Three CONMEBOL countries qualified for the 2019 Women’s World Cup: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. While Brazil is a familiar opponent to many US fans, Argentina and Chile have a much shorter history on the modern global scene, and all three teams are classically underfunded and under-supported by their federations. In fact, this is Chile’s first ever World Cup, their qualification a minor miracle after the team fell out of the FIFA rankings in 2015-16 due to inactivity. Perhaps that’s also a commentary on the sharp drop-off in quality outside of the top 15 in women’s football, but that shouldn’t take away from the effort that went into simply getting their federation to care in the first place. With that in mind, I spoke to Dr. Brenda Elsey, Associate Professor of History at Hofstra, who has extensively studied women’s soccer in Latin America and has co-written a book, Futbolera, collecting women’s stories from that region. Here are some of the key storylines you should be keeping in mind while you watch these countries compete at the World Cup.
Women in Argentina have only recently begun to get paid to play. The Argentina Football Federation made a one-year deal to help fund eight players in each of the 16 first-division clubs, with top-paid players making less than $400/month. According to Elsey, who visited Argentina in 2018 and spoke to several players, when you work out the math, the federation’s commitment amounts to about $8/day for each player, which is sometimes barely enough to cover the tolls for those who drive to the federation’s training facility.
The players also told Elsey that though the money is better than not getting paid at all, it does create a sort of “two-tiered” feeling within the team, and that the federation’s lack of long-term commitment is worrisome. Players are forsaking other working opportunities in order to play but they have no guarantee the federation won’t pull the rug out from under them when the media’s attention inevitably drifts away in the wake of the World Cup.
And yet it’s a time for hope as well. Argentina’s WNT is playing more games than ever before; if they can build momentum among players at home, it will help in their fight for futbol feminista. That’s feminista, not feminino, or translated: “feminist football, not women’s football.” Elsey said that players told her they want a model of deliberately progressive football with community-based clubs that fight for gender, sexual, and racial equality. They want to avoid a model that hunts down talent and exports it to rich European teams, and they want the men’s system to join them in reforming the footballing culture in South America.
CBF convened a press conference to announce the World Cup roster, where the team’s head coach Vadão proceeded to repeatedly put his foot in his mouth, including this gem.
Brazilian coach, Vadão, really, WTF? Women are more difficult to calm down in the locker room than men? https://t.co/pitdGLtUht— Brenda Elsey (@Politicultura) May 17, 2019
“You know the players are watching it,” said Elsey, “They’re listening to this, and they’re supposed to expect that this is the person to lead them in the charge. And I think that’s really demoralizing.”
Vadão’s hiring came on the heels of the firing of former head coach Emily Lima in 2017, an event which contributed to the protest resignation of longtime team star Cristiane, among several others. Players published a letter of complaint that cited “years of disrespect and lack of support.” Notably, Marta did not join this protest, perhaps understandable that she is the Brazilian WNT player with the most to lose – but conversely, also has the most privilege and protection in case of backlash from her federation.
Cristiane is back with the WNT now, named to their World Cup squad although she’s not currently at full health. One has to imagine that there are some tensions lingering between players and the federation. The team is currently on a nine-game losing streak and still Vadão remains, shadowed by questions about his training methods and his tactics.
And in Brazil, as in Argentina, it’s impossible to earn a living wage, with the highest salary being somewhere around $400/month. Some players may be able to get a government subsidy for elite athletes, but without individual sponsors, soccer does not and cannot pay the bills. The best Brazilian women’s players leave the country to make a living at the game, like Debinha and Marta in NWSL, and Formiga at PSG.
There are no contracts with a minimum wage for female soccer players in Chile. And yet they were able to qualify for a World Cup and will be making their tournament debut this year. Don’t be too quick to give any credit to their federation, though; remember that Chile was inactive in 2016, which caused them to drop entirely out of FIFA rankings. Seeing the desolation of the soccer landscape, a group of women from various clubs and Chile’s youth teams organized into an association, just short of formally becoming a union, and put together a complete bid to host the Copa América Femenina in 2018, the tournament qualifying CONMEBOL women’s teams for the World Cup, Pan American Games, and Olympics.
Leaving aside the ridiculousness of one two-week tournament being used to qualify for all three events, this was a fantastic model of grassroots action, or as Elsey puts it, “Women may need football institutions, but football institutions need women more.” With Chile qualified for the World Cup, they are now playing more friendlies and, of course, going to France. Perhaps their chances of advancing out of group are slim, but you can bet they’ll fight every single team tooth and nail to the whistle because they already had to fight entirely too hard just to be there.
Perhaps one of the most important tenets to come out of my discussion with Elsey was the idea of feminist football, not just women’s football. The women’s game should not simply be a mirror of the men’s, with the word “women” slapped on. It can and should be more thoughtful than that. As more money and prestige enters the women’s game, it’s important that we stay vigilant against the creeping tide of corruption and greed. Football should be for the people, not for the corporations or the so-called nonprofit overlords in their offices in Zurich. Futbol feminista asks us to evaluate that question – who owns the game? Who benefits? That’s what the women of these teams have been doing for years: attempting to build a future, not by imitating the mistakes of their predecessors, but by deliberately seeking better. Just last year, women from multiple South American teams came together in an international forum to discuss cooperation among WNTs in the region in order to address the neglect from their federations and from sports media. Women’s football – all of football – can operate within and for the good of the community, and these players are willing to lead the way.