Last week, something changed at the start of the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The Argentine women’s national team tied with Japan, the reigning sub-champion of the tournament. The team followed up this result with a very respectable 1-0 loss to England, rated by FIFA as the best team in the tournament.
There results may not seem so impressive to fans who expect their soccer teams to be world champions every year (even years when there is no World Cup), but they represent a huge change of fortune for the women’s national team. The draw against Japan is the first time the team has ever earned points at the World Cup. The last time the team qualified for the tournament was 2007, and overall the team has only qualified for three World Cups since it began in 1991. From the two World Cups in which the team had previously played, it had a less-than-stellar record of 33 goals against and 2 goals in favor, with haunting losses like 11-0 against Germany in 2007 or 6-0 against Japan in 2003 being the norm, not the exceptions.
A draw with a global powerhouse and a competitive, close loss to the number one team in the world is a huge break with the team’s questionable record, and impressive performances from #10 Estefanía Banini and goalkeeper Vanina Correa, who saved a penalty against England, have highlighted the improved form of the team. These results seem to represent a turning point in the competitiveness of this squad versus ones that came before, and for the first time in its history, the team sees itself with a chance to go to the knockout stages with a win against Scotland today.
With these improved results, there has been some increased engagement from the Argentine public. During and after both games, #Vamoslaspibas was the top trending topic on Twitter in Argentina, and #ARGJPN had over 10,000 tweets as well. Users chimed in from all over the country to congratulate the athletes on their impressive performances, posting photos of themselves cheering on the team. Clarín and La Nación both published front page stories about the team, and previews advertising when it was happening and selling the brilliant game it was going to be.
— Pamela Visciarelli (@PamelaVis) June 10, 2019
Diego Armando Maradona (actually not being the worst, for once) posted on Instagram, congratulating the athletes for their performance and complimenting the spirit they showed, praise he doesn’t even give the men’s team. For a team looking to both win abroad and inspire at home, they don’t seem to be doing too bad a job.
Las Pibas’ success comes at a time when women’s soccer seems to be at an all-time popularity high. Ratings are up in the United States, the French women’s national team sold out the 48,000 seats at Parc De Princes stadium in Paris, and the England-Scotland game drew 6.1 million viewers in the UK. Four years ago, the Women’s World Cup final had more viewers in the United States than the Men’s World Cup Final. So while pay inequality and sexism are still rampant in the sport, it seems as if fan engagement seems to be dramatically improving in Europe and America.
But what about Argentina? Is this soccer-loving nation finally showing up for its women? TV Pública is broadcasting all the games, but the ratings aren’t out yet. Are people actually watching across the country, or are Twitter and Clarín an isolated bubble? Ready to support Las Pibas, I was astounded to find that my local Locos x Futbol (“Crazy for Soccer) bar was actually closed during the game (it was 1 PM on a Monday, but still!). Undeterred, I kept looking until I found an open bar, with a television, showing fútbol. Except it was a debate about who Boca’s next manager would be. Most TV channels are still more focused on providing non-stop coverage for the current Copa América (where Argentina is not playing particularly well) than the Women’s World Cup, but we can hope that will change.
The issue has become symbolic of the fight for gender equality in Argentina. Estefanía Banini, bearer of La Selección’s coveted number 10, said following the Argentina-Japan game: “This means a lot, we reflected what we wanted to reflect, the Argentine woman’s fight for equality.”
The arena of women’s sports has been mistreated for years in Argentina, with the only fully professional female sports league (basketball) beginning two years ago. 2019 is the first year that some soccer teams have started hiring and paying female players, and while the Argentine Football Association recently signed a commitment to make the Argentine women’s league professional, the inequality between the men’s and women’s leagues remains stark.
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In the lead up to the 2019 World Cup, the women’s national team was woefully neglected by the Argentine Football Association (AFA), with players writing a public complaint in 2017, demanding that the federation provide a mere AR $8.50 a day for training, and regularly schedule matches for them to play. The Association initially refused, and only caved when Las Pibas insisted that they would not play until their demands met. The qualification of La Selección to this World Cup despite the non-existent support of AFA is indicative of gender inequality in Argentine society, and a testament to the strength and resilience of this national team.
Carla Majdalani, Director of Communications for the Argentine National Institute for Women, over email said that the women’s national team being broadcast nationwide is “indeed an equality issue” and “part of a bigger movement where gender gaps are being exposed and explained from a critical perspective and not regarded as ‘natural’ anymore.” She elaborated that the struggle of the national team is symbolic of a whole host of struggles that women in Argentina are dealing with, in the face of Argentina’s somewhat “traditional, not to say machista” culture. It will be interesting to see how the Argentine public reacts, with enthusiasm comparable to their men’s team’s exploits or far less, with focus staying on the Copa América.
So, will La Selección’s improved results be a turning point for women’s soccer in Argentina, and what would that mean for feminism in general? Have people been watching? The jury’s still out, but regardless, Las Pibas have a chance at making the next round if they beat Scotland today at 4 PM. So get a group together, head down to your local sports bar, and make sure they’re screening the game, so you can celebrate your national pride by watching some high-quality Argentine soccer.