In junior high and high school, I played competitive soccer five days a week. Soccer came before school, before friends, and sometimes even before family. After two years of playing up with older girls, I got burnt out, hung up my cleats, and decided to focus on other things. When I started playing with the Gigantes in September of 2015, I hadn’t played in over a decade. Sure, I’d kicked the ball around in a few scrimmages, but nothing could have prepared me for diverse and varied ass-kickings I would be receiving on Madrid’s soccer fields. Indeed, only a few months after starting I found myself on my back just outside the opposing side’s penalty box, surrounded by teammates, and with what I would later discover to be a separated shoulder.
I have been very lucky. Despite all the tonterías, including but not limited to extreme sports and merging my bike into traffic without a helmet, I had never had a serious injury. This was my first, and though it set in motion a series of unpleasant events —surgery, rehabilitation, et cetera — not once did the question “Was it all worth it?” cross my mind. Not once did I employ the third conditional to conjure up the linguistic time machine and lament my misfortune (okay, maybe I joked about it a couple times, but never in earnest). I can laugh about it now, but I categorize the injury and its consequences as a 5.2 or so on the Richter Scale, a genuine “character builder.”
Objectively, it’s all a little ridiculous. Today, I am 28 years old. I am playing soccer in what could be called a recreational league. I am not going to get a scholarship. I am never going to make money from soccer. Nobody comes to watch me play. I have tens of other responsibilities to juggle. I should regret having been on the field that day. I should have gone through all the all the possible alternative histories. I should have asked myself why I fought to win that particular play. That I don’t ask these questions in no way reflects on my own personality. Instead, I ascribe this attitude to the culture of women’s soccer here. Es lo que hay… that’s just how it is. It’s a loaded term, but it’s fitting.
Playing in Madrid has been an uncanny experience. On one hand, you are doing an activity that is so physically familiar you could do it blind. On the other, the cultural minutia that surrounds the game —everything from drilling instructions to conversation topics— is not familiar. There are, however, definable differences. One of the most important ones I’ve experienced is the difference in intensity between practice and games here in Madrid. For example, we don’t wear shinguards while practicing in Madrid. In California, we always did. This habit was hard for me to kick, and I only did so after one of my teammates asked if I didn’t trust the girls on the team. We also practice later, from 8:30 PM – 10:00 PM, and after that another team takes the field for an hour. Games are intense, aggressive, and nothing like practice. There’s more yelling and swearing and play is dirtier. We play dirty in the U.S., but you don’t get away with it as easily as you do here. At the aficionado level there’s only ever one referee on the field. It’s much easier for overt fouls (and offsides) to go unnoticed because there are no sideline referees. Pushing, pulling shirts and arms, all this happens in the U.S. (pinching is big in the U.S., it’s much harder to get called on), but only on the fields in Madrid could I truly cultivate my stiff arm fend —totally illegal, but to get the ball you have to push back. Contrarily, slide tackling (clean or cleats up and late) is not usually allowed in Madrid.
These basic differences aside, I have to propose (albeit a bit lazily) that women’s soccer in the U.S. and in Spain are not really comparable. This is due to soccer culture in general, the types of laws that govern it, the services that support it, and the general disregard for women’s soccer in Spain. Pero bueno —there’s enough material here for a Quijote-thick tome and it will have be topic for another day.
Despite all the challenges, these women play well. Had they grown up in the United States, many of them would have played NCAA Division I or II in college. They would have been groomed for professional leagues around the world. Instead, they have spent most of their lives playing at the first aficionado level within their home regions. Most played with boys until the age twelve because there are no Under-12 girls teams. Many started after twelve because they didn’t feel comfortable playing with boys. Now, that this is the reality by no means belittles their grit or their dedication as players. On the contrary: if you are a woman in Spain, there is no reason to play soccer unless you love it, so the intention, the deliberation, and the emotion involved in the women’s game here will always be pure.
While pure intention, deliberation, and emotion are wonderfully romantic, they don’t always bring home the proverbial bacon. It’s not easy and teams are not always successful: at best, it’s downright difficult and, at worst, it’s ugly.
