By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) – Amandine Henry was five when she first showed her potential at kicking a ball and, in the absence of any women’s teams, her father signed her to play with the local boys.
In the 24 years since, she has won 11 French titles and four Champions Leagues but those honours are likely to pale by comparison if she manages to lead hosts France to the title at the World Cup in July.
The only woman in L’Equipe’s list of 30 most influential personalities in French football, Henry has become one of the world’s best defensive midfielders.
“Football made me as a woman, it helped me build my identity,” the 29-year-old told TV5 Monde.
The path from five-year-old taking on the boys to captain of Les Bleues was, as is the case for many women professionals, far from easy, though.
At OSM Lomme, the club she joined at the age of 11 after another team had turned her down because of her gender, Henry had to fight for her place as she was the only girl.
“You have to earn respect on the pitch, and I often had to do more than them,” she recalled.
It was not until she was 15 that she played her first women’s games in Henin-Beaumont before joining the French football academy in Clairefontaine, on the outskirts of Paris.
The best paid French female player, Henry joined Lyon in 2007 but came close to ending her career a year later because of a knee problem.
“I think I will need a prosthetic leg when I retire,” she joked.
A stint in Portland, with whom she won the National Women’s Soccer League in 2017, taught her how better to ‘protect herself’ in a league that is more physical than those of Europe.
Henry made her international debut in 2009 but was dropped after a couple of seasons by then coach Bruno Bini, who omitted her from the France side that took fourth place in the London Olympics in 2012.
There were reports doing the rounds that a personal problem with a team mate led Bini to make do without Henry, but they have never been confirmed.
She made her return in 2013 and has since become one of the first names on the team sheet with current head coach Corinne Diacre handing her the captain’s armband in 2017.
Henry now has the chance to repay Diacre’s faith by leading her country to their first world title.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)