The World Cup is in full swing and Argentina is wired. This month, Argentines enjoy and suffer each moment their national team graces the stadium, freely opinionate and critique in the down time, and preemptively fantasize about winning that glorious final match. But there is one half of the country that has been subtly absent and even depicted as being against the football craze: Argentine women.
In television commercials men turn into possessed zombies groaning “Fooooootbaaalll” as women scream and run for their lives, and in radio ads all a man hears from his girlfriend is “Blah blah blah South Africa blah blah blah”. Perhaps the most depressing example are the street posters for the premiere of ‘Sex and the City 2’, in which a high-heeled foot stands over a deflated ball, the slogan announcing: “We also know how to have fun.” Yippee.
Yet despite the popular image of football as a man’s sport, Argentina, like many countries around the worldhas female teams that participate in the same local and international tournaments as their male counterparts, including FIFA’s often-ignored Women’s World Cup, due to be held in Germany in 2011.
However while Argentina’s national male team tries to ascend toward the finals in South Africa and is favoured thanks to its collection of super star players such as Lionel Messi, the national women’s team ranks 29 out of 116 teams around the world. It not only trails behind countries such as the United States and Japan, whose men’s teams have struggled in the first round of the World Cup, but countries whose teams did not even classify for the championship such as Sweden, China, Ireland, and even Iceland.
Can this poor state of female participation in a country where football is religion, where club affiliation is as strong as family, and the place that produced the best player in the history of the game, Diego Maradona, be attributed solely to machismo? Sure.
Still, the strides that female football has made both internationally and within Argentina are significant, as is the uphill battle female players face to gain recognition and the reasons why they have been left out of the game.
Though it had been played by women internationally almost since its creation, female football did not see major advancement until the 1970s, largely propelled by the second wave feminist movement. Up until then, it was mainly seen as an amateur sport played for fun and gained some traction in countries like Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Italy around the first and second world wars. In 1969, England, which had gone as far as placing a ban on female football that lasted for 50 years, finally saw the creation of the Women’s Football Association. And after years of playing without recognition, Norwegian women were accepted into the Norwegian Football Association in 1976. Overall the decade saw the rise of 35 national teams worldwide who self-organised local and regional competitions.
“The increasing presence in numbers and commitment of women in sports is due to the work of feminists, that began to talk about sports as a place of power managed by men,” said sports sociologist Adolfina Janson in an interview with Página 12. Janson is author of the 2007 book ‘Se Acabo El Juego Que Te Hacia Feliz’ (The Game You Used to Love is Over), the first in-depth look at female football in Argentina. She went on to say that feminism promoted the notion that women “must fight to obtain these spaces”.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the United States, where in 1972 feminist organisations such as the National Organization of Women (NOW) fought for the passage of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which ensured equal federal funding to both men and women’s sports in educational institutions, and required equal athletic participation from both genders. Women and girls’ participation in football in the country went from one million in 1980 to three million in 1990, and by 2003 there were a striking 8.5 million females playing the sport.
But the biggest advance for women’s football was when FIFA finally came to terms with the rise in female players and teams worldwide. Prompted by the critiques of Ellie Wille of the Norwegian Football Association at the FIFA Congress held in Mexico City in 1986 (the first woman to ever utter a word at a FIFA Congress), FIFA formed an ad hoc committee to begin overseeing international women’s games and promised to create a Women’s World Cup. That promise was fulfilled in 1991 as 12 teams descended on Beijing and the US claimed victory after defeating Norway in the final.
Since then, the Women’s World Cup has taken place every four years, with Germany and the US taking home two titles each, Norway with one, and China, Sweden, Brazil, and Canada chomping at the bit. With millions of spectators, billions of viewers worldwide, and the sponsorship of major corporations, the Women’s World Cup has earned a spot in international sporting events, though it – along with women’s football overall – still remains relegated and fragile.
Apart from the US and its Women’s Professional Soccer League, most clubs and national teams are not professional: they don’t get paid. In countries such as Germany, Norway, and England, teams are semi-professional – perhaps with a full-time coach or minimal pay – and continually struggle to find funds to sustain the sport. Compare this to men’s football – a US$400bn global industry whose top teams take in half a billion dollars annually. The disparity is glaring.
For the country in which football is not just a game but a way of life, female football has struggled to establish itself. While women’s clubs have existed in Argentina for decades, especially in the provinces outside of Buenos Aires, it wasn’t until 1991 that a handful were admitted into the AFA (Argentina Football Association), thanks to FIFA’s international push for inclusion. Initially with seven teams, the country saw the number of clubs with female teams reach 35 in 1998, and then steadily plummet – due to lack of funds and institutional support – to its current number, 11, the strongest being Boca, River Plate, and San Lorenzo.
Teams participate in local tournaments as well as the regional Copa Libertadores, the South American Championship, and the World Cup. However the prospects for Argentine victory are slim given the precarious state of women’s football within the country.
In its Women’s World Cup debut in 2003 Argentina did not even make it past the first round. It was the same story in 2007 with an excruciating 11-0 loss to Germany. In recalling the 2003 World Cup, one Argentine player described the other teams “passing over us like aeroplanes” to Janson.
In her research and interviews with players, the sociologist highlights the main barriers faced by female players in Argentina. First and foremost is (surprise!) male chauvinism and the idea that women don’t belong in the world of football, that playing the game isn’t “feminine” and that women are physically inferior to men. She points out that physical differences between men and women are seen as operating against females rather than simply differentiating them, and plainly attributes this to sexism.
In tandem with sexism, Janson notes how homophobia is key to stunting female football. She quotes the Norwegian sociologist Karin Fasting who says that “the lesbian label is used to define the boundaries of acceptable female behavior in a patriarchal culture” and that the stigma of women’s sports being a lesbian activity has been used to “intimidate” women and prevent them from participating.
