South American Soccer Is Ignoring Its Women

This summer, the Chilean women's national team learned that it was removed from the official FIFA rankings and declared "inactive." They are the sixth South American women's team, out of ten, to fall out of the rankings.

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Aug 12 2016, 12:40pm

Photo by EPA

At the end of June, Chileans celebrated their second straight victory in the Copa América over their favored neighbor, Argentina. The daily El Mercurio declared it the greatest win in national team history. For players on the Chilean women's national team, however, that Monday was bittersweet at best. Days before, they discovered, just by coincidence, that their own squad had been removed from the official FIFA rankings and declared "inactive," having not played an official match in two years.

The world of South American soccer is awash in inequity. While men's teams can be sure of regular funding and support, women's teams struggle for their very existence. Perhaps nowhere is the disparity more stark than in Argentina and Chile, where the men's teams are ranked first and fifth in the world, respectively, and the women's sides aren't ranked at all. This is not an anomaly: six of the ten South American teams—Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay—are listed as inactive in FIFA's latest women's ranking. You can find them tucked below 132 active squads.

If you think this troubles mainstream sports media or directors of professional football, you would be mistaken—they have been almost entirely silent. The Confederation of South American Football (CONMEBOL) and national federations have been reluctant to respond to demands, from both FIFA and grassroots groups, that more resources be spent developing and promoting women's soccer, so it still relies heavily on the world governing body for funding.

Read More: How a French Feminist Staged Her Own Games and Forced the Olympics to Include Women

For the women who have worked for years to climb the world rankings without compensation or accolades, it's heartbreaking.

"It hurts to become invisible, after working so hard to put Chile on the map," said Iona Rothfeld, who played for nine years on the Chilean national team. This is a common pattern: federations mobilize women's teams for brief moments around tournaments. Sadly, CONMEBOL has only one regional tournament for women, the Copa América Femenina, which is held every four years (the most recent was in 2014) and acts as the qualifier for the Women's World Cup, the Olympics, and the Pan-American games. Rankings spike in a qualifying year, then plummet as the federation shelves women's soccer until the next tournament.

Data from FIFA world rankings

Chile would seem to have had the steepest fall, at least institutionally. After organizing the U20 Women's World Cup in 2008 and reaching a ranking of 41 in 2015, the Chilean women's national team is now in total disarray. Some Chilean players point to the departure of former federation president, Harold Mayne Nicholls, in 2011 as a turning point. According to Christiane Endler, captain of the national team, women's soccer received sustained attention under Mayne Nicholls. His successor, Sergio Jadue, who pled guilty to racketeering as part of the FIFA corruption scandal, neglected it entirely. Players complained of complete silence from the federation under Jadue, a trend that has continued under the new federation president Arturo Salah. After two years, players have not been informed of any plans for training. (When contacted, FIFA, the Football Federation of Chile, and CONMEBOL did not respond to requests for comment on the deactivation of the women's team.)

When Chilean players discovered they had been removed from rankings, they decided to take action. Last month, they founded a new organization, the National Association of Women Football Players (ANJUFF), in response not only to the state of the national team but the extreme mismanagement of the twenty or so women's clubs in the country. Rothfeld, ANJUFF's current president, hopes the organization can help create an environment of respect for women players—one that right now is sorely lacking.

Iona Rothfeld (center) and the women of ANJUFF. Courtesy Iona Rothfeld

How do CONMEBOL and national federations justify their poor treatment of women's soccer? Administrators at all levels point toward women's supposed recent interest in the sport to explain differences in resources. But the truth of the matter is that women were playing soccer before the foundation of CONMEBOL in 1916. By the 1920s, women formed fan clubs, and women's sections of clubs organized popular tournaments. In 1933, women's sides from the Uruguayan soccer giants Peñarol and Nacional played a match in the legendary Estadio Centenario. Later that decade, leagues were established across the region. Brazil experienced the biggest boom, with leagues in at least four states.

Educational, medical, and state agencies found soccer's popularity among women threatening, and worked to suppress the sport in a variety of ways. Using pseudo-scientific studies, opponents argued that soccer endangered women's fertility. Others criticized the sport's effect on players' femininity. Brazil banned women's soccer in 1941, suspending games with the help of police and local courts until 1982. The Uruguayan federation threatened to ban one club for signing a woman to their men's team in 1971. In Chile and Argentina, clubs moved women's sections under the management of youth directors, where many remain today. Argentina's run to the semifinals of the second Women's World Championship in 1971 has been lost in both popular and institutional memory.

Today, women throughout the region routinely face both a lack of support and outright humiliation within their clubs and federations. Directors tell players that women's soccer is an expense and an embarrassment. Homophobia is rampant and many players report that coaches accuse them of being interested in soccer to meet sexual partners. South American federations organize women's soccer tournaments, but they do so begrudgingly. Major clubs, including Argentina's River Plate, have told players they can't continue to provide them with any medical insurance. In Chile, women players have been asked to pay their own transfer fees and travel costs. Federations receive funds from FIFA to develop women's soccer, but are under no obligation to verify expenditures or publicize how they spend the money.