This month I chased down two players from my team, Mrs. S and Mrs. V, who reluctantly agreed to answer my pesky American questions about their experiences at the bottom of soccer’s food chain.
Mrs. S. is the captain of my team. She just celebrated her 30th birthday. Stalwart is the first word that comes to mind when I think about her. She’s a goalie, last line of defense and first line of offense. Her ground game is tight and she reads the field masterfully. She’s saved us more times than I can count. She’s also about 5’3” but you wouldn’t know it. She pushes players to do their best and to keep their heads up after a tough loss. When she has something to say, people listen.
MMW: Mrs. S., you’re captain of the Gigantes, an aficionado women’s football team. It’s difficult to be a leader in this context because the team is made up of women of different ages who come from very diverse backgrounds. In terms of “being a team,” what obstacles do aficionado women’s teams face? How did you managed to become a respected member of the team and remain rock steady under such circumstances?
Mrs. S: Precisely the fact that the groups are very diverse, that they are made up of very different people in and of themselves, constitutes an obstacle, and only one of the various obstacles you mentioned. The fact that in the same category you can have anyone from sixteen years old and up means that you could have younger and older people together in the same team. They will obviously have different ways of thinking, different priorities, and thus different levels of commitment. Also, women’s soccer isn’t professionalized and it is very difficult to earn a living playing (oftentimes the players themselves must cover competition costs). This makes for a lower level of commitment considering that soccer is more of a hobby than anything else and means that players will prioritize other things over soccer. These two big obstacles are, in my opinion, the ones that most keep teams from having a group of strongly committed players. And as to your second question, I’ve always acted the same whether I was captain or not. I always try to think about the team (teammates as well as coaches) while bringing the experience that I’ve gained over the years I’ve spent playing in order to keep everyone happy and everything working as well as possible.
MMW: You said “women’s soccer is not professionalized.” What exactly does that mean?
Mrs. S: It means that you cannot play soccer professionally, it’s not recognized as a profession. You cannot write a woman a contract that says “professional soccer player” (you can if the person is a man). If they get paid for it, they are getting paid under the table. This means that they are not paying taxes to Hacienda or to Social Security and thus they don’t have the right to unemployment, to visit the doctor within Spain’s national healthcare system, and it’s also illegal. So they cannot earn a living playing soccer. They need to have another job.
I’ll give you an example so that you understand better: a friend of mine got picked up by the Segunda Nacional de Canarias. Since they couldn’t give her a real soccer contract they offered her a job at the hotel. She was living in an apartment with other players without paying anything and they let her eat in the hotel for free. Teams try to do this sort of thing to compensate for not paying them as soccer players.
Mrs. V. has been playing soccer in Madrid since she was a kid. She’s 28, just a few months older than me though she’s a few half-inches shorter. She’s a gnarly defender and I count my lucky stars everyday that I don’t have to face her on the field during an actual game. She walks on her toes. Teammates joke that her gait resembles an antelope’s canter, but I think it makes her look scrappy, like she’s always ready for a fight (I am 90% sure that she is but I am not about to test the theory). She’s a keen observer and, to top it off, she makes the kind of incisive, spot-on remarks that can through steel or even a loud group of bickering female soccer players.
MMW: Mrs. V, you’ve been playing in Madrid for many years and have played with various teams in more than one neighborhood. What’s more, you’ve played with women from other parts of Spain and of the world. Tell us a little about the teams in the neighborhoods that you’ve played in and the differences you noticed in the way of playing or the way of “being a team.”
Mrs. V: Well, first off I’d like to say that I that I feel a little flattered because I know that you have me in mind when asking these questions. I’ve been playing for a long time at the amateur level. Sometimes it seems like if you never play with a referential club that everyone knows at a national level that you should feel smaller in the soccer world, but in reality it’s not like that.
