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Women’s World Cup 2023: Viral French Ad Subverts Gender Expectations in Soccer

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It starts off like any typical sports advertisement, splicing together clips of gripping action on the pitch, set to dramatic theme music and the exhilarating narration of color commentators. In this case, the focus appears to be on the skilled footwork of French soccer maestro Antoine Griezmann and the goalscoring prowess of his world-renowned teammate Kylian Mbappé.

“Only les Bleus can give us these emotions,” words on the screen read, referring to the nickname for the French men’s national team. “But that’s not them you’ve just seen.”

Halfway through the 2-minute-long video, created by French telecom company Orange, comes a revelation: the entire montage was a deepfake. The male soccer players’ faces had been superimposed onto the bodies—and highlights—of their female counterparts, Sakina Karchaoui and Delphine Cascarino, among others.

“At Orange, when we support les Bleus, we support les Bleues,” the closing words of the advertisement read, referring also to the nickname for the French women’s national team.

The ad was first posted in late June in anticipation of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup that kicks off on July 20, but it gained widespread attention in the last week when it was reshared on Twitter and Reddit, where thousands of fans marveled at the visual effects—and the message it contained.

“Absolutely bamboozled me,” one Reddit user commented. “A clever way for people to confront their bias,” said another.

“Football is football. Sport is sport,” tweeted Australian retired soccer player Craig Foster. “Get into sport played by women,” he added.

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Often described as less exciting, women’s soccer has long trailed behind men’s soccer in terms of international popularity. But more and more, people are starting to realize that the women’s game hasn’t been given the credit that it’s due.

When Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 110th and 111th goals for Portugal in 2021, he was hailed as the world’s “highest goalscorer in international football.” However, that record should have had a qualifier: with his current tally at 123 goals, Ronaldo has scored the most in men’s international competition, but seven women have scored more, including Canada’s Christine Sinclair, who has 190 goals in international competition.

Similarly, after Lionel Messi steered the Argentina men’s team to victory in last year’s World Cup, FIFA posted an article about all the World Cup records he now holds. Among them, it said, “Messi is the only player to score in the World Cup in his teens, 20s and 30s.” Yet that’s a feat that at least two female players—Brazil’s Marta and former U.S. star Mia Hamm—had already achieved. And with his performance in the final in Qatar in December, FIFA declared that “Messi has played the most minutes in World Cup history: 2,314,” but retired American captain Kristine Lilly recorded 2,536 minutes in World Cup tournaments.

In recent years, some progress has been made toward recognizing the value and appeal of women’s soccer, and organizers say that as many as two billion viewers could tune in to the Women’s World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand this summer. But many soccer watchers still don’t regard the women’s sport as highly as they do its male equivalent.

Read More: Megan Rapinoe Fights for Equality—and a Third World Cup Title

A study published last week by the University of Zurich found that the quality of men’s and women’s soccer performances are actually judged similarly when the gender of the players are not identifiable. When study subjects were able to tell the players’ gender, however, men’s soccer performances were rated significantly more highly.

“Our results,” Carlos Gomez, a co-author of the study, said in a press release, “refute the assumption that low demand for women’s professional soccer is based on the quality of the female players’ performances.”

The viral Orange ad affirms just that.

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