Almost 90 years after men’s soccer turned professional in Argentina, the women’s game is still played by amateurs. They make little or no money for their work on the field.
Macarena Sanchez wants to change that — now.
The 27-year-old soccer player is taking legal action against her club and the Argentine Football Association, which governs the sport in the country. Her aim is for women to be recognized – and paid – as professional players.
Argentina is home to some of the world’s greatest players. But the sport there is still largely seen as a men’s only game.
Sanchez told The Associated Press (AP), “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’s interest in soccer came early. At just five years old she began watching her father play with friends in Santa Fe. The province is the birthplace of famous players like Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta and Jorge Valdano.
With her father’s support, Sanchez worked on her own skills at a local club. She improved year by year.
Then, after a friendly game in Buenos Aires in 2012, the coach of UAI Urquiza asked Sanchez to join his club. UAI Urquiza is considered one of the best soccer clubs 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 main women’s event in South America.
Sanchez received a small amount of money as a player for UAI Urquiza. She also worked an administrative job for the club.
But last month, Sanchez got an unexpected call from her coach. He said she was being dismissed from the club because of a “soccer-related decision.”
He gave her no other explanation.
Sanchez got the call in the middle of the soccer season. So, she was not able to join another club.
She says she spoke about the situation to her sister, a lawyer. After, Sanchez decided to launch her legal action. She is seeking money and the professionalization of women’s soccer.
Officials at UAI Urquiza did not give a comment to the AP. And the temporary head of the Argentine federation’s women’s soccer committee could not immediately be reached.
But Sanchez has received strong support from FIFPro, an international organization that represents professional soccer players around the world.
FIFPro said in a statement, “It’s unacceptable for soccer clubs and national soccer federations in South America, or anywhere else, to treat women players as second-class citizens…”
Even members of Argentina’s national women’s team struggle financially. And a woman player at a top club is usually 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 in New York. She is an expert on the history of soccer politics in Latin America. “Argentina is not an exception to the rule of gender discrimination in Latin America,” Elsey said.
In neighboring Chile, women’s soccer is also amateur. Coaches have protested that men’s clubs with female teams sometimes will not provide them with fields to hold practice.
Many top female players from Argentina head to the United States to play in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), where they can earn a living. Brazil, Mexico and Colombia all also have professional women’s leagues.
A group of women known as the Pioneers of Argentine Female Soccer recently met at a field in Buenos Aires. They kicked the ball around and shared memories about the difficulties they faced while playing the sport they love.
“Some people would shout at us to go wash dishes,” said former soccer player Elba Selva. She 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,” she said.
Former goalkeeper Lucila Sandoval founded the group to try to keep the stories of Argentine women’s soccer alive.
“For us, who are no longer in the field, and who played with so much love, so much passion for the sport, we want to leave a legacy for these girls as they’re fighting for professionalism,” she said. “What Maca Sanchez has done is the kickoff in a struggle that has been waging for a long time.”