BUENOS AIRES — The crowd roared for the players on the confetti-strewn field in the shadow of one of Argentina’s most legendary soccer stadiums. They had come to see soccer archrivals Boca Juniors and River Plate battle it out in a match of the women’s first division.
Such fanfare for a soccer match on a May afternoon might not seem notable in the land of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, but for a society that has long considered its prized sport a man’s game, it signals an important shift for fútbol femenino, or women's soccer.
After decades of being mocked, ridiculed, and ignored, fútbol femenino has become one of the leading battlegrounds for women’s rights in Argentina. Thanks to a powerful feminist movement that has taken its fury over femicide and outlawed access to abortion to the street, women soccer players are now challenging the status quo on and off the pitch, fighting for labor protections, better pay, and greater representation.
As the national team heads to the Women’s World Cup in France next month, players throughout the country are driving an urgent conversation around Argentina’s favorite sport, and drawing in new fans as a result.
Macarena Sánchez, a 27-year-old striker, says the broader feminist movement inspired her to take a stand when she was let go from her club UAI Urquiza, the most successful of the first division teams, in January.
“I didn’t want it to be another case of injustice where nothing happens,” she told VICE News.
Earlier this year, Sánchez became a symbol of the long, often silent battle for equality in women’s sports after her dismissal from UAI Urquiza, for reasons that remain unclear. The timing of the move left Sánchez with no options to play anywhere else, and highlighted a fact that’s been ignored for years in a country that has turned its brand of soccer into a global phenomena: While Messi and Maradona are among the most famous names in the sport and the men’s national team has won multiple World Cups and is consistently ranked among the world’s top squads, women soccer players in Argentina remain amateur athletes without legally binding contracts, and receive virtually no protection or representation.
At UAI Urquiza, Sánchez had received a meager travel stipend and an administrative job in the club, but never a salary for her work on the field. Top-tier players typically train on second-rate fields at best, rely on the hand-me-down uniforms of men, and have to foot the bill when they get injured.
Fed up, Sánchez launched a lawsuit in January against the team and the Argentine Football Association (AFA) for failing to treat her like a professional player with labor rights. She is seeking seven years of back pay.
Along the way, her campaign for a soccer that is “feminist, dissident and professional” went viral under the hashtag #FutbolFemeninoProfessional. She gained the support of former Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her cause was taken up at the massive International Women’s Day demonstrations in March. But the attention also turned Sánchez into a target — she’s been subjected to virulent online abuse, including death threats.
“The feminist movement was fundamental for me [in this decision],” said Sánchez. “Because, honestly, I’ve never felt this social backing at another moment in Argentina’s history. The movement made me feel accompanied, and protected.”
In March, shortly after her lawsuit was filed, AFA president Claudio Tapia announced women’s soccer would become professional, with contracts that enshrined basic employment rights and pay. The association earmarked funds that guarantee a monthly salary of 15,000 pesos ($330 US) for eight players on each of the 16 first-division teams — the equivalent of what a man playing in the country’s lowly fourth division earns. Players on contracts will also be getting health insurance for the first time. At a press conference, Tapia said he had always planned to boost women’s soccer, while declining to comment on the role Sanchez may have played.
A few weeks later, San Lorenzo, one of Argentina’s big five soccer clubs, announced it was putting up additional funds to pay 15 players a modest wage. Among them was Sánchez, who had joined the team in April. At the San Lorenzo press conference that same month, she credited all the women athletes before her who fought for equal rights and livable wages.
“This is a big victory because we’re going through a difficult time in Argentina,” Sánchez told VICE News. “I think this is one of the few things that women have secured here these last few years.”
Sánchez has since heard from players in field hockey, volleyball and chess, who are also facing discrimination and who have drawn inspiration from fútbol femenino.
“This is a big victory because we’re going through a difficult time in Argentina”
“There’s kinda a belief in Argentina that women can’t have the same passion for fútbol as men,” said Gaby Garton, the U.S.-born goalkeeper currently playing for Argentina’s national squad. “They’re willing to put up with a lot of mistreatment to be able to continue doing what they love.”
It's not only a question of respect for the sweat shed on the field; it’s also about representation in the wider culture. For the first time ever, fans can buy jerseys of players on Argentina’s Women’s World Cup team, and plans are underway for the government to dedicate a day in August to women soccer players.
The movement’s success is also reflected in how the sport is being marketed. In March, Boca Juniors promoted the first game to be played by women in the men’s famed Bombonera stadium with photos of star players Camila Gómez Ares and Carolina Troncoso shoulder to shoulder with Argentine soccer legends Carlos Tevez and Darío Benedetto. And this month, Nike launched a billboard and television campaign that charts fútbol femenino’s broader battle in Argentina. It highlights the story of Candelaria Cabrera, an 8-year-old girl who fought to play on her city’s boys team because there were no teams for girls — something officials have since promised to change. The commercial ends with the line: “it seems crazy until you do it.”
Ayelén Pujol, a journalist with a forthcoming book on the history of women’s soccer in Argentina, can’t help but marvel at how much the culture has changed in the last few years.
“There are more women who want to watch soccer and soccer played by women,” said Pujol. “Just like there are more women who want to listen to music by women, or activists who want to see more women in politics.”
The new environment is a far cry from earlier times, when players like Pujol often chose to quit playing rather than face the verbal abuse on and off the field. She credits the growing community of women willing to support each other in their bid for equality in sports.
The gains made this year, while significant, are just a first step, however. The stipulated salary for the first division is not enough to survive on, meaning even elite players still have to hold down second jobs to make ends meet. And unless clubs put up extra cash for more than eight contracts, only some players on a team will get paid.
“The sport needs to start generating money to be able to sustain itself financially,” said Florencia Quiñones, a midfielder with Boca. “Compared to other countries, we’re 10 years behind with women’s soccer.”
More broadly, the sport and the culture that surrounds it must reckon with the sexist stigma that continues to cloud much of the conversation.
As part of the effort to change that, the Argentine Senate in April honored the squad competing in next month’s World Cup alongside the first team to ever represent the country in the tournament, in 1971 in Mexico. The story of the pioneering squad, which also bears the distinction of being the first Argentine team to defeat rival England in the global competition, had gone virtually unnoticed by their country.
For the eight women from the team that traveled to Mexico in the 1971 World Cup, the event was bittersweet. Back then, they competed in Mexico without a coach, medical staff, or cleats, and wore threadbare jerseys. “But that didn’t make us want to come back,” said Teresa Suárez, a defender on the ‘71 team. “We wanted to play. And what we had was our pride in being from Argentina.”
Suárez is heartened by the recent strides women have made in the sport. But she can’t help but feel frustrated: “After 47 years, it’s unacceptable that we still haven’t leveled the playing field.”
Natalie Alcoba is a reporter based in Buenos Aires.
Cover: Argentine women's soccer players leave the field after a training session ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019 tournament, at the Argentina Football Association in Ezeiza on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, May 20, 2019. The women's team has only played together for less than two years. (AP Photo)