For anybody interested in women’s football, the focus this year, for most players, is undoubtedly on the World Cup – scheduled to take place in France from 7th June to 7th July. In Argentina, however, that has taken a back seat in recent weeks, thanks to a certain Macarena Sanchez.
Born in Santa Fe, Sanchez is a self-described football feminist. She was quoted by Clarin, an Argentine newspaper as saying “I want to be a feminist and dissident footballer because we have to run away from the contamination that football has… I would like to see it with a new identity.” The new identity she refers to came in the form of a lawsuit earlier this year against her former club UAI Urquiza and the Argentine Football Association that demands equal treatment for the women’s game – on par with the men’s game.
Football in Argentina, like a lot of places in the world, is predominantly a men’s game – a stage that is seen as being reserved for men and out of bounds for women. The men’s game in Argentina has been professionalised from top to bottom and in fact, boasts some of the world’s most iconic clubs and players. On the contrary, the women’s game is still played by amateurs. Sanchez herself worked a part-time job at the club that she played in and earned only a monthly stipend. She says that the treatment at UAI was “not the best but neither were they the worst…often indifferent and disinterested.” And this was at a club that was among the best in the country – winning their top division four times in the last eight years.
The women’s game in Argentina has been plagued by the apathy and disregard by the national federation. Many clubs do not cover the costs of having police, ambulances and doctors at club matches – with players having to pay out of their pockets for things that the club has to provide for. And that is not even mentioning things like food, training equipment and training clothes. The federation refuses to recognise women as professionals, and this is fundamentally the reason why it finds itself embroiled in a lawsuit.
In the middle of the Argentine season, Sanchez was suddenly let go by the club and found herself without a job and without compensation because there was never a professional contract involved. After consulting her sister – a lawyer by profession – Sanchez decided to sue the authorities in Argentine football and fight for what was right. Macarena Sanchez’s fight for equality is indicative of a larger problem, not just in sport but also in society. In many communities around the world, patriarchy is a deep-rooted problem that refuses to go away despite the overall development that we see. Football is an occupation and must be treated as such by everybody involved in the game. Just as women can be engineers, doctors or lawyers, they can very well be footballers (and anything else they want to be).
The timing of the lawsuit could also not be more poetic in a sense – although unintended to be that way. As Argentine women fight for their right to become professional, four major footballing nations go head to head in the United States as they continue to prepare for the upcoming World Cup. The USA will play host to three fellow aspirants for the title - England, Brazil and Japan - as part of the SheBelieves Cup, offering Argentinean women a glimpse of what could be if Argentina professionalised the women’s game and made things better for them. The fact that the SheBelieves Cup was instituted by the US Soccer Federation as part of the #SheBelieves campaign to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams – athletic or otherwise- certainly resonates with Sanchez’s story.
Sanchez’s lawsuit has received a lot of support from up and down the country – with current and former players, politicians, feminist movements and various clubs siding with her. The demand for equality in football also comes at a time when Argentina has seen a rise in feminist movements across the board – to demand equality at the workplace. And the AFA have been open – amidst what seems like a high degree of reluctance – to changing things locally. Ahead of last year’s World Cup qualifying tournament, the Argentine women’s team was allowed to train at the same complex where Messi and the rest of the men’s team prepare for their games, grounds that until recently were reserved for men only.
For Sanchez, the immediate issue was one about monetary compensation for her years at UAI Urquiza. But the real problem is more than that, she says. “The biggest compensation for me would be to get my claim heard and for women to be recognised as professional footballers,” she says, “I hope that all of us are recognised as professionals and that no other player has to go through situations of discrimination in football.” The case is now in judicial hands – with lawyers from both sides currently engaging in discussions mediated by a neutral party. If this fails to yield a favourable outcome, it will go to open court. However long it takes, it would only reflect poorly on Argentine football if they were to deny women the same opportunity as they provide the men. What started out as an arbitrary dismissal from a club mid-season has now ballooned into something beyond Macarena Sanchez herself and could likely change women’s football in Argentina for the good. The question remains though, that in this day and age, why did it take so long and so much for that to happen?