Argentine Women Look to Cast Off Shadow of Messi and Co

REUTERS/Mariana Nedelcu/File Photo
Boca Jrs defender Julieta Cruz celebrates with her teammates after winning the women’s soccer championship final against UAI Urquiza, at the Libertadores de America stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina June 30, 2023.

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentine women’s soccer players, fans and referees will be seeking to step out of the shadow of Lionel Messi and the world champion men’s team when they take the field at the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this month.

Argentina, where soccer is almost a religion and fans sport tattoos with images of Messi or the late idol Diego Maradona, is warming to the women’s game, which has grown rapidly since it became professional in 2019.

Although not favored to win, Argentina’s women hope to generate a similar wave of excitement to that which greeted the men’s title triumph last December and turn players like Estefania Banini, Yamila Rodriguez and Laurina Oliveros into household names.

“The only difference is gender, but we do the same thing,” said Boca Juniors goalkeeper Oliveros, who will travel to the World Cup but not play due to injury.

Oliveros said she and other players want the same respect and working conditions as male players, but they are also carving out their own space within the sport.

“We have our own playing style, our own dynamic,” Oliveros said. “We understand the game differently and want to play it differently.”

The ninth Women’s World Cup, which kicks off on July 20, is expected to attract the largest television audience in the history of women’s soccer and FIFA will pay $30,000 directly to each participating player.

The players, fans and referees are gaining prominence like never before, achieving greater visibility on TV networks and drawing bigger crowds, and even managing – sometimes – to play at the same stadiums as the men.

Laura Fortunato, a 38-year-old Argentine referee who is among the six Latin American women officiating at the World Cup, recalled that there were only 10 women referees in Argentina when she first took up the whistle, compared to 50 now.

In her early days, having a woman referee was a shock to the players.

“From how it was when I just started to now, (it) has advanced by leaps and bounds,” said Fortunato.

“Before, you would arrive on the pitch and they would look to see where the referee was coming, and you told them: ‘Hello, here I am’.”

In Argentina, the big local teams do not always open the doors of their stadiums for women’s soccer matches, which are played at smaller venues.

Yet fans say more and more women are turning out at venues like Boca’s 54,000-capacity ‘La Bombonera’ home to cheer on their idols in what have traditionally been male spaces.

“You feel on a par (with the men), you are one more fan,” said Martina Borgatello, a 31-year-old Boca supporter.

Jacinta D’Andreiz, a Boca fan and feminist activist, said that women have always followed soccer but now they are gaining more recognition.

“Let’s hope one day that we women are the same owners of the stands, of the sport and of the decisions as the men,” said D’Andreiz.


Despite progress, there are still many differences between the men and women’s sport in Argentina, especially when it comes to finances.

Oliveros, 29, said the gender pay gap was still huge, although narrowing.

“Little by little it’s improving. Year after year the salaries improve, the clubs contribute a little more, but we are far away,” Oliveros said.

The South American Soccer Confederation (CONMEBOL)recognizes the disparity between men’s and women’s soccer and said recently it was taking steps to reduce it.

“CONMEBOL has addressed the financial imbalance between women’s and men’s soccer by creating competitions, investing in infrastructure, finding sponsors and commercial agreements, as well as promoting the women’s national teams,” the organization said.

Invigorated by Argentina’s qualification for a fourth Women’s World Cup, fans hope that progress into the knockout stage will generate more support for the sport.

They will have their work cut out in a group which also includes Italy, Sweden and South Africa but Borgatello believes the mere presence of La Albiceleste at the showpiece tournament is an achievement in itself.

“A male player is different. You say: ‘he will make it, since he has talent, he will do it’. In women’s soccer, everything is more difficult,” she said.

“So seeing them there is a source of pride.”