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In the autumn of 2014, after conducting numerous interviews with female footballers throughout Mexico, I continued my research in Peru. The following is a piece I wrote in which Peruana futbolistas speak about their sport.

They’d say: “Football is a man’s sport. You’re going to hurt yourself.”

With less than six months to go before the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup opener in Edmonton, Canada, women’s football is once again in the news. Most advance media for this top international women’s tournament has focused on the player lawsuit concerning the use of turf fields for matches.

This important issue is emblematic of widespread equity issues in the game and it’s forcing an overdue dialogue about gender-based discrimination, but missing are the typical line-up commentary, athlete profiles and statistical reiterations that usually precede a major sporting event. There are numerous reasons for this disparity. The global women’s game receives little funding and minimal publicity, and offers limited opportunities for fan engagement. However, to the millions of women and girls who play - not to mention the fans - the Women’s World Cup is the sport’s top-tier event.

As in many other South American countries, football is overwhelmingly popular in Peru. Despite an irregular performance that has skewed mediocre for decades, the men’s side of the country’s national team still enjoys relative fame and ongoing financial support. Professional women’s football, on the other hand, is mainly ignored and left to grow (or not) under its own steam. Neither the program nor the players are properly funded and the team’s performance is left more to fortune than to training.

However, women have found a place in the game at the community level and use their participation to encourage health, wellness, political engagement, and harmony.

Peru’s national women’s team has never made it to a World Cup and this year is no different. But this doesn’t change the relationship of Peruana footballers and fans to the game, or nullify the importance of their experiences. In late 2014, I travelled in Peru, interviewing female footballers from the Andes, the Amazon and the capital city of Lima. I spoke with players at the recreational, semi-professional and professional levels about their experiences in the game and their hopes for the future.

The Andes

Before arriving in Peru, I already had the idea that football played an important role for some Andean women. Back in 2009, the Guardian published a photo essay detailing a tournament played by mamachas, some with captions that hinted at the interplay between the game and how their communities were run. Al Jazeera released an episode of its documentary television program, Witness, a few years later that centred on Juana, an Andean corn and potato farmer who started a women’s football league. The consequences of her initiative were that previously disenfranchised women gained social and political power and became leaders in their communities. I was curious to learn more about how football relates to the many oppressions faced by rural, indigenous women from farming communities.

Deep in Peru’s Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo is a village between Cusco and the country’s main tourist attraction, Machu Picchu. It’s also the location of its own Incan ruins and a common departure point for hikers tackling the Inca Trail, so it receives its share of tourists. The town dates back to the 15th century and many of its cultural traditions remain intact. Modern conveniences have crept in—there’s an ATM on the main square—yet it’s not unusual to see people in the brightly-coloured dress of their communities or women carrying bundles of grass to feed their cuy, guinea pigs raised for meat and served roasted or fried.

Ollantaytambo seems the perfect place to make inquiries about mamacha football. I ask everyone from the local guides to the front desk staff at my lodge and find that specific information is as hard to get in person as it had been online. And there is another problem; mamachas are from indigenous mountain communities, so their mother language is more likely Quechua than Spanish.

Ruth Francisca Roque Huaman

Finally, I get lucky at my lodge. Ruth Francisca Roque Huamán is an employee there, a 33-year-old single mother of one son, and an occasional football player. Her team is made up mostly of other young mothers but the roster is irregular, depending on who’s available. This doesn’t seem to bother Ruth, but she wishes for more resources for her team.

“In this town, here in Ollantaytambo, there isn’t support for women, just for men,” she explains. I ask her to elaborate and she says that the women don’t have a practice pitch or a coach. “Sometimes us women kick the ball but we don’t know the rules of the game. Like, you’re a forward, you’re a midfielder, you’re… you know? So someone needs to give us strategies.”

“With football, you feel like it gives you…” She stops and thinks about it. “Like you have strength from where you least expect it.”

Each year, Ruth says, a tournament organized by the local government draws the participation of approximately 20 teams from the nearby communities. The winners receive a cash prize and sometimes a trophy; the money goes to purchasing shorts, jerseys, and shoes.

I get the feeling that for Ruth it’s not about the money and I ask her why she chose football as her sport. “With football, you feel like it gives you…” She stops and thinks about it. “Like you have strength from where you least expect it.”

Several days later I take the bus to Andahuaylillas, a village approximately 40 km east of Cusco. We’re about 20 minutes outside the city when we pass a series of roadside stands, each with swathes of crispy pork rind advertised with colourful signs. “It’s a chicharróneria,” says Judy Chavez Ipenza, my translator and guide for the day. “This is the town to buy chicharrón. The next one is for cuy.” Sure enough, we pass a village 10 minutes later, identical except for the signs which now say “Cuyeria.” Andahuaylillas is a farming community best known for its 16th century Jesuit church. There’s also a football stadium.

