Article Insects, us & the future

From the campo to the Copa: Mexico's female footballers sidelined

The last shouts and groans had only just stopped echoing off the skirts of Christ the Redeemer before newscasters and bloggers declared football fever over for the next four years. In 2015 - only one year from now - Canada will host the FIFA Women’s World Cup, but the commentators don’t expect this international world championship to make much of a stir. And why would they? With little funding, minimal publicity, persistent structural instability and scarce opportunities for fan engagement, women’s professional football is treated more like a hobby than a profession.

In Mexico, gender bias starts early in the game. In a country that values football over all other sports, many girls are discouraged from playing; others are explicitly forbidden. Those who choose to make a career in the game must work with limited opportunities and little promise of recognition. Up to mid-career, they will have to find ways to finance their participation and even at the very highest levels of the sport they will earn a fraction of what their male counterparts do.

During the month of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I travelled throughout southern Mexico interviewing female footballers in Mexico City and in the states of Jalisco, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz. I spoke with players at the recreational, street and professional levels, and with trainers, organisation heads and others in the Mexican football community. I found that women and girls are routinely discouraged from participating in the nation’s favourite sport and that those who defy cultural, familial and organisational expectations face personal and professional hardships. These consequences are firmly attached to gender, and nothing more.

Football is like telenovelas

“Soccer is everything to Mexicans. When [Mexican national team] el Tri wins, all of Mexico wins.” Olga Trujillo is a sports writer in Mexico City. Her speciality - women’s sports - came about accidentally when she was hired at El Récord, a newspaper specialising in Mexican football. “I was reporting on the men’s team Atlante FC and saw that they were training in the same place as the women’s team”, she told me over lunch at her home in Roma Sur. “When I asked who was covering the women’s game, the editors said, ‘Nobody cares about women’s football.’” Recognising the need to engage women and girls, Trujillo took over the beat.

“Football is like telenovelas [soap operas]. Most of the people watch and make jokes, comparing people with players just like the actors. Football is an excuse to be with the family on Sundays, to go to friend’s houses to watch the match, or to paralyze traffic around [Mexico City’s main monument] El Ángel when we win. It’s a religion.”

During her time at the paper (nowadays she runs a blog, Diosas Olímpicas, dedicated to women’s sports), Trujillo saw firsthand the discrimination female athletes face. “I identified with these girls. They train hard, they break barriers and they want to be in the World Cup too. But the message is that football belongs to men. Look at the television commercials; they show the women serving snacks while the men watch the game.”

With its abundance of green space and canoodling youngsters, Xalapa has the familiar cheerful ambience of a college town. Veracruz University - Xalapa is the state capital - is the most prestigious in the region, with a full-featured sports complex. The practice for the local chapter of Street Soccer Mexico (the organisation is a non-profit seeking to help disenfranchised people by using football as a tool for social change) is winding down as I walk into the campo rapido. Coach Dario Alvarado Moncayo shouts directions at the handful of players scrambling to complete their drills. As the front line fires shots, two goalies - one male and one female - alternate blocking. “Faster!” Alvarado pushes, and I can hear their panting and exhausted laughter from my spot in the bleachers.

Later, I interview three of the players - sisters Karina and Abil Quiroz Hernández (18 and 15 years old, respectively), and Brenda Mendez Rivera, 18 and the goalie - and coach Alvarado.

No professional league

“We don’t have [a professional league] for women to play like men, so that’s structural violence, right?” Alvarado leans forward. “I treat her like an inferior when I don’t do my best while playing with her. If you outrun her, that’s fine. If you’re stronger and you push her, that’s perfectly fine. It’s a game. I see this implicit violence when you treat her as inferior in the game.”

For the girls in the programme, equity is only guaranteed within the confines of the Street Soccer Mexico team. “A lot of times you face the ‘only men can play’ idea”, Karina Quiroz says. “There are some comments against women playing.”

“I see it as a cultural issue”, Alvarado explains. “I think that in our male society we’re very dumb and we don’t actually see the power of women. So I see soccer as evidence of this cultural phenomenon. [If women are allowed to play soccer] we’ll lose our manhood somehow, you know? We’ll be less important, less … I don’t know, less - less something.”

