Ar­gen­tine women seek pro sta­tus

Goal is to al­low them to earn a liv­ing play­ing soc­cer just like men do.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - SPORTS EXTRA - By Luis An­dres He­nao

BUENOS AIRES, AR­GENTINA — Al­most 90 years af­ter men’s soc­cer turned pro­fes­sional in Ar­gentina, the women’s game is still be­ing played by am­a­teur ath­letes who get lit­tle to no money for their work on the field.

Macarena Sanchez wants to change that — now.

The 27-year-old Sanchez is tak­ing le­gal ac­tion against her club and the Ar­gen­tine soc­cer as­so­ci­a­tion in an ef­fort to gain pro­fes­sional sta­tus. The case could set a prece­dent in a na­tion that is home to Lionel Messi and some of the world’s great­est play­ers, but where soc­cer is still largely seen as a men’s only game.

“The goal is to be rec­og­nized as a pro­fes­sional soc­cer player, so it can open the doors for other women to en­joy the ben­e­fits of earn­ing a liv­ing from what we love,” Sanchez told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Sanchez’s in­tro­duc­tion to soc­cer came when she was 5, watch­ing her father play with friends on week­ends in the province of Santa Fe, the birth­place of Messi, Gabriel Batis­tuta and Jorge Val­dano. With her father’s en­cour­age­ment, she pol­ished her skills at a lo­cal club.

Dur­ing a friendly game in Buenos Aires in 2012, the coach of UAI Urquiza asked her to join his club, con­sid­ered one of the best in South Amer­ica.

“That year, we won the Ar­gen­tine cham­pi­onship for the first time in the club’s his­tory,” she said. “And then we won the cham­pi­onship three more times.”

Sanchez also com­peted in three Copa Lib­er­ta­dores tour­na­ments, the premier women’s event in the South Amer­i­can re­gion. But on Jan. 5, she got a call from her coach — one she didn’t ex­pect. Sanchez said he didn’t pro­vide any specifics, he just said she was be­ing let go be­cause of a “soc­cer-re­lated de­ci­sion.”

For years, Sanchez had re­ceived a small stipend and worked an ad­min­is­tra­tive job at UAI Urquiza. The news that she was no longer wel­come came mid-sea­son, so she wasn’t able to join an­other club. Af­ter con­sult­ing with her sis­ter, who is an at­tor­ney, she de­cided to launch her com­plaint seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion and the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of women’s soc­cer.

“It’s not easy to be the first woman to launch le­gal ac­tion against the Ar­gen­tine soc­cer fed­er­a­tion,” Sanchez said. “I’ve had to carry a heavy bur­den, but the col­lec­tive goal won. It won be­cause I want to see many girls who in the fu­ture can en­joy be­ing pro­fes­sional. That’s my dream.”

Of­fi­cials at UAI Urquiza de­clined to com­ment, and the in­terim head of the Ar­gen­tine fed­er­a­tion’s women’s soc­cer com­mit­tee could not im­me­di­ately be reached.

Sanchez has, how­ever, re­ceived strong sup­port from FIFPro, an in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion that rep­re­sents pro­fes­sional soc­cer play­ers around the world.

“Macarena is part of a gen­er­a­tion of lead­ing women play­ers in South Amer­ica who are fed up with re­ceiv­ing de­risory treat­ment,” FIFPro said in a state­ment to the AP. “It’s un­ac­cept­able for soc­cer clubs and na­tional soc­cer fed­er­a­tions in South Amer­ica, or any­where else, to treat women play­ers as sec­ond-class cit­i­zens with vastly in­fe­rior con­di­tions to male play­ers.”

Ar­gentina’s women’s na­tional team re­cently qual­i­fied for the World Cup for the first time in 12 years. Sanchez is not likely make the team that is headed to France, and the le­gal ac­tion does not in­volve the na­tional team.

But even the na­tional team’s play­ers have strug­gled fi­nan­cially. They went on strike in 2017 af­ter their stipends of about $10 went un­paid. They also lack proper chang­ing rooms, for a while they trained on a dirt field, and they are of­ten forced to travel long dis­tances to play a game and re­turn on the same day to save on ho­tel costs.

