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Life at the End of the World

17 Jan 2019
Wendie Renard
France, Olympique Lyonnais
17 Jan 2019
W

here I’m from, we call it The End of the World.

Nothing but the sea in front of you. And a giant mountain at your back.

It’s a part of Martinique called Le Prêcheur. It’s waaaaay up on the northern coast of the island about an hour away from any kind of village or town. When you stand on the beach, Mount Pelée rises behind you. When you look out in front of you, it’s just miles and miles of the Caribbean Sea. The warm, blue water sparkles with the sun.

And the sun … the SUN! I’m going to sound like a real island girl right now, but the sun is everything to us in Martinique. Honestly, anyone in the Caribbean will say the same thing. We’re like plants. The sun puts you in a good mood. When the sunshine hits you … it puts a smile back on your face. It gives you this joy and this happiness. You’re good. Life … is good.

There’s maybe fewer than 2,000 people who live in Le Prêcheur. Which is not a lot to begin with. But sometimes, standing out there when the sun is coming up … it feels like it’s only you and the island that exist.

The End of the World.

Ask my mother. It really felt like the end of the world when she was ready to give birth. Now, I wasn’t there obviously, but I’m the youngest of her four daughters, so I got the story from my sisters. As soon as she started to go into labour, she and my dad hopped in the car and set out to drive over an hour to the nearest hospital.

And if there was any real question about what I was going to do when I grew up, or the kind of girl she’d raise, my mum always tells me this:

“You were already kicking in my belly before you even came into this world.”

Courtesy of Renard family

The sea and football — that’s how it was in Martinique. At least for me anyway, because I was a little different from the other girls. I was a bit a of a tomboy and I was a bit football obsessed. The boys and I would take off from school at the end of the day and we’d head to the beach and swim, and then play football. But even then I knew: I needed to play twice as hard, twice as smart, to get respect.

We’d set up a couple of shoes for goals and if we didn’t have a ball, we’d kick around a plastic bottle. And if we weren’t at the beach, we’d play in the carpark of our housing project.

It was rare for girls to play football in Martinique, so it was even more rare that it was the women in my family who pushed me to play. They were the ones who loved football as much as me. My aunt was a referee on the island. My mum played a little and watched matches all the time. So when my sisters and I got into fights about the TV on the weekends, I always had the judge on my side.

My mum would walk into the room.

“What are you all shouting about?”

“Wendie keeps putting the football match on!” one of my sisters would say.

My mum would look at us then around to the screen …

“Oh really? Who’s playing?”

And she’d sit down beside me to watch the match.

As for my dad? Well, he wasn’t the typical father who was into football and yelling at the screen. He’d rather talk politics. But we were so close anyway. Maybe because I was his littlest girl, I don’t know, but I just clung to him. Where he went, I needed to go as well. I was his shadow. Everyday when he’d go to his car for work, I’d be right behind him.

“Daddy! Daddy! Can’t I go with you?” I’d try to hop in.

It didn’t matter whether he was going to work or wherever, I just wanted to be with him. We’d sit for ages and talk about anything, except football. He’d tease me and I’d tease him back. And for Sunday dinners, which were big in our house, my uncles and cousins and aunts would come around after church. We’d all sit at the table, eating shrimp and chicken and rice. And I’d have my chair right beside my dad’s, never far from arm’s reach.

Courtesy of Renard Family

For me, there was nothing better than life at the end of the world. I didn’t know anything different.

And then — and this is the brutal thing about life — it went bad. Just like that.

Around the time I turned eight, we learned my father had lung cancer.

Lung cancer? I didn’t even know what that meant.

How can you when you’re eight years old?

He never smoked or drank a day in his life, but now Dad was very, very sick. The cancer had spread over the last year or two and now he maybe had a few months at best. He didn’t have long, the doctor said.

At best? Have long? I didn’t even know what that meant.

How can you when you’re eight years old?

When you’re eight, you have nothing to worry about. When you’re eight, you have football. When you’re eight, you have the beach. I had my mum. I had my dad. I had Sunday dinners sitting beside him at the table.

