Allez Emma! Allez les Vaudoise!

One of the features of life in Switzerland that isn’t much different from our lives in Canada is the central role that sports play in the lives of our kids and the daily routine of our family. While the language, team culture and customs, as well as a few rules of the game may be different, the routine of driving to practices, hanging around sometimes cold, wet fields, and cheering for our kids at games hasn’t changed much at all. Emma has blossomed into a multi-sport athlete here, although soccer remains her main passion, while her brother Lachlan is obsessed with American football. Today’s post focuses on Emma’s involvement in the Swiss girls soccer system. Lachlan’s experience playing American football here will be the subject of another post in the near future.

Emma’s favourite sport remains soccer, (or “football” as she now insists on calling it), and she has continued training 3-4 times week throughout most of the year. When we arrived in Switzerland last year we were very fortunate to make contact with a girls’ select team called Team Vaud Feminin (TVF), which is made up of the most talented girls from teams across the canton of Vaud (in which we live). Emma was immediately invited to join the U14 team and has since become a valued member of the squad (despite being the youngest player). The quality of the coaching and the level of play are very high, so she is continually challenged to develop and improve as a player. In addition, as all the other players are from Swiss families, Emma’s involvement with TVF gives us a great opportunity break out of the “expat bubble” and participate in the local community, socialize with Swiss families, and practice our French.

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The Team Vaud Feminin U14s, Emma is in the back row, far left.

As explained in a previous post, one of the things has taken some getting used to here is that the Swiss soccer system doesn’t separate genders until about the age of 15, so almost all youth teams are “mixed.” The reality, however, is that this means that team rosters are 95% boys and 5% girls. As you can imagine, it takes a special kind of girl to persevere in a sport where she is often the only girl on the team (hence the rate of girls’ participation in soccer here is much lower than in Canada).

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TVF is one of the few exceptions, allowing girls an opportunity to train and play together throughout the season. Having said that, because there is no girls-only league, TVF plays all its games against teams made up almost entirely of boys. The only allowance made for the differences between the genders is that the TVF U14s play against boys who are a year or two younger.

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Now that we have that out of the way, you might be wondering how Emma’s team actually did this past season! Well, first of all, there are two playing seasons here in Switzerland, fall and spring. In the fall of 2012 TVF started off playing in the 2nd Division of the cantonal league, playing against teams from the Lake Geneva area. The team started off very strong, facing most of the weaker teams early on, and were in first place for the first half of the season. By the second half of the season, however, they started facing the stronger teams and, after losing a couple of key matches, finished up the season in 3rd (with a record of 7:0:2), which was still an excellent result!

For her part, Emma got a fair amount of playing time, usually in the position of striker or forward, and she scored a few goals. Having spent most of the last two years in Canada playing the role of central defender, this was definitely an adjustment for her.

Emma receiving congrats from her teammates after scoring a goal.

Emma receiving congrats from her teammates after scoring a goal.

As a parent, one of the things that made a big impression on me was the difference between playing in the fall versus the summer (as we were used to in Canada). Watching soccer in the fall can be damn cold!!! After enduring many cold, wet and windy evenings standing on the pitch watching Emma’s practices and games, I will never again complain about having to attend a practice or game in the heat and humidity of Toronto! I eventually learned to wear winter layers in order to keep warm on the field, or retreated indoors to the club’s “buvette” (snack bar) for a drink with the other parents.

Pretty typical playing conditions in late fall and early spring, cold, dark and foggy.

Pretty typical playing conditions in late fall and early spring: cold, dark and foggy.

Two other things made an impression. Firstly, the Swiss have a reputation for being quite formal and well-mannered, and while this is not always the case in reality, the culture of TVF certainly¬† lived up to the reputation. Upon arrival at practices and games, for example, it is customary for each girl to greet the coaches, as well as every parent, with a handshake and a “Bonjour”. Parents greet one another, as well as the coaches, similarly. When first getting to know one another, parents shake hands and address one another using the formal “vous”. Failing to participate in the ritual is considered rude, or can be interpreted as aloofness.

At some point (and it’s still a mystery to me when that point is reached), the formality gets eased and the “vous” is dropped in favour of the informal “tu,” and handshakes between men and women become 3 kisses on the cheek (left-right-left). Knowing when it is appropriate to switch from shaking hands to kissing on the cheek is a bit of an art, and can lead to a certain amount of anxiety and embarrassment for the uninitiated (like me!). After crossing the line a little early once or twice (one woman physically recoiled – ooops, sorry, too soon!), I elected to take my cues from the women and followed their lead.