The fe­male play­ers were also an­gered when Adi­das, the brand that spon­sors a few mem­bers of the na­tional teams of both gen­ders, un­veiled the new shirt for last year’s Women’s Copa Amer­ica with mod­els rather than play­ers.

And while the men’s Ar­gen­tine league draws big crowds and makes mil­lions of dol­lars, a woman at a top club is of­ten forced to split her time be­tween soc­cer and a sec­ond job to sur­vive.

“There is no pos­si­bil­ity, no mat­ter how good a woman is in Ar­gentina to­day, to make a liv­ing from it,” said Brenda Elsey, a pro­fes­sor at Hof­s­tra Univer­sity who spe­cial­izes in the his­tory of soc­cer pol­i­tics in Latin Amer­ica. “I don’t think any Ar­gen­tine player in 1931 (when soc­cer be­came pro­fes­sional in the coun­try) felt the same kind of out­right hos­til­ity and ne­glect as women play­ers feel to­day.”

Elsey, who re­cently trav­eled to Ar­gentina to re­search the is­sue and has a photo of women play­ing soc­cer dat­ing back as far as 1923, pointed to a re­cent ex­am­ple. When Es­tu­di­antes won the league ti­tle, she said the Ar­gen­tine soc­cer fed­er­a­tion for­got to give them the tro­phy. The play­ers tried to take it in stride, and they cel­e­brated with a plas­tic jug.

The story didn’t come as a shock.

“Ar­gentina is not an ex­cep­tion to the rule of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in Latin Amer­ica. It’s ac­tu­ally quite com­mon,” said Elsey, who is also-co-au­thor of “Fut­bol­era: A His­tory of Women and Sports in Latin Amer­ica.”

In neigh­bor­ing Chile, an­other World Cup qual­i­fier headed to France this year, soc­cer is also am­a­teur. Coaches have com­plained that men’s clubs af­fil­i­ated with fe­male teams some­times won’t even lend their coun­ter­parts fields for prac­tice and only sup­ply them with one set of shirts.

In­stead, many top fe­male play­ers head to the United States to play in the NWSL and get paid, while Brazil, Mex­ico and Colom­bia are among re­gional coun­tries that have pro­fes­sional leagues. But there is still prej­u­dice, and ig­no­rance, to over­come.

For in­stance, the pres­i­dent of Colom­bian club De­portes Tolima, Gabriel Ca­margo, called women’s soc­cer a “tremen­dous breed­ing ground for les­bian­ism.”

CONMEBOL, the gov­ern­ing body of South Amer­i­can soc­cer, is try­ing to level the play­ing field. It re­cently an­nounced that for a men’s team to qual­ify for the Copa Lib­er­ta­dores, it must also have a women’s team.

The women’s ver­sion of the event, known as the Copa Lib­er­ta­dores Fe­menina, has been the premier women’s club tour­na­ment in the re­gion since 2009. Brazil has dom­i­nated the com­pe­ti­tion, but Atletico Huila won last year.

There have been some re­cent im­prove­ments in the women’s game.

Ahead of last year’s World Cup qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment, the Ar­gen­tine women’s team was al­lowed to train at the same com­plex where Messi and the rest of the men’s team pre­pare for their games, grounds that un­til re­cently were re­served for men only.

The team’s progress and even­tual qual­i­fi­ca­tion re­ceived the sup­port of Messi and sev­eral pro­fes­sional Ar­gen­tine clubs. Many fe­male play­ers say they feel part of a cul­tural change driven by Ar­gentina’s strong fem­i­nist move­ment, which has mo­bi­lized tens of thou­sands to fight against vi­o­lence against women, and helped them gain ground in pol­i­tics and the work­place.

A group of women known as the Pi­o­neers of Ar­gen­tine Fe­male Soc­cer re­cently met at a field in Buenos Aires to kick around the ball and share mem­o­ries about the chal­lenges they faced play­ing the sport they love. A team of young men clapped when the women be­gan to drib­ble, jug­gle and shoot at goal.

“Some peo­ple would shout at us to go wash dishes,” said Elba Selva, who scored four goals in Ar­gentina’s 4-1 vic­tory over Eng­land at the Azteca Sta­dium in Mex­ico City dur­ing the 1971 World Cup. “We’re so proud to be a part of this now.”

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