On any other Sunday I would have had the opportunity to see local women play, but my timing is bad. Judy and I arrive during a men’s competition. My contact, Oscar Villavicencio, greets us at the gate and explains the situation, pointing out the boys playing on the grass pitch. All is not lost, he adds. He’s set up interviews with four local women. “This is where they would normally be playing.” He gestures at a small concrete court. I ask Judy to find out why they don’t play on the grass. “He says the field is too big,” she replies. “The men are afraid that they will get hurt.”

Gladys Palomino Rincon

Gladys Palomino Rincon is a shy 38-year old mother of three. She has her daughters with her—a 10-month-old baby and a 7-year-old who takes an interest in my audio recording equipment. “Me llamo Maisa,” the girl says into the microphone. She has a slight lisp because she’s lost both front teeth. Gladys says she started playing football five years earlier in her home community of Apulima, and continued on in her new home of Qhewar when she married her husband. In the morning she’s with her children and in the afternoon with her husband, and after that she meets with a group of women to make dolls, handicrafts to sell.

Every Sunday, Gladys plays football. I ask her to describe how she feels when she plays. She smiles. She has a gold cap on one of her teeth. “It’s very fun,” she says. “I have a lot of fun and forget about my problems when I’m playing.”

“How does your husband feel about it?” I ask.

“He supports me,” Gladys answers. “It’s very common to see women playing football here so normally the husbands go and they cheer.”

Oscar interjects. “Our mayor has provided facilities for the sport [since 2007]. We’ve had this tournament, Juegos Deportivos, since then. The main attraction is the mamachas from the altitudes that I’ve mentioned. They come in their typical outfits with that fluorescent green and orange colour, with sweaters and turtlenecks, right? Imagine, under this sun… Do you know the sandals the women wear? Some of them use a marker and draw the Nike swoop on them!”

I’m 49 years old and I’m the best player on all the pitches.

Oscar points to a woman selling snacks and drinks near the field. “See that lady over there selling food? She’s from the communities. She came today by motorcycle.” He gestures her over. “Let me introduce to you this lady, the strongest of all the goalkeepers,” he says.

“The blocker!” Gladys corrects from the far end of the bench, where she’s nursing her baby.

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“The blocker, goalkeeper, forward, defender…” the woman beams, feigning modesty. She’s wearing a Bayern Munich jersey under her smock apron. “My name is Hidigia Chavez Chihuantito of the community Ccachabamba. I’m 49 years old and I’m the best player on all the pitches.”

I ask Hidigia about the mamacha matches. “All the communities participate,” she says. “They come down from behind this hill right here. Some ladies come down with skirts that have lots of colours. At 8 o’clock sharp we start the game, so at that time they have to be here. We are 14 communities, and all 14 communities are here promptly to start playing.”

“How do the men in the communities react?” I ask.

“Truly, in this district of Andahuaylillas, we are all sportspeople. In all the communities, men, women, children, we all play. Even the older ladies—40, 45, 50 years old, we always play, always participate. I don’t have a husband but I stay with my children. Five children. Four men and one woman. The youngest is 10 years old and the oldest is 29. Everybody plays in my family, together.”

Oscar approaches with two more women, sisters Meri Huamán Mamani and Alejandra Huamán. I ask why they love football.

“It’s good to identify ourselves with our community, and we also enjoy it in the moment,” Meri says. “It’s de-stressing. Sometimes we’re just at home and we come here to de-stress, to play, laugh, everything, and we leave relaxed.” I ask her if the men in the community are supportive of the women playing. “Some of them might be machistas, but others support us. My husband is always here cheering, saying ‘Run! Run!’”

“At the beginning our husbands didn’t want us to [play football],” Alejandra says.

Meri nods. “My husband was worried I’d get hurt, but I’d sneak out. I’d say, ‘I’m going to the store.’” She laughs and pantomimes a stealthy exit.

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“I used to beg my husband, crying,” Alejandra says. “He didn’t want me to come. I stayed home crying, since I liked [football] so much. Crying like that, for two years, I think. I didn’t play. He would go out and play, and little by little I got so upset I couldn’t take it any more. I told him, ‘Okay, you’re going to play, right? But you come home drunk. If you win, you drink. If you lose, you also drink.’ I said, ‘I’m also going to play. You can hit me if you want, but I’m going to play. And I’m not going to come home drunk.’ At first, he said ‘How is a woman going to play?’ He was still machista. And then he’d see us playing like that until little by little he also changed. Now he comes to cheer us on.”