Anjuli Ladrón is 28 years old; she’s been playing football since she was five. “I wanted to be a goalie. I told my parents to put me in a team.” Ladrón’s career has taken her to the top of the game in her age bracket; she’s tended goal at two FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cups (2002 in Canada and 2006 in Russia). Currently, she’s training in the hope of competing for her country at the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

“I used to play in front of my mom’s pharmacy at Parque Hidalgo”, Ladrón says, referring to her home town of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco. “There were no women playing and [men in the park] called me a marimacha, a lesbian. It was hard. It has changed a little bit, but there are still jerks, some stupid guys who believe if they call you pendeja [asshole] you are going to respond.”

The abuse didn’t only come from the men in the park. With no girls’ teams to join, Ladrón played with the boys.

“They made me cry from the time I got there until I left. I cried because they bullied me and called me butterfingers. The coaches, they tell you you’re a pendeja. They said, ‘What is a woman doing playing soccer?’”

Family prejudice

I met former state team striker Dany Cruz in her home city of Oaxaca, the capital of Oaxaca state, one of the poorest in the country. Cruz, who now lives in Mexico City, is a confident and articulate woman who speaks easily about her experiences as a confident and articulate girl.

“When I was 13 years old, I talked to my father because I needed some shoes to play and he was like, ‘Never mind. That’s not going to happen.’ I thought, Shoot, what will I do? I talked to my coach and he said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to get them for you.’ I told my father, ‘You have to come see me’, but he said, ‘I’m not going to do that because I don’t agree that you’re going to play soccer.’ He ended up coming and I scored a goal. He said, ‘Okay, you can play.’ I had to win the chance to play. After that, it was different.”

For Mayra Vazquez, it all boils down to one word: machista. “I had a lot of problems with my father”, she tells me. “He’s very machista and he doesn’t like that I play football.” I ask her to elaborate. “It means that only men can play football. He only understands that men are better and that women should stay in the kitchen, doing domestic housework, and that they can’t study or do things like that.”

I first met Vazquez at the 2012 Homeless World Cup. Established in 2004, this annual event engages homeless and disenfranchised players from dozens of countries worldwide in a tournament that’s organised much like the FIFA World Cup. Two years ago, Vazquez was living on the street in Mexico City, no longer welcome in her father’s house, but her football skills caught the attention of the right people. She was recruited to the Street Soccer Mexico women’s team, earned the captaincy and led her team to the championship.

Sitting before me on a park bench in Mexico City, I can see that her scrappy, confident demeanour hasn’t changed. Since we last met, she has continued her studies at university - she’s also on the school football team - and moved back into the family home. Her father’s attitude has mellowed (the change began when he secretly attended the Cup championship match), although he’s still loathe to admit it. “He is more relaxed. He accepts it because, well, he already sees that this has helped me a lot in my life. For me, playing football is everything, and I believe that he has understood - little by little - but he has understood.”

For many Mexican women, parental pressures are only half of the equation. There’s also the expectation of their own parenthood.

Pressure to be mothers

Despite the fact that her side lost to the host nation in the finals at the 2010 Homeless World Cup in Río de Janiero, Brazil, Oaxaca-born captain Karina Robledo Espinosa was named the best player of the tournament. Her outstanding performance earned her an invitation to return to the programme as the girls’ coach for the 2013 Cup in Poland, but Robledo had to decline. She was pregnant.

Communicating through a translator in a small concrete room under the bleachers at the university pitch in Oaxaca, I learn that she is pregnant again, but it’s not stopping her from organising a women’s league.

“Women’s soccer was dead [in Oaxaca] so we wanted to rescue it”, Robledo explains. “It is only our third day and this is the first tournament.” She tells me that nearly 30 women have signed up.

When I ask her to describe what it feels like when she’s playing, she responds rapidly, excitedly. The translator says, “She is out of words. She can’t describe it because it is too emotional. She says it’s the best.”

Two girls in school uniform are listening in on the interview and, as I’m wrapping up with Robledo, one of them asks to speak to me. Andrea Bretón Evangelista is 19 years old and a student at the university. She says she wants to study sports marketing so she can open up a soccer centre for women. “That’s what I’d like because there is no support for women’s soccer”, she says. “We’re equals and now woman play really good. We deserve it.”

I ask about her family. “Sometimes my family supports me, but they also say that I am a woman and that only men should play.” She pauses. “It’s very difficult, and my father doesn’t like that I play. But I play anyway.”

