Lisa Zimouche was on the books of Paris Saint-Germain
She instead became one of the world's top freestylers
She discusses meeting the likes of Bolt, Neymar, Pogba and Zidane
"I don't know if I'm a role model now, but I'm doing everything I can to show people that a girl playing football is normal," Lisa Zimouche told FIFA.com. "If my backstory can inspire young girls, then I'll have achieved my goal."
Today, the 21-year-old Franco-Algerian is a global freestyler with over two million followers on Instagram. Her viral videos demonstrate her artistry with the ball and showcase a level of skill unimaginable for your average footballer.
It all began with a very young Lisa kicking the ball around outside her building, having been inspired by the exploits of the France team of Zinedine Zidane, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri, her first role models.
"When I started, my idols were mostly male players," explained Lisa. "I knew a few female players, like Louisa Necib, who I was sometimes compared to, but it was quite rare. Nowadays women's football is more visible and there are plenty of role models. I see my goal as helping women gain confidence, whether through freestyle or women's sport in general.
"Initially I wasn't necessarily better than average. I had to play on a team that was almost exclusively made up of boys, so I had to work twice as hard to prove I deserved my place. Even when I was playing outside my building, I had to impose myself and show that I could play."
Even after she had earned her place in team, gender bias sometimes reared its head. "On occasion, our opponents would brag that they were going to beat us because there was a girl on our team," said Lisa. "But it was a source of motivation for me. I wanted to show them that they were wrong."
Then one day, her evident fondness for the game’s technical side came face to face with freestyle, and it was love at first sight.
"I remember the moment exactly," she said. "I was ten years old and I’d signed up for a street football tournament, and some freestylers came to put on a show and give a workshop. It was a revelation for me, so I started to train every day. I was constantly watching videos on the internet and trying to replicate the moves."
"Because it's a discipline with so much to learn, I had to practice over and over again when I wanted to master a move. For example, when I was learning the move known as 'Around the World', I wasn’t even 1.40m tall, but I remember spending hours and hours in front of my building until I got it. During the first few years, I spent up to five hours a day training."
At the same time, she continued to play football and even joined Paris Saint-Germain’s youth team between the ages of 14 and 16. It was an experience that instilled in her the invaluable discipline and rigour needed to perfect her craft and saw her, aged just 15, become World Female Panna Soccer champion, a specialty based on nutmegging one’s opponent.
After that, her videos began to circulate widely online and her career really took off. Zimouche has now travelled the world and racked up millions of views with her ever more creative videos.
"I’m inspired by everything I see," she said. "It can come from music or even other sports like basketball, which I really like. I can also be inspired by a place I visit. My videos can be scripted in advance and then improvised in the moment. It really is freestyle!"
Lisa and other pioneers like Melody Donchet have paved the way for future generations of young girls who dream of expressing their creativity with a ball by going beyond the boundaries of traditional football, in a discipline where you are only limited by your imagination. We concluded our chat by asking the freestyler what advice she would give to anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps.
"Be passionate, because if you’re passionate about something, you’ll naturally work harder at it, no matter what domain," she said. "You also have to work on your self-confidence and follow your instincts, so you don't get influenced by what's being said around you. I occasionally heard people say that what I was doing was a bad idea and that it wouldn’t get me anywhere, but I knew deep down that they were wrong."
"They are two very approachable and down-to-earth players. We understood each other easily perhaps because we share a similar background. I felt a mutual respect because they’d seen the videos. I was impressed by Paul Pogba when I met him in 2015 on the set of a commercial. He performed some genuine freestyle moves – things that some pro freestylers can't even do."
"It was a meeting that made a big impression on me. He’s a legend as well as a very simple guy with good energy. He loves football and is drawn to the ball. The connection was very easy to make."
"He was injured when I met him, so I couldn’t see him perform. However, when you watch him play, you sense that he has a relationship with the ball that’s very close to freestyle culture. It’s like all those players who come from futsal, who use the soles of their feet."
"I was invited to a tournament by his association, the Z5 in Marseille, and I played against his family (laughs), including his sons, nephews and the man himself. It was impressive because you could feel a real connection between them all and see they were used to playing together. They could pick each other out with their eyes closed. 'Zizou' does some crazy things with the ball that appear effortless. He’s a true footballing artist and his qualities can be appreciated to the full in five-a-side."