RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The World Cup kicks off in France today - the one where the American team isn't just good; they are defending champions. Of course, we're talking about the Women's World Cup. Women's soccer is strong in the U.S. But in France and in much of Europe, it has been struggling. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to find out why.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in French).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Shouting in French).
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: These enthusiastic girls from a Paris soccer club set off from the Gare de Lyon train station for a tournament in the south of France. Head coach Cyril Bonnet says just five years ago, there wouldn't have been enough teams for an all-girls competition.
CYRIL BONNET: Soccer is supposed to be and has always been a man thing. Therefore, people think that if she plays soccer, she's kind of - she's a girl, but she behaves like a boy. And people were a little bit scared of that. Like, my girl is going to be associated with boys and she have a boy's behavior.
BEARDSLEY: In other words, a tomboy, or in France, a missed boy. But Bonnet says attitudes are changing. More than 100,000 girls are now playing soccer across the country. Bonnet says hosting the Women's World Cup will give it another boost. Typically, French girls are pushed toward dance, like 12-year-old Amelie Vichery.
AMELIE VICHERY: (Through interpreter) I was taking ballet, but I quit because I like more physical sports. And I also like the camaraderie of team sports. At recess, I always played soccer with the boys, but I didn't want to play on a boys team. I'm so glad there's a girls team for me to play on now.
BEARDSLEY: At this soccer field under the Eiffel Tower, some girls practice and play with boys teams.
COLOMBINE JULLIEN: I keep playing, and then they shut up.
BEARDSLEY: That's 11-year-old Colombine Jullien, explaining how she handles any remarks about her playing with the boys.
COLOMBINE: It's not because you're a girl that you can't be good at sports initially played by boys.
BEARDSLEY: Ines Degli-Esposti says she can't wait to see the level of play at the Women's World Cup. This 12-year-old has grown up playing soccer with boys in France and in the summers in Italy, another men's soccer powerhouse. And Ines went to the United States once.
INES DEGLI-ESPOSTI: And all the girls I saw were playing soccer. More girls were playing than boys, and I was really impressed. And here in France, some girls are playing. And it's increasing a lot. And in Italy, like, only a few - really the most courageous ones.
BEARDSLEY: I spoke with Candice Prevost, who played for the French national team and professionally for Paris Saint Germain. She'll be giving the play by play at this year's World Cup for French broadcaster Canal Plus.
CANDICE PREVOST: (Through interpreter) Now we see women players on TV, and that was not the case a few years ago. Women's soccer now has a real identity in the media. Girls are playing because they see women playing. Visibility is essential, and gives women's soccer legitimacy.
BEARDSLEY: In fact, France, along with Germany and England, will put up stiff competition for the U.S. team. Twenty-four teams will be vying for the Women's World Cup title in 52 matches. France and South Korea kick off the tournament at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris tonight.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.