In Argentina, as in many places, male bonding often comes through the sport and is often seen as a sacred “No Girls Allowed” zone. The idea of women in football is therefore seen as a threat, perhaps upsetting some higher machista order. The media is key in fuelling this notion. Outside of small provincial papers, women’s games are not covered and most outlets either “ignore or belittle female achievements,” says Janson.
Money money money
To simply see football in Argentina as a passion of the people would of course be naïve. It is a near billion-dollar industry in which a handful of managers and intermediaries buy and sell players for big money, acquire major corporate sponsors, and sell millions of jerseys and tickets each season. It is run by the AFA, which rakes in multi-million-dollar contracts from corporate sponsors such as Adidas and Nike, and owns the broadcasting rights to all games, which were sold last year to the government at $600m after 18 years of private ownership by the channel TyC. AFA’s 78-year-old president Julio Grondona, who was elected to the post in 1979 under the military dictatorship, and has been discreetly and indisputably re-elected ever since. Grondona also happens to be the vice-president of FIFA, leaving no mystery to his nickname as “the godfather” of Argentine football and beyond.
Though the AFA has taken female football under its wing, it has done little to concretely expand it. Referees (when provided) are often not professional, coaches are inexperienced, and some teams have to rent space to even practice. Women are often given leftover jerseys from the men’s teams and must fundraise and seek sponsorship to pay for proper sportswear. Whereas an average male player in River Plate earns US$7,000 a month (though contracts in all clubs rise into the multi-millions), River Plate’s female players are thrown a mere $150 (US$38) a month. Beyond a few clubs, most don’t even pay female players for travel costs, medical support, or food. According to Janson’s research, many players come from low-income neighbourhoods or shantytowns and are often not properly nourished when coming to practice. Former River Plate player, Karina Morales told Janson that the National Team receives $25 for food, per training? which she likens to “charity, when there are girls who do not have anything to eat.”
Despite the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars, many clubs face extreme administrative corruption and have found themselves nearing bankruptcy in recent years. Funds for the low priority of women’s football have therefore dwindled, and many like Janson believe that this corruption also plays a part.
“I believe that AFA does not designate all that the FIFA gives them to the development of female fútbol,” she told Página 12. In an interview with Janson, former player and one of the few coaches to graduate from the AFA, Monica Santino says that the association organises women’s games “unwillingly, only because there is a regulation from FIFA”.
Santino currently coaches adolescent girls in the shantytown Villa 31 in Buenos Aires as apart of the project ‘Goles y Metas‘ (Goals and Goals), which uses football as a tool of social inclusion and empowerment of young women living in significant poverty.
“The issue is that the same clubs that are members of AFA are suffering from financial problems or are practically bankrupt,” she says. “Male football is going through a crisis with strikes organized by players and all the trouble that we know of. Then female football within this framework is practically nonexistent.”
Rightfully, Argentine female players are frustrated. Karina Morales says that female football has stagnated in the country. “It hasn’t changed in ten years,” she tells Janson. “It is as if all the other countries were moving upwards, and we remain always in the same place.”
For the love of the game
In between weekday trainings and weekend games, female players have regular jobs: some are domestic workers, others work in factories, and a few are able to study at the college level.
On a cold morning at the Club Athletico Platense, Patricia Alderete Corsich, 31, gets ready for practice. With the club for ten years, Corsich also has a culinary degree and works evenings as a chef in a pizzeria. Talk about talent.
“I come to train, I get changed, I do things in the house, and then I go to work,” she says. “I’m running at full capacity.”
When asked about institutional support from AFA, Corsich says calmly that the association “looks down” on female football, in part because men’s football is “much more a business for AFA”.
“A women’s game is useless for AFA because it doesn’t make a profit. And that hurts,” Corsich laments. “Notice how female football is not transmitted. It’s not in the newspapers, it’s not on TV. It’s a sport that they leave out. They want to leave it out,” she says, adding that media support or funds for girls’ clubs would be a big encouragement for the culture of female football in Argentina.
Still, Corsich says she isn’t bothered that Club Platense doesn’t pay her a dime. “I do it because I love it. I’ve always loved it,” she says. Having played football since she was a little girl with her family, Corsich says she will always make time to play.
“You are born with this, you carry the sport inside of you.”
Future is Female?
With top player contracts reaching jaw-dropping heights (like 23-year-old Messi’s US$13.5m per season from Barcelona) and corporate sponsors gone wild with billion-dollar deals (a good shave apparently equals a good game nowadays), many football fans long for the days when the game was more about, well, the game.
Back in 1999, as reported by the Guardian UK, FIFA delegate Keith Cooper called female players’ approach to the game “very refreshing”.
“Their motivation is more sincere,” he said. “The problem with male professional football is that it has become all about agents, clubs going to the stock market, and large amounts of money. The game itself is almost becoming peripheral…” He went on to call female footballers “ambassadors for the sport, not just for themselves”.
With more than 26 million women currently playing football around the world and with many becoming referees and coaches, maybe the future of the sport will have a female face. That is if the culture of money and machismo can be beaten back, even just a bit.
Before joining her teammates to warm up, Corsich tells me she holds out hope for women’s football in Argentina.
“People have changed. Before they used to say ‘Oooh, you play football? But that’s a men’s sport… Now they ask me when the next game is. You can see a shift … Besides, there are many teams with talent … there are many girls that tear it up,” she says laughing.
As teams continue the fight to take home the cup, women around the world will cheer and have the backs of their countries and its male players the whole way. But the question is, in their pursuit of the same dreams, will their countries have theirs?