The culture and structure of fútbol in Spain cannot readily be translated to anything we have in the United States. Though soccer is gaining popularity in the U.S., sport culture still primarily revolves around men’s football (think pigskin), baseball, and basketball. However, soccer is pretty important. What’s more, it is primarily a women’s sport and this is reflected in the number of opportunities women have to play. We have competitive teams for girls from U-10 and up. We have serious high school teams. We have the top players on teams at our colleges where they are offered financial compensation in the form of scholarships. We have a professional women’s league. We have the most competitive women’s national team. It’s not like that in Spain.
Before I went to the soccer field at Madrid Río looking to join a team, I knew nothing about women’s soccer in Spain. We’ve all heard about the Trinity: Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, and Barça. Two of the three colossi come from Madrid, where there are in fact three professional clubs: Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, and el Rayo Vallecano. These clubs are training ground for the world’s soccer stars: they bring in the best of the best of all ages from all over Europe and the world. I even had an Italian student in high school who’d left his family to play with one of Rayo’s upper-division teams. But women’s soccer… little to nothing. So, what’s the M.O. of women’s soccer in Spain? Let me break it down for you.
Soccer in Spain is governed by the Real Federación Española de Fútbol, or simply RFEF. The RFEF is involved in the Liga de fútbol profesional. Now, LaLiga organizes the men’s first and second divisions, i.e. Real Madrid, Barça, and the like, but the RFEF takes care of the men’s, women’s and youth national soccer teams. They also organize several national competitions, such as the famous La Copa del Rey (or just La Copa) for the men’s highest divisions (first, second, second-B and third). Additionally and more importantly for us, they run the first division (AKA LaLiga Femenina Iberdrola) and second division of women’s soccer. Below the national team and the first and second divisions, women’s competitions and recreational leagues are organized by federations at the regional level, for example the Real Federación de Futbol de Madrid (RFFM).
Let’s be clear, that a couple of women’s divisions exist does not mean that they resemble their masculine counterparts. Among many other aspects, they play in different stadiums (no, the Atlético women do not usually play in the Calderón nor Barça women in Camp Nou, and if Real Madrid even had a women’s team, they would probably not play in the Bernabéu) and they do not earn anywhere near the amount as men. In fact, most women who play in first and second divisions are studying at universities because they won’t be able to make a living from earnings or fame or any acquired sports business acumen after they finish playing. Finally, women’s soccer is “not professionalized in Spain.” This is a term I often saw while doing research, but could not find an answer to what it in fact meant for these women until I spoke to someone on the ground with connections (stay tuned for Part 2). “Not professionalized” is a nice way of saying a woman cannot have a work contract that states “professional soccer player.” It means that female players in the upper divisions have historically and at times been paid en negro (under the table). This is illegal and means that organizations are not paying the correct taxes for social security. Within this fraudulent system, female players don’t have the right to medical assistance in Spain’s national healthcare system. Many women choose this because they are doing what they love, playing soccer. Needless to say (but I will anyways), men do not face the same obstacles.
According to sports journalist Martí Perarnau, inequality is due to “prevailing paternalism” towards female players and an immeasurable disinterest on the part of the RFEF.1 As we say in America, follow the money,2 but it goes beyond that. Case in point Ignacio Quereda, who remained the head coach of the women’s national team for 27 years with little to show for it except a 2015 public letter demanding his resignation. The letter was signed by every single player on women’s national team just after an excruciating and badly prepared World Cup performance. Incidentally, it was the first World Cup for which they ever qualified. Vero Boquete, captain of the national team, said soon after that the RFEF had never had anyone in particular in charge of women’s soccer.3 But the clubs are also at fault. Perarnau accuses the big clubs of an embarrassing disinterest.4 For example, the Real Madrid Football Club does not have girls or women’s teams, stating that Real Madrid would prefer not to have upper division women’s teams than to have them “for appearances,” like other clubs do. In light of all the above, I would take Perarnau’s diagnosis of “disinterest” a step further: it’s deliberate discrimination.
It doesn’t stop at the high levels, though. This flagrant and insidious discrimination has trickled all the way down to the gutter, the underbelly of the soccer world: women’s leagues. Take, for example, the game schedule on RFFM’s official page. Sure, there’s a tab up top for fútbol femenino. Good initiative. However, if you access the calendar and open the drop-down menu for competición, that’s where we see the rubber hit the road. Girls and women are at the bottom of the list, under fútbol 7, fútbol feminino, and otras categorías competitcionales. Now, though technically all the categories for ages 12-under (alevín, benjamín and prebenjamín) are co-ed, few girls play with these teams. Co-ed status notwithstanding, it’s not hard to see the food chain: serious men, serious boys… dandruff from Messi’s scalp, gummy-worms, koalas, dead bodies… And finally, fútbol femenino in all it’s permutations and mixed in with a few male extramural university leagues. Now, the organization of the calendar/categories in-and-of-itself is a detail, but a detail that represents both the reality of women’s soccer in Spain and a deliberate choice neither to properly promote women’s soccer nor to equate it with men’s, not even at a conceptual level. For more on women’s aficionado leagues, stay tuned for the forthcoming Part 2 of this blog.
On the bright side, the political and commercial winds are changing. Just before the 2016-2017 season, Iberdrola, the gargantuan Spanish power company, decided to sponsor the women’s first division.5 That means more money. Next, Paco Díez, the newly elected president of the RFFM, has already created an advisory board for women’s soccer6 (that has already created short-, mid-, and long-term goals).7 Finally, in 2017, Jorge Pérez will be challenging the incumbent RFEF president Ángel María Villar (wonder how Ignacio Quereda kept his coaching job all those years?). If elected, Pérez promises to give women’s soccer a huge boost.8
Hopefully, the RFEF will set the women’s national team up for success. Hopefully, the RFEF will allocate enough money for women’s leagues to run properly. Hopefully, clubs will no longer have to commit fraud in order to pay their players. Hopefully, these changes will trickle all the way down to the bottom. Hopefully, the bottom will be treated as a valuable foundation instead of a gutter.
For more on the history of women’s soccer in Spain, check out Reportaje: Serial Fútbol Femenino by David Menayo on marca.com.
1“El fútbol femenino en España” by Martí Pernanau on June 19th, 2015, retrieved 02/15/2017 on marca.com.
2 “Los dineros [federativos] del fútbol femenino español” by Manuel Galan on June 20th, 2015, retrieved March 5th, 2017 on martiperarnau.com.
3 “La sociedad es machista y el mundo del fútbol, todavía más,” interview with Veronica Boquete by RAMÓN FUENTES on April 14th, 2016, retrieved 02/17/2017 from publico.es.
5 “Iberdrola patrocinará la Primera División Femenina” on August 22nd, 2016, retrieved March 5th, 2017 on laliga.es.
6 “Primera reunión para la creación de un Consejo de fútbol femenino” published on February 10th, 2017, retrieved February 17th, 2017 from ffmadrid.es.
7 “Primera reunión para la creación de un Consejo de fútbol femenino” on February 17th, 2017, retrieved February 22nd, 2017 from ffmadrid.es.
8 “La RFEF no resuelve problemas, Villar está obsoleto” by J. F. Díaz and S. Fernández on February 21st, 2017, retrieved February 25th, 2017 from marca.com.