Argentina’s women’s national team has made international headlines in a very public fight for equality. Their biggest challenges are not only structural— they’re cultural.
During the sixty-minute interim between the end of the Canada-New Zealand women’s World Cup match and the beginning of the Colombia-Argentina Copa America match, the dynamics of the bar changed dramatically.
Two tables full of families left in a crush of cranky kids, tired parents, and pools of unidentifiable stickiness smeared on the tabletops. (I may need to say here that I spent fifteen years teaching preschool and do, in fact, love children.) The row of women in Sinclair jerseys and Thorns shirts filtered out, chatting about plans to “post game” and the couple tucked onto a high-top in the corner finished their drinks and meandered out holding hands. Into the space came a flock of Argentinians. A lot of them. In Messi jerseys. A lot of them.
I approached two of my rioplatense neighbors with a bit of trepidation and determined to ask them about their fútbol fandom, in this month when both their men’s and women’s national teams were playing in major tournaments. Two men in the group, Hernan and Mario, each wore (unsurprisingly) Messi jerseys; one in the albiceleste stripes of Argentina, the other in the trademark claret and navy of Barcelona. They leaned against the bar with the kind of nonchalance unique among South Americans to our porteño cousins— with the assumption that their team will win, and thus lacking the stomach aches, physical and emotional, with which the rest of us approach those ninety minutes of agony.
They were delighted to talk to me about their teams; they enthused over the raucous disaster of the Copa Libertadores final, while surreptitiously confiding in me that only Mario was a Barca fan while Hernan actually followed Serie A. While they both waxed philosophical over Lautaro Martinez versus Paolo Dybala, my next question made them pause, beers halfway to mouths.
“What women,” indeed.
The gender makeup of fandom in Argentinian fútbol has been slowly changing in the past few years as women take their place alongside men in stands that have traditionally been viewed as male-only spaces, due in part to some grounds providing dedicated spaces for women and mass media depicting women less as WAGs or mannequins for tight jerseys and more as screaming, frothing fanáticos in their own right. But the sport itself is a cultural symbol as strongly tied to machismo and masculinity as the national tradition of the asado or, more glaringly, the piropo.
Diego Maradona, Argentina’s favorite native son, is glorified as much for his persona off the pitch as his prowess on it. Swaggering and physically imposing despite— or because of— his short stature, Maradona’s drug addictions, probable mob connections, and multiple affairs never got in the way of his mutual love affair with Argentina. In fact, Maradona’s brand of machismo, overt and unapologetic, appeals to many Argentinians more than Messi’s unassuming, carefully crafted persona. It’s not unheard of for Argentinos to talk about nuestro Pibe, our boy, as if Maradona might at any moment step back on the pitch and lead them back to glory days, while Messi’s national loyalty is questioned, as if failing to win big for the home country he left as a youngster makes him suspect. And the language used to talk about him is both derisive and gendered. One of the only Argentinos in the bar not wearing a Messi jersey leaned over Hernán and Mario to interject that Messi is delicado, como una nena. Delicate, like a little girl.
“It’s centuries of thinking that women don’t have a body designed for playing, and that women’s bodies must be prepared only for motherhood.” But, she emphasized, “It’s very difficult to detach yourself from fútbol. So to pretend that women are outside of a cultural phenomenon of that nature is illogical.”
Macarena Sánchez lives at the center of that cultural phenomenon. A star for both the Argentinian women’s National Team as well as UAI Urquiza, a five-team winner of Argentina’s primera división, Maca, as she is known, played professional fútbol for almost a decade before taking the step to sue her club and federation for unequal treatment. She was ignominiously dismissed by Urquiza and contractually locked out of signing for another club, but her actions brought a national and global spotlight to the conditions under which Argentina’s female players have long labored.
Most have had to pay for the privilege of playing professionally, or take administrative roles at their clubs to supplement their wages of up to $10 a day, which more often than not went unpaid. When Maca filed her suit, the national team had no coach, training or medical staff, no changing room, and were forced to travel and sleep on buses to get to and from matches.
Maca made the connection between gender equity in sports and in Argentinian society at large explicit, raising the spectre of the country’s alarming femicide rate and rising rates of sexual assault. Women’s rights are “constantly violated,” she said, “in the workplace and in all areas of women’s lives. Our society continues to be retrograde, misogynistic and macho. Women in this country suffer from gender discrimination and all kinds of violence.” It behooves society to keep women in their place, which includes keeping them out of the traditionally boys-only world of sports.
