AREQUITO, Argentina (AP) — In a tiny dressing room, the sound of soccer boots hitting the floor gets more intense as kick off time approaches. Socks are pulled up and shirts are tucked in as the coach gives the order to go out and play. Many families watch and applaud from wooden stands as 12-year-old
AREQUITO, Argentina (AP) — In a tiny dressing room, the sound of soccer boots hitting the floor gets more intense as kick off time approaches.
Socks are pulled up and shirts are tucked in as the coach gives the order to go out and play. Many families watch and applaud from wooden stands as 12-year-old Candelaria Cabrera takes her place in the midfield. Before long, Candelaria opens the scoring with a left-foot shot for Huracán de Chabas in what eventually ends as a 2-2 draw with Alumni.
The game is part of a regional women’s soccer league in the south of the Argentine province of Santa Fé. Until recently, there were no female teams or tournaments there. And then came Candelaria’s struggle to keep playing, which was a turning point in Argentina’s women’s soccer.
Back in 2018, when she was seven, Candelaria was the only girl playing in the boys league where she lives. After a regional sports regulation forbid mixed teams in youth divisions, she and her family had to fight for her right to keep playing.
“Many other girls started joining, I knew some of them, but not others. I knew they wanted to play, but I didn’t know they would get excited,” Candelaria told The Associated Press, recalling the impact of a picture of her holding a handwritten “I want to play soccer” poster that went viral.
Candelaria’s quest prompted organizers of the regional league to create a women’s soccer department. Since 2019, it has offered games for female players in the Under-12 and in the Under-14 division, where the trailblazing Candelaria plays with her Chabas team.
“Now I feel more at ease. Before, they used to be more aggressive,” she said in an interview before kick off on a pitch in the Belgrano de Arequito club in Santa Fe, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) to the north of Buenos Aires. The venue hosted three matches of the Casildense women’s soccer league at the end of June.
Candelaria’s case laid bare one of the biggest hurdles for women’s soccer in Argentina: developing soccer talent among girls from an early age.
Lionel Messi and Ángel Di María, both World Cup champions, learned how to play football from a young age in youth academies and local clubs in Santa Fe. Most Argentinian players preparing for the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand had to start out against boys.
“These girls were not those who could play youth divisions in their clubs. Many of them started playing when they were older or played (juniors) with boys,” said Florencia Quiñones, a former footballer and now a coach at Boca Juniors. “We will be more of a power once this evolution starts from youth divisions.”
Four years ago, Candelaria was asking to be allowed to play in the boys league. About the same time, Quiñones was involved in a rebellion of national women’s team players against the Argentina soccer authorities, protesting a lack of payment and support. It was part of a nationwide movement against sexism throughout Argentinian society.
Women’s soccer turned professional in Argentina the following year, and the national federation opened academy teams for girls aged between 14 and 19 in first division clubs. More recently, the Argentinian soccer association struck a deal with the country’s education ministry so that soccer at school level can be played with mixed teams.
“It is clear that women’s soccer is changing, and that’s why we qualified for a World Cup again,” Quiñones said. “There has been a great change — today the national team has an identity and it is more of a protagonist.”
Argentina will be seeking its first win in four trips to the Women’s World Cup when it plays in Group G against Sweden, Italy and South Africa, and it will be met with more support and recognition.
And that will go back to the grassroots level in places such as Arequito, where the Huracán de Chabas team continued its unbeaten run in the Casildense league after a last-minute goal in a tense match. Parents, brothers, uncles and grandparents celebrated all players after the match was over.
“There’s girls who play very well,” Huracán’s coach, Federico Battistelli, said. “Women’s sport is not as massive as men’s (in Argentina), but little by little there will be players of a high level. I don’t know if any like Messi, but surely with a high level.”
Candelaria, who started playing at age 3, doesn’t know whether she’ll turn professional or do something else. But her persistence has inspired a new generation of girls who challenge prejudice in soccer loving Argentina.
And she’s no longer deemed to be the odd one out.
“She goes happily to the pitch, thinks it is all normal, a part of her life,” Rosana Noriega, Candelaria’s mother, explained. “She is happy because now she has many friends in soccer (and) they share her passion.”
More AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup
Debora Rey, The Associated Press