When you’re eight, your dad is supposed to be around forever.

Courtesy of Renard Family

It’s weird, getting a new perspective at that age. I say getting, but really it was just shoved onto me. I didn’t want this. I was eight, what did I have to worry about? But within a moment, all of a sudden, you realize … things end. The ocean doesn’t just stretch out forever. And my father wasn’t going to get better.

Eventually they moved him into a hospital, where my mother spent most of her time, when she wasn’t at work. I stayed with my eldest sister, who had her own house on another part of the island.

It was just before the school year, in August. I was sitting next to my sister when the phone rang.

Once, twice.

I touched her arm and I looked at her. I already knew. Before she even picked up.

“Dad is dead.”

“Stop talking nonsense.”

“You will see,” I said. “Dad is dead.”

My sister walked over to the phone and it was my mother or uncle on the line, I still can’t remember. I sat there watching her.

“Come quickly to the hospital,” they said. “It’s over. He’s gone.”

Before my father died, he sat me down. It was one of the last chats we would have. This one was different. He wasn’t going to be around soon, he told me. And I finally started to understand.

He had other things to tell me, things that will stay between him and me.

But when I left his room, I knew he would be gone. I now knew what that meant.

I knew life would be different.

And what I wanted to do with it.

 

Julie Glassberg/The Players' Tribune


My mother fought to give us everything she could. I think I got my strength from her side. And I completely threw myself into football. As soon as I got out of class, I was playing football. As soon as we left church on Sundays, I was playing football.

She and I, we sat in the living room one day, just the two of us. A match was on — it was the women’s French national team. She was sitting there, and I was in one of of those tiny little-kid sofa chairs — you know, the ones where you’re sort of propped up on the floor next to the adults?

I just sat there. And then she came on the screen. Marinette Pichon. I honestly can’t remember any of the other players, just her.

Then I looked up at my mum.

“One day, you’ll see me on TV wearing that jersey.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, that will be me. You will see.”

Courtesy of Renard Family

In Martinique, it means something, the French shirt. We are 8,000 kilometres away, but … that jersey. The Rooster. We are French, but we know on the island we have to work that much harder to get to that level, you know? In the Caribbean, we respect that shirt. We know it needs to be earned.

And when I saw Pichon wearing it on that day, I don’t know, something happened. I just knew, I  had to wear it too. I would wear it too.

That’s how it began.

When we got to school, we’d have those career assessment sort of things. My teacher would ask the class, “What do you want to do for a living?” As she walked around handing out pieces of paper. We were supposed to fill out the jobs we wanted to have one day. I wrote down two.

“Professional football player. Flight attendant.”

(Yeah, I know, completely different, but, hey, I think I knew either way I wanted to travel and see other parts of the world.)

My teacher came around to see our work and then she stopped by my desk. She picked up my paper, glanced at it, and then looked back at me.

“Wendie, it doesn’t exist,” she said, pointing to my first job. “You have to change it. That job doesn’t exist. ”

“No, I want to be a professional footballer player.”

And she took the paper and switched the two answers around.

And I took it back.

And rewrote FOOTBALLER up at the top.

To me, it was simple. It was the only thing that mattered. I wasn’t even angry because, to me, it wasn’t a question of whether this could happen. It was going to. It was fact in my mind. I’m a religious person. I think things are chosen for us, we already have our paths. And I already had mine. I already had my destiny written for me.

I just needed others to know what’s up.

Courtesy of Renard Family

Then, one day when I was about 14, one of my coaches at the school told me he was lining up a trial for me at Clairefontaine. When spring rolled around, he said, I’d be heading over to France, or the Metropole, as we call it, in May.

“I have your tickets, you’re leaving next week.”

I was so happy. I was so excited. I was so terrified.

And when I arrived? ….It was nothing like Martinique. It was so cold, we were in the woods and there wasn’t much sun! And it wasn’t easy. On the island, I was known as the girl who played football. I was usually the only one on my teams, but in France? Nobody knew me. No one had even heard of me. And of course they hadn’t. All the other girls had been scouted in France for years. I was some girl from the islands. That week, I did whatever I could to get noticed, but … I just had this … feeling. This wasn’t going to work.