“I think clubs do not want us to be recognized as professionals because it bothers them that a woman can occupy places that have been historically occupied by men. The macho thinking of the people who have power is the only thing that prevents the professionalization.”
It is not a surprise that Maca was photographed for an article on her fight for gender parity in sport holding a mate, one of the most iconic and recognizable symbols of Argentina. But what is more surprising is the cap perched prominently behind her, sporting a raised fist wrapped in a green kerchief, and, to make the point even clearer, her own green kerchief poking out of her pocket. The green handkerchief is its own powerful, immediately recognizable symbol throughout Latin America, but a much more recent, and controversial, one. La Marea Verde, the Green Wave, was inspired by Las Abuelas de La Plaza De Mayo, mothers and grandmothers who have gathered in Buenos Aires’s central Plaza each Thursday in white kerchiefs since 1976 to protest the widespread kidnapping of babies during Argentina’s Dirty War.
Clad in now-iconic green kerchiefs, the wave spread through Latin America and the Caribbean as a roaring thundercloud of enraged, empowered citizen activists, taking to the streets and taking over public spaces to declare Ni Una Menos, not one person should have one less right. El Colectivo Ni Una Menos, to which Maca and many of her current compatriots on Argentina’s World Cup squad ascribe, is a “collective scream against machista violence,” and that scream is only getting louder.
Following the publication of her lawsuit, Maca was besieged by death threats. But she also became a symbol, a lighting rod around which women and girls gathered for a communal outpouring of support and grievances. And, where at first the response was focused almost solely on the inequities, it has widened to encompass what Maca and her compatriots have been talking about all along: the fútbol. The men’s national team joined the women’s team for a luncheon sponsored by their federation and have been posting about the women’s matches on their social media feeds. The women’s national team, in spite of preparing for and playing in the biggest tournament of their lives, have been giving interviews and posting on social media about the urgent need for change.
Captain Estefanía Banini posted that, “[t]here are inequalities that shouldn’t exist any longer…this is the area from which we fight.” Her teammate Aldi Cometti clarified what they were fighting for: “That they listen to us.”
It turns out that the federation was, in fact, listening. And they didn’t like what they were hearing. Less than a month after the World Cup, where Argentina pulled off arguably one of the most outstanding comebacks in tournament history by erasing a three goal deficit in under twenty minutes, their team was headed for the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru- without six of its star players. When coach Carlos Borello posted his team sheet without captain Estefanía Banini and teammates Sole Jaimes, Florencia Bonsegundo, Gaby Garton, Ruth Bravo, and Belén Potassa, many were confused, including the players themselves, who hadn’t received any kind of notification as to why they had been cut.
Soon though, it became clear that Borello was punishing his players for speaking out. Until he was handed the reins of the women’s national team, Borello had been the manager of none other than Maca Sánchez’s UAI Urquiza. When asked by The Equalizer about being one of the few South American men to coach a women’s team, Borrello’s response- “can you imagine the patience I have to have?”- was breathtaking in its condescension. Such casual, blatant sexism exhibited by their coach, who saw no issue in telling the world that managing female athletes requires extra quantities of patience, didn’t phase his players, who continue their fight for bigger things than a staff that respects them. One of the players left out of the Pan American games by Borrello, Ruth Bravo, tweeted about the breadth of their battle. “We’re not going to leave these things half done. We’re going to keep fighting because we want a better future.”
Back to Hernán and Mario. As Argentina’s men geared up (to lose, unlike their victorious women), they mulled on “las pibas.” Perhaps, Mario told me, he would watch if had time. For now, though, catching the Copa America matches was enough fútbol for his schedule. They watched in stupefied shock as their team failed to score, and eventually, failed to win. As they were passing me on their way out, Mario paused.
“Como andan las pibas?”
The women haven’t lost a World Cup match yet, I told him.
“Eh. Capaz es hora de mirarlas.”
It’s past time to watch the women, the feminist fútbolers, and to make the changes that they are fighting so hard for.
Jessie Losch is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. When not writing, tweeting, yelling, or dreaming about soccer, she is co-chair of a reproductive health organization and a public health student. She can be found on Twitter at @jessielosch.