Wherever practicing and competing in this sport takes you and no matter where you’re from in the world, soccer always starts in a small park or backstreet in some neighborhood, kicking the ball against a wall and later getting together with people to play, have fun, and meet one objective: beat the other team.
Within a team, each player has her own means of attaining VICTORY as the common good. For some, the key to victory is maintaining possession of the ball, for other it’s effectively defending attacks from the other team and for others, perhaps the majority, it’s the much anticipated GOAL.
When I started competing, a little before turning thirteen, I didn’t except that soccer would captivate me to such a degree and for so long. Just after starting junior high, I remember going with my best friend to different sports centers to try to find some team where we could learn, exercise, and meet people. At first we weren’t very successful. Then one day a girl from the other class invited us to meet the neighborhood soccer team. That very same afternoon, we signed up.
During this period, I learned what it meant to feel like and to be part of a team. My teammates, apart from my friends, became family. Winning was important but the team and our happiness were always more important. There were significant age differences. It didn’t matter if you were thirteen years old or twenty-eight years old: we got ready, we commuted to games, we showered in the locker rooms at the field, and we left together. I met people who came as exchange students and with whom I am still in contact. We had teammates from Morocco, the United States, Germany, Guatemala, Argentina, etc. Some came with a chauffeur, others walked so as not to pay bus fare. Soccer made us all equals.
Years went by and after some disagreements with management the team split up. One half stayed and the other half (of which I was a part) went to a neighboring team. This team played in a higher category and my teammates went from being family to being comrades at arm, allies whose back you have and who have your back when the enemy approaches. This is the team that taught me courage, pride, the guts and the heart-wrenching pain of dragging yourself forward to get to the ball before the other player and then to leave the field with your head up whether you win or lose… to make things easier on yourselves, since it is already difficult enough to come up against a club that has five subs when you only have one and she has a busted ankle. For four years we fought, we never gave up and people remembered our name… I get nostalgic when I look back on it, a lot has happened since then… until one day we didn’t have any more strength, winters were cold and hard at our dirt field full of puddles, work and school suffocated us, and that combined with injuries and the lack of reinforcements for the battlefield, we finally accepted a dignified defeat: we refused to sell that which was ours (our name and the preferente category) to a big giant that today owns one of the biggest clubs in the capital.
I stopped playing for a while, thinking that I wouldn’t go back, until I got a phone call that motivated me to do it. A new coach had confidence in me, his style of play was really different than what we had been used to but he taught me to move forward as a team, to clear the ball out of the back, to improve my judgment while passing, and how to zone-mark during fouls and corners (we saw a lot more of the white-erase board than ever before). It was the first time that somebody took the trouble to show my how to do a bicycle kick, even though I’m no good at it. From this team, I’ve kept the tactical knowledge —the detailed strategy— that made us competent against great teams and infallible against our equals. One day, the club decided that the budget wasn’t enough and so we folded despite the fact that we were paying more than the rest of the teams.
I ended up in the club where I play now with a few of my teammates from my former team. New people, several coach changes, and locker room discussions about discipline that, though good, are suffocating at times. This stage represents a balance of all previous ones. Without a doubt it’s been with this club that I’ve met the majority of people from other places, but in the other clubs there was always at least one per season.
From my point of view, teammates from other parts of the world bring freshness and intensity to the game. Though in general they are much more reserved with the team (understandable given the language barrier and all that) and cautious when expressing their opinion, they are dynamite on the field. You can’t generalize about the style of play, it’d be too bold, but in my opinion it is true that they don’t come to practice like someone going to play at the park but instead come with an extra layer of competitiveness. This is not to say that people here are not competitive, but I get the feeling that in comparison there is in fact a difference. I imagine that when someone comes from another part of the world and has to take up an activity in a new environment with strangers she chooses how to spend her time wisely. I wish it would rub off on the rest.
If circumstances had been different, I would have comfortably kept playing with my “home” team and even though I look back on it with nostalgia, every team that I’ve been a part of and each and every person that I’ve met thanks to soccer has taught me and made me grow both as a soccer play and a person.
Thanks to all.