The entire ritual, by the way, gets repeated at the end of every practice or game. It’s a bit like navigating the receiving line at a wedding, TWICE! We all get to do this three to four times per week. That’s a lot of handshakes and, eventually, kisses (someone pass the hand sanitizer please!).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is something quite charming and endearing about the whole ritual, especially as someone coming from North America where we have taken informality to new depths (such as students addressing professors in emails with “hey”), but it can get a bit time-consuming and tedious, especially at the end of practice when there is still dinner to be eaten and homework to be done! I admit to having skulked away without saying proper goodbyes a few times in order to just get on with the rest of the evening (sorry folks, no offense!).

One other thing that I really appreciated, especially given the weather, is how well-financed and civilized the soccer infrastructure is here. Every little one-cow town has a carefully manicured grass pitch and full clubhouse complete with change-rooms, hot showers, and, most importantly, a licensed snack-bar! So while the players are put through their drills outside in the cold and wet, parents can retreat to the “buvette” to socialize over a beer or a glass of wine. After spending many hours back in Canada hanging around scrubby school fields without a Starbucks or even a port-a-pottie in sight, being a soccer parent in Switzerland has felt like staying at a 5-star hotel!

Now, getting back to Emma’s soccer, after a six week break over the Christmas period the girls were back at it with indoor training by early February 2013. On the strength of their 3rd place finish in the fall, TVF was promoted to the 1st Division for the spring season, where they would face stiffer competition. As expected, the girls struggled to match the size, strength and speed of the boys on the 1st division teams and they spent much of the first of half of the season at or near the bottom of the table. Slowly but surely, however, they found their form, gained confidence, and managed to claw their way up to 5th place in the standings (out of 12 teams), finishing with a record of 5:2:4.

Outdoor practices start in early March. Note the lingering snow.

Outdoor practices start in early March. Note the lingering snow.

As one of the youngest and smallest players on the team, Emma did not see as much playing time at first as she had done in the fall, as her coaches were concerned about fielding her against the bigger and stronger boys’ teams in the 1st Division. However, as a string of injuries took their toll on the TVF roster, and as she demonstrated that she could hold her own on the field, she began to get more playing time. The other development was that her coaches began to take note of her defensive capabilities and by the end of the season she was entrusted with the role of central defender on a regular basis, a role with which she is much more comfortable than striker.

Emma, wearing the captain's armband at a regional U13 girls tournament in Zug.

Emma, wearing the captain’s armband at a regional U13 girls tournament in Zug.

I must also point out that, as a spectator, the spring season is much more enjoyable! While there were definitely some cool, wet evenings in March and April, the weather here in May and June was spectacular and we enjoyed many lovely, warm evenings watching the girls play while the sun set along the shore of Lake Geneva.

A lovely warm evening for watching football on the shores of Lake Geneva.

A great evening to watch football on the shore of Lk Geneva. Emma is on the far right.

One highlight of the spring season that comes to mind was the elite U13 tournament in early May in Aigle, which featured a number of the top boys club and academy teams from across Europe, including Olympique Marseilles, Young Boys, Grasshopper, Tubingen, and Evian. TVF was the only girls team entered in the tournament. While the girls were outgunned most games, the quality of the football was highly entertaining, and it was fun to watch the Young Boys’ coach having conniptions on the sidelines as our girls held his boys to just a single goal!

Coach Nico getting a dousing after a tournament.

Coach Nico getting a dousing after a tournament.

Another highlight was when Kathryn and I drove Emma to a tournament in Zug, near Lucerne, and played hookey for a few hours to visit Lucerne, one of the most beautiful small cities in Switzerland (and the rest of Europe for that matter). Lucerne is most famous for its lovely “Kappellbrucke,” a covered wooden pedestrian bridge originally built in the 14th century that stretches almost 200m across the Reuss river and is decorated with paintings dating back to the 17th century.

The Kappellbrucke in Lucerne.

The Kappellbrucke in Lucerne.

It is late August 2013 now and we have just returned from a short visit to Canada. TVF has wasted no time in starting to prepare for the fall 2013 season. Practice is under way and the TVF U14 girls recently participated in a friendly tournament in Boussigny, fielding 2 teams of girls. Competing against a half dozen boys teams, the girls did very well, placing 1st and 6th overall in tournament, which bodes well for the coming season. Allez Emma! Allez les Vaudoise! Allez les filles!

Lastly, here is a very brief video clip of Emma playing left forward in a game this spring, which the girls won:

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