Teams like Colombia, here celebrating during the Rio Olympics, are also hurt by the lack of support for women's soccer in the region. Photo by Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

The deterioration of women's soccer within CONMEBOL hurts even the most successful programs in the region. Brazil, as one of the best teams in the world, can find opponents and travel to play, but the rest of the continental squads have less star power and fewer options. Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have made strides in the past few years, but suffer from the lack of quality opponents. Still, at least these teams exist.

Inactive teams do not play or practice, and there is minimal communication between federations and athletes. Chilean and Paraguayan national team players do not even know who their coaches are. The Argentine national team hasn't played since a disappointing showing at the 2015 Pan-American Games. They played no friendlies in preparation for that tournament, only scrimmaging against a boys' team.

There are important exceptions to this mistreatment, and women's soccer players and their supporters have managed to expand certain institutions. In Uruguay, there are well over 100 clubs in all age ranges and a new committee on women's soccer. Notably, UAI Urquiza, a third-division Argentine men's team, has won the women's division three years in a row and made it to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores in 2015. Keeper Gaby Gartón, who also plays for the Argentine national team (when it is active), explained that UAI Urquiza is unique in helping players complete their education, allowing women to train with the men's side, and busing them to training facilities. Their coach, Carlos Borrello, previously directed the women's national team. When we asked Borrello how UAI achieved its success, he answered pointedly, "By valuing them [the players] as human beings, offering them opportunities to study, and to work seriously at soccer." On the subject of the national team, Borrello concurred with FIFA's categorization of Argentina as "inactive."

"The status of the women's team is very low," he said. "There is no work being done, and no competition."

What can improve the landscape of women's soccer? The history of women's football and its underdevelopment by FIFA, CONMEBOL, and national associations suggests that the Chilean ANJUFF may be on to something—a separate federation. The players have stated emphatically that they do not want to fight the federation, but that they want better treatment. Given women's abuse at the hands of male-dominated national federations, perhaps they would be better served by organizing independently, as was done throughout the world into the 1970s. For example, the Independent European Female Football Federation governed the sport in Europe in the late 1960s and organized the first two Women's World Championships (1970 and 1971), while in Mexico, Argentina, and Uruguay women's leagues created their own national governing bodies. Now, however, players worry that independent federations will violate FIFA rules and risk sporting exile.

There is strength in numbers. The ANJUFF sought and received recognition from the Union of Professional Football Players in Chile and FIFPRO, the international players' union. The South American women's soccer community is tightly knit and already players from neighboring countries are keeping an eye on the new organization. International solidarity can help to shape policy given that CONMEBOL tournaments require the participation of many teams. Moreover, this generation of players has circulated around the region, the collegiate ranks in the United States, and in European clubs. Those connections could be valuable when it comes to demanding accountability from the national federations, CONMEBOL, and FIFA.

"Seriously? Six out of ten teams?" Courtesy Iona Rothfeld

A crucial obstacle to women's soccer is the continued objectification and neglect of women athletes within sports journalism, which pays more attention to the wives and girlfriends of male players. When the women's teams were categorized as inactive, for example, no major sports media outlets mentioned it. Chile's El Gráfico found space to discuss a sandwich named for Gonzalo Jara, the men's national team player, but not for the declassification of the women's team.

Even when teams are active, the media fails. Television coverage for the 2014 Copa América Femenina began midway through the tournament, even though rights were free. Players are keenly aware that their sport is rarely promoted and frequently belittled. Diego Maradona suggested recently in La Nación (Argentina's paper of record) that bad coaches should be relegated to women's clubs—which, painfully, is often the case. No one criticized Maradona for his comments, which only highlights their broad acceptance.

The persistent amnesia regarding women's soccer rests upon the assumption that women are fundamentally different, and do not enjoy the most popular global cultural activity. This obscures inequities in recreation time, access to public space, and exposes the active marginalization of girls at the grassroots level. Moreover, blatant sexism remains: many men profess to enjoy soccer clubs precisely because they represent a male-only space. These types of beliefs are not unique to South America, but they are deeply entrenched and make it nearly impossible for women players to achieve respect they seek and deserve.

It is easier for women to become a nation's president than to be president of a football federation. At the federation level, the directors of national associations are entirely men. Women need to be represented on executive committees. They should have their own representatives, with full voting rights, because otherwise women's soccer is completely ignored. So, too, should federations work with the sports media to promote women's soccer and to televise women's national team games.

For its part, the media—and not only sports journalists—has the responsibility to investigate the conditions under which women play and why they continue to do so in the face of persistent harassment. They should also demand financial transparency of CONMEBOL, just as has begun to be required of FIFA. CONMEBOL needs to know that scheduling the Copa América at the same time as the Women's World Cup is disrespectful to their players.

As the Olympics take place this month in Brazil, what is happening on the field may change the way the region thinks about soccer. The Brazilian men's team wilted in the face intense public scrutiny during the group stage, while the women's team shone. Children changed the name on their Neymar jerseys to Marta, who has long staked a claim for being the true heir of Pele. What these athletes have accomplished in the face of extreme sexism and harassment, with paltry salaries, and with a federation that has actively resisted calls for greater support of the women's game, is now visible for the world to see. One can only hope that those in charge of South American soccer are watching.

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