticed a dramatic difference in how women's football is perceived back home.
      "If you look at the French national team," he said, "they've been really good." Les Bleues are presently third in FIFA's world ranking and hopes are high for their success at the women's World Cup in Canada between June 6 and July 5.
      The professional women's league is also responsible for encouraging more girls to play.
      "There are big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain," El Alagui said, "who are very good and the level of play is quite high."
      Such examples foster confidence to try to the sport. "I think a lot of girls want to play football," he said. "They're just scared."
      However, enrollment statistics paint a less exuberant portrait.
      At ASVCM only seven out of 345 players in the club's football school are girls, and two more play with the club's youth teams in competitions. Such statistics are mirrored nationally. During the 2013-14 season, there were 50,516 licensed girls in the Under-6 to Under-20 demographic, as compared to 997,511 for boys of the same age.
      While few in number, the young girls at ASVCM -- a local sports club based in a town 12 kilometers south of Paris -- are welcomed and respected, observed Catherine Ledemé, who has volunteered with the club for more than a decade.
      "They are often the 'mascots' of the team," she said. Moreover, they excel on the field. The football section's president Marc Girard proudly boasted that two of ASVCM's young players are in formation with PSG's women's team.
      For Ledemé, who week-in and week-out ensures the club's conviviality, "football has strong social values."
      She supports girls playing football, regardless of the game's stereotypes or image, a sentiment indicative of changing or changed attitudes.
      More is needed, but the continued success of the women's league and national team will perhaps inspire more girls to take up the sport.