At the end of the week, when tryouts were over, one of my uncles who had been living in Paris came to pick me up. I was staying with him for the weekend before flying back to Martinique.

“How do you think it went?”

“I don’t know how I feel about it, but I don’t think they’re going to pick me. “

“Why not?”

“They barely looked at me or spoke to me.”

I spent the whole weekend glued to his computer. Constantly checking to see if any updates on the roster had been posted to the website. Refresh. Nothing. Refresh. Nothing. Refresh. Nothing.

Refresh.

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The list. It was there. And I clicked on it. Names went down the screen.

I scrolled.

And scrolled.

Until I got to the bottom and saw … nothing.

I didn’t get picked. So I called my coach back on the island and thanked him for his help, but told him that I didn’t make it and I’d be back on campus on Monday.

“No no, don’t move,” he said. “I’ll get you some other tryouts. Hold on, don’t hang up, I’m going to call a friend and I’ll call you back.”

When he did phone back he told me they had arranged a trial for that week at Olympique Lyonnais. I immediately took the train ticket and went to Lyon.

The sun was shining.

And, after a week, the coach said they’d take me on.

It was destiny.

David Ramos/Getty Images


I don’t know how to sum up 12 years at Lyon.

I went from being a lonely 16-year-old, crying before my French class, wondering whether it would ever get easier, whether people would ever stop making fun of my accent. Whether it would ever start to feel a little like home …

To playing with the first team, wearing the captain’s armband and earning the French national shirt.

We went from only getting victory bonuses when I first arrived in 2006, no salaries at all …

To, three years later, signing our first professional contracts.

I could call my mother, who for so long felt embarrassed that others were taking care of her daughter in Lyon, and I could tell her I was making my own money. As a woman. Playing football.

Julie Glassberg/The Players' Tribune

We’ve gone from having 50 people in our stadium …

To playing in front of 20,000 in a Champions League final, primetime broadcasts and people stopping us on the street asking for autographs and pictures.

Not there yet, far from it, but I can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And, you know, all I want is to feel that light on my face. But we’re ambassadors for the next generation. Just like the women before me and the women right in front of me: My aunt, who is still refereeing in Martinique. My sisters, who let me stay out a little bit longer to play with the boys in the neighbourhood. My mother, who watched every game on TV with me, never said I couldn’t and did everything to make it so.

 

I have to be honest, though, as much as I watched Pichon, it was Ronaldinho who inspired me when I was little. I dreamt about playing like him. His style, the way he moved on the pitch — he danced on the field. It was like the samba … maybe he’s a little Caribbean like that. We all like to find the fun and joy in life. The sunshine, right?

But once I got here. I looked to Cristiano as the player I want to be. Two reasons: First, his work ethic. He got himself there. Second, I want TROPHIES. I’ve stayed at Lyon my entire career. People have asked why — I’ve gotten the opportunity to play elsewhere in other leagues. But it comes down to this, and maybe as women we aren’t really expected to say this. But, yeah, I want those trophies. I want back-to-back-to-back Champions League titles. I want league records. I want rivalries. I want the insults when I walk onto the pitch in a derby.

That’s what football is made of and it’s why women play, too. Because we like when there are fights in the game, we like when there’s a tough tackle, when there’s yelling and fighting. In that way, it’s beautiful.

I want football, at its best.

Because we’re not fighting for the men’s space. We’re just fighting for our own space. This isn’t a zero-sum game. This isn’t about men’s football versus women’s football. This isn’t about better or worse. Just recognized and respected.

Just football.

Same pitch.

Same rules.

Same ball.

And in many ways that’s what the World Cup in France means. A trophy for us will be a turning point for women’s soccer in France. But with this tournament little girls all over … in Martinique, and in France especially, they will see us. They’ll see us out there. In our own space.

They’ll see this job: a woman who plays football.

So to them and to my teacher back in ninth year: Take a look.

Look at me.

Look at my job.

Because this job?

It does exist.

Wendie Renard
France, Olympique Lyonnais