A girl’s struggle to play football by Rocio Candal Barbeito from A Coruña, Spain.
I always wanted to be different, if that’s the right word, but I don’t think it is. Because at five years old I thought it was normal, I didn’t understand what was strange about my passion for football.
I liked dolls, I had them, and from time to time I did their hair and played with them, but I also had cars and balls. Balls above all. Plastic, sponge, leather… Every time I went to a shop and saw one, another one would catch my eye and I would want to take it home. I wasn’t always lucky, but the problem was the cost and also the space: in my house there just wasn’t enough room for so many balls. My parents never frowned on me because I liked football. Over time I realised that, instead of that being normal, it was often the exception.
While I was in Year 2 or 3 of Primary school, I can’t recall exactly, I experienced my first big disappointment, I heard my first NO. Simply for being a girl, simply for wanting to play football. I tried my luck at joining break-time matches in the playground, some days luckier than others. In effect, it was just the ticket for catching colds. In Galicia (Northwest Spain) enduring rain and cold as we crossed the playground to the school building, arriving to class all sweaty… But I didn’t care. Call it madness or mischief but it made me happy, it made me feel alive. Scoring a goal past the Year 4 goalkeeper, for me, was like being Player of the Week in the Spanish league or Top Scorer in the Champions League. No, wait, even better. Because I, unlike those who receive those awards, don’t need anyone’s recognition. Just seeing my shot cross the goal line filled me with an incredible sense of satisfaction, incomparable.
One day, in Physical Education class, after hours of kickabouts, the teacher uttered the most beautiful phrase I had ever heard: “We are going to play a tournament against the Carral school team”. (Carral is my neighbouring county) I wish I’d had a mirror then or photos of that moment but my face must have been a picture of happiness. Literally. The teacher asked all those interested to sign up on a list and he stressed one word: “niños” (boys). I assumed by that he meant children (niños also means children in Spanish) and so was also referring to girls. So I decided to write my name. He stopped me. “Only boys are going, Rocío, I already told you, you can’t go. I’m sure the other school won’t be bringing any girls to the match either.” I don’t remember my reply, but probably because of my shyness I just took it and said nothing. At least momentarily. It was when I got off the school bus, that I exploded, in every way. No hello, good afternoon, or anything. With tears in my eyes I shouted “Mum, the gym teacher doesn’t want to take me to the match.” Unaware of the situation, she obviously didn’t understand a thing, but the next day, she went to school to talk to him. Unsuccessfully. “If she gets hit by a ball, the responsibility is going to be mine, I’m not going to risk it”. At 7 or 8 years old! In Under 8s! When boys and girls generally play together at that age! As if only girls get hurt by balls! There was no way of convincing him.
I spent several days crying. It got to me me so much that I even dreamed about that match, my first proper match, my first big match. I remember that in my dream they let me play, they let me go on the bus with my teammates, visit the rival playground and play against other children my age. I woke up so happy. I remember it as if it were today. It’s probably one of the childhood anecdotes that most marked me. But when I opened my eyes, everything vanished, I came back to reality: my first match had been postponed. Why? Because I was a girl. I couldn’t understand it. I convinced myself that I would be a bad player, very bad, then I remembered that there were several children who scored fewer goals than me in the playground, and that the teacher had not even seen me play football. And I just couldn’t understand it. Innocent and naive childhood reflections, I suppose.
A few months later, my parents signed me up to my local football team, in Under 9s. It was the best decision they could have made. It helped me, among other things, to make up for that feeling of unworthiness. With a giant shirt, three sizes bigger than me, I made my debut on a 7-a-side football pitch made of sand and stone. But that wasn’t important. I didn’t care about the pitch. I had already won. And in class, of course, I bragged about it. I told all my friends that I had started playing in a real team. Some congratulated me, but what surprised me the most was the reaction a few days later when a girl from another class, also a football lover, came up to me. “My father said that you were going to end up with bent legs and that dresses would look terrible on you. He didn’t let me sign up” she said. I, all innocent, began to walk and told her to look at me, to look at my legs and how I walked, that I walked normally, that my father had never told me such a thing, and that hers was mistaken. Based on cliches, obstacles were put up, I don’t know whether it was consciously or unconsciously, but it hurt. I had never seen anyone say anything like that to a boy, so why would they say it to us? It was unfair, unnecessary and rash. They were supposed to set an example, and in many cases, I noticed that they were doing quite the opposite. I have to admit that when you’re little, you don’t give it that much thought. As you mature and become older you understand that those little phrases were out of order. More than you imagined.
They are stones that make already muddy roads almost impassable. Difficulties that turn a simple feat like that of playing football into a whole odyssey for a girl. Certainties, for those who speak them, that generate doubts in those who listen. Snubs that hurt more than being hit by a ball. Don’t protect girl footballers, don’t treat them differently, don’t ask them about dolls, it’s just normal: they are doing what they like most. Football in particular and sports in general, unlike society, doesn’t care about gender. In football we are all the same. Although many don’t want to see it.
The strange and different thing is not to accept that.
You can read the original article in Spanish below.
Desprecios que duelen más que cualquier balonazo
Yo siempre quise ser diferente, si diferente es la palabra, que no, no lo creo. Porque a mí con cinco años me parecía…
Translated by Conchi Fuentes