How Argentina’s women took on blatant sexism to reach the World Cup

The team were so underfunded they did not play at all between 2015 and 2017 but next take on England in France on Friday

Argentina had just drawn 0-0 against Japan at Parc des Princes in Paris on Monday, yet the players collapsed in joy as if celebrating an epic victory. For the casual viewer it must have seemed an exaggerated celebration but for anyone familiar with what the Argentinian players have gone through it was completely understandable.

They are essentially an amateur team and were playing against the team that won the 2011 World Cup and reached the final four years later. In fact, it is a small miracle they are even in France and going into their second group game, against Phil Neville’s England in Le Havre on Friday, with renewed belief.

The Argentina team are not new to major tournaments but a fourth-place finish at the unofficial 1971 Women’s World Championship was followed by disappointing showings in the Fifa events in 2003 and 2007. In the latter two, Argentina had a negative goal difference of 31, only managing to score a single goal in each tournament.

As Argentina prepare to play England for the third time – they won 4-1 in 1971 but lost 6-1 in 2007 – it is worth considering why the draw with Japan carried so much weight.

Going back just one year, it was unclear if the team would be able to travel to France at all. Unlike the regional power that is Brazil, who can count on regular training camps and tournaments, the Argentinian women’s team has been shockingly neglected by its federation and treated with downright hostility at times.

After failing to qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the Argentinian Football Association (AFA), showed little interest in having a national women’s side at all. Things got so bad that Fifa categorised the team as “unranked” due to its inactivity. The head coach, Carlos Borrello, was dismissed and not replaced.

The principal worries for England

Estefanía Banini Argentina’s captain and best player is known as "La Messi" in her homeland. She was the team’s best hope of creating a goal against Japan and the desired out-ball when her side were in possession. Banini, who spent last season on loan from Washington Spirit at Spanish top-flight side Levante, drew several fouls with her skill and speed. 

Sole Jaimes The 30-year-old striker was signed by the Champions League winners Lyon in January but limited to seven appearances amid competition from, among others, Ada Hegerberg and Shanice van de Sanden. Jaimes used her strength to hold up the ball against Japan and avoided a booking despite a few hefty challenges. She may find it harder to bully England.

Ruth Bravo The defensive midfielder plays for Tacón, who have just been promoted to Spain’s top division. Bravo’s journey fits neatly with the revival against the odds of her national team. In 2012 she was set to play in the Under-20 World Cup but ruptured knee ligaments almost ended her career. Seven years later she has realised her dream as the team’s vice-captain.

Aldana Cometti The centre-back's fearless performance encapsulated Argentina’s determination against Japan – she lost a tooth after a first-half collision but showed no signs of wilting. The 23-year-old plays in Spain's top flight with Sevilla so will be more used to facing high-quality opponents than some of her defensive colleagues. Kathryn Batte

It seemed impossible to imagine a future for the team, especially as they played no games at all between 2015 and 2017. When, in 2017, the AFA finally organised a friendly in Uruguay, the players travelled early in the morning, played an afternoon match and then got straight on a bus back to Buenos Aires.

Exhausted, hungry and trapped in a chaotic and uninterested system, the players wrote a public letter complaining of the conditions they were working in. They then refused to appear for the national team again until the AFA met their demands of $8.50 (£6.70) per day for training as well as regularly scheduled matches and training staff at their disposal. That the federation refused to meet these demands, opting to play the under-23 squad against Uruguay instead, spoke volumes about the federation’s disdain for women’s football.

The institutionalist sexism the women’s team has faced from the AFA runs deep and forms a major part of how it deals with men’s football as well. In 2018, the federation published a guide to the World Cup in Russia, distributed to players, coaches, and journalists, with a chapter advising Argentinian men on how to pick up Russian women. The difficulty of getting support, and trying to build a career, in this type of climate cannot be overstated.

The game-changer in terms of historical context was the advent of the feminist #NiUnaMenos movement. #NiUnaMenos emerged in protest against femicide and domestic violence in Argentina and the campaign quickly spread throughout Latin America – and expanding its agenda. Over the last few years it has brought millions to the streets in protest of unequal working conditions, cultural representation, and reproductive rights.

Argentina players celebrate after the final whistle of the 0-0 draw against Japan at Parc des Princes.
Argentina players celebrate after the final whistle of the 0-0 draw against Japan at Parc des Princes. Photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

The movement has caused Argentinian players to understand the significance of their sporting activity as a feminist act. The team’s captain, Estefanía Banini, said of the feminist movement that it has “been very important and has given us a lot of support … It is important as women to raise our voices and let everyone know we are equal, that we want the same rights.” In turn, women’s football has become somewhat of a cause célèbre of grassroots feminism.

Earlier this year the UAI Urquiza player Macarena Sánchez made headlines when she took legal action against her club and the federation for not being recognised as a professional. After several years at the club Sánchez was told, during the season, that they were letting her go, which meant she would have to be unemployed for six months because transfers can only be completed at the end of the season.

Sánchez took to social media and received strong support from Argentina teammates, just as they were finally getting a bigger platform in the lead-up to the World Cup. A few prominent journalists picked the story up, including Alejandro Wall, but also many independent women writers, such as Leila Grayani and Nemesia Hijós. The former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner lent her support to the female players and a number of local and regional politicians followed suit.

As the public became more aware of the conditions of women’s football, pressure grew and finally, in April, the AFA agreed to help subsidise one-year professional contracts for eight female players, but it was only to the tune of $330 a month.

Gaby Garton, a goalkeeper for the national team, said that, while it was not enough to earn a living on just football, “it’s a whole lot better than the nothing many of us earned before”.

While the grassroots women’s football culture in Argentina has been at the forefront of pushing for better resources, it has been cautiously optimistic about improvements over the past year. They prefer the term “feminist football” or “fútbol femenista”, rather than football femenino or women’s football, to signal their desire to change thinking in the country. Rather than just adding women to the current corrupt sporting structures that make a profit of exporting predominantly working class athletes, they want fundamentally more egalitarian institutions.

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The point against Japan was not only important for being the first in an official World Cup for the Argentinian women’s team. More than anything, it highlighted the strength and resolve of generations of female footballers in continuing to play in the face of opposition, sexism and disdain from their own federation.

Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel are co-authors of Futbolera: a History of Women and Sports in Latin America.