The business of football

Widely acknowledged as the global game, football enjoys a reputation for cultural inclusion and democracy. It’s been compared to religion and language, even to life itself. Like most sports, football produces persistent tropes: the equalising nature of the pitch, the power of tribalism and the player who rises from obscurity to become a champion. The game, however, is unique in its global reach. Footballers from around the world participate regardless of citizenship, language, or economic status. We - the players and the fans - are comfortable in this narrative, cleaving easily to our equitable self-image.

But where in this story are the women and girls? I would discover that that’s not an easy question to answer.

Estadio Azteca in Mexico City is one of the largest football stadiums in the world. It’s hosted two World Cup finals (1970 and 1986) and it’s where Diego Maradona scored both the “hand of God” goal, and the “goal of the century” during the 1986 quarter-final match between Argentina and England. Brazilian football legend Pelé played at Azteca and, in 1999, Pope John Paul II visited the stadium. Unhappy with the position of the Virgin in the press gallery, the Pope ordered it relocated to where it stands now, behind glass in a case at the front of the room. Azteca is the official national stadium of the Mexican national team.

Last month, I took the stadium tour, during which I had the following conversation with the guide.

“Does the women’s side of the national team ever practise or play here?”

“I think they only played here once, but I’m not sure.”

“Where do they play?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is any of their history kept here?”

“No, it’s only the men’s side.”

“Where can I find out about the women’s side?”

“I’m not sure.”

Paying to play

The 2014 FIFA World Cup was televised in more than 200 countries, colonies and territories worldwide; the quadrennial event is the most-watched sporting tournament on the planet. The 2015 Women’s World Cup will be shown in Canada on CTV and pay-per-view sports channel TSN, and on Fox Sports and Telemundo in the United States.

The path to a career in football is quite different for male and female players. In addition to social and cultural barriers, female players (unlike male players) are required to pay for their play time.

Former Oaxaca state forward Dany Cruz comments: “[Male and female players] don’t have the same opportunities. You don’t have a league. You don’t have spaces where the girls can play. Also, it costs. Here, you have to pay to play, whereas men get paid to play.”

The financial burden only adds to an already difficult situation for female hopefuls, and automatically extends favour to girls from middle-class families. Further complicating things is the fact that work must be extremely flexible to accommodate training schedules. For the vast majority of female players, they must choose between football and everything else.

“It’s hard because I cannot do what I used to do when I was a girl. Now I’m an adult and I have to work because soccer is not going to keep food on my table”, says Anjuli Ladrón. She’s clearly torn between pragmatic concerns and the game that she loves. “Soccer gave me a way of living. Discipline, respect, friends, values and the opportunity to be in a good school. But if I can give advice to a [young female player], I’d say your dreams to be a part of the national team are good, but you might study and look for a scholarship first. For women, the national team is not the same as for men. You cannot live from that.”

Why this matters

According to FIFA, there are 29 million women and girls playing football worldwide. In England alone more than 250,000 (around 5.6%) of the country’s club footballers are female, according to a 2012 fact sheet released by the Football Association (FA). FIFA’s Big Count showed a 54% increase (representing 4.1 million players) in registered female footballers worldwide between 2000 and 2006, when the last results were collected. Add all the unregistered footballers - those who merely find time in their days for a kickabout, a game of pickup, or some street futebol - and it’s clear that women and girls get football fever too.

“Why do I like it? I don’t know. Es muy padre [it’s wicked, cool]. On the field, I feel an emotion that I really like. I like to be part of a team, to live with, to laugh with and to get mad with a team on the field. I feel a lot of different emotions.” - Andrea Bretón Evangelista, University of Oaxaca, Oaxaca

“When I stand there at the goal I feel very nervous. I feel like I’m going to fail, but then my team mates give me confidence and when the ball comes at me my blood starts heating, adrenaline running, and I feel like I can stop the ball.” - Brenda Mendez Rivera, Street Soccer Mexico, Xalapa

“For me, soccer is more than a sport. Some will say that it is just chasing a ball, but they don’t feel the rush when playing, when you are going to strike to the goal. They don’t feel that sensation that comes when you score.” - Abil Quiroz Hernandez, Street Soccer Mexico, Xalapa

“I’ve tried other sports, but I like soccer better. It is more exciting, you have to communicate better. It makes you feel nourished as a team.” - Karina Quiroz Hernandez, Street Soccer Mexico, Xalapa

“I only want to play; play and be happy and win. I get tired, but it doesn’t matter. I go on and on and on, and nothing else interests me. Playing is my passion. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” - Mayra Vazquez, Street Soccer Mexico, Mexico City

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