The Amazon

Though reached only by river or air, Iquitos is a busy city and a point of trade for goods coming from the Amazon basin and surrounding Amazonia. Different in character from the Peruvian Andes—life in the mountains is entirely unlike life in the tropical rain forest—the city is loud and dirty, and organised for commerce. Iquitos has been likened to a frontier town and walking along the waterfront, I understand the comparison. Vendors on foot and bicycle vie for your attention, hawking tours, food, or rides in their mototaxis. The streets are chaotic with the frenetic honking from swarms of these three-wheeled carriages for hire. Stray dogs pick at detritus in the gutters and cats with patchy fur and weepy eyes adorn low-hung window sills.

Modern Iquitos was born in the late 1800s when the city found itself at the very centre of the rubber boom. A sudden influx of wealth led to the construction of elaborate mansions, some of which still stand today. It also brought misery to millions of indigenous Peruvians who were enslaved and abused. These structures, too, still stand today. For many Peruvian women and girls in the region, opportunities are limited and autonomy is out of the question.

I’m in Iquitos to interview members of a local women’s semi-professional team, and investigate a rumour that there’s an LGBT league in the region. When neither meeting materializes, I reach out within the expat community announcing my presence and my desire to find female footballers. I get an almost immediate response: there’s a game the next day and “the only gringo mototaxi driver in Peru” will take me there.

I realize that this is not a regular game; I get the impression that this is an exhibition mounted for my amusement

Things go wrong almost immediately. On the drive into the jungle, my driver complains about Peruvians. They’re disorganized and always late, he says, and he should know—he’s married to one. When we arrive at the pitch, we’re greeted by three adolescent girls. They say they’re waiting for the others to show up and as they walk away my driver follows them with his eyes. “The match should be a good one,” he says, and it starts to rain. “Even better now.” Changing the subject, I ask about the teams we’re here to see and I realize that this is not a regular game; I get the impression that this is an exhibition mounted for my amusement.

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While we wait for the match to start, I ask my driver questions about what life is like for these girls. He tells me they have it okay, as long as they don’t get pregnant. Peruvians have too many children, he says, and they can’t support them. I ask what jobs are available to girls and he lists a few: cleaner, waitress, vendor at the market. If things get really desperate, girls work the floating brothel in Belen. They take girls as young as 12, my driver says. Seeing my reaction he clarifies: “But I’m married now.”

After the match, I conduct a short interview but it’s only for show. My driver is also my translator. I can’t ask these girls any of the real questions I have.

The capital

Any Peruana wanting a real chance at a professional football career will eventually play in Lima, where the fans and fields for women are a little less scarce. Along with my fixer and translator Jimena Talavera, I meet national team selection goaltender Fiorella Valverde Salazar at a Starbucks to talk shop.

Fiorella Valverde Salazar

Fiorella is a tall and confident 25-year-old with a long history in the game. “My family was a footballing family,” she explains. “My dad had a team, Sporting Chala. I grew up around football and always played with my family.” But though she was raised as much an heir to the game as anyone, it didn’t protect her from the judgement of others. “My family never bothered me or anything like that, but strangers did. I mean, people who weren’t my friends did bother me for playing football. They’d say, ‘Football is a man’s sport. You’re going to hurt yourself.’”

It’s not just strangers finding contradiction between Fiorella’s appearance and her sport. In an interview she granted to a local newspaper, the reporter asked her to comment on her short fingernails. “[Once, early in my career] I had let my fingernails grow long because it was a week before my quinceañera. When I blocked, I hit my hand with the ball, hit my fingernails with the ball, and… never again!” But goaltending can be hard on the hands, short nails or not. Fiorella shows me a scar running from her wrist to her thumb. She broke her hand during a recent match but lasted another 18 minutes of play before being taken off the pitch. “The thing is that, at this point, I think it’s all in a day’s work.”

Fiorella’s football career has been bright. Drafted to the U-19 team at only 15 years old, she had her first brush with fame the following year when, at the Copa Libradores, she faced Brazil’s Santos FC- a fearsome side featuring forward Marta Vieira da Silva.

Marta was there—one of the best players in the world! We’d only played in Lima, do you understand?

“There were so many nerves,” Fiorella recalls. “The stadium was packed and they were all Santos supporters. Marta was there—one of the best players in the world! We’d only played in Lima, do you understand?” Fiorella blocked three of Marta’s shots on net. “Geez, if you’d seen my face right there in the game, it was… It was too much emotion, really. I mean, I was happy. The Brazilians were angry because even though they won 3-1, for them it was not enough. They were expecting to thrash us. They were angry, all huddled together talking about how the game hadn’t been good for them, and there we were, happy and singing as if we’d won.” The Brazilian newspapers ran an article on the match, nicknaming Fiorella and her defence “The Great Wall of Valverde”. The story didn’t make it to the Peruvian media.

Back in Lima, Fiorella continues to work hard towards a professional career, but finds barriers to her success, even from within the football program. “There’s a new coach in the national team and she only wants younger and thinner girls. She says the older girls are dedicated to work and family, while the younger girls only have [football].” I ask what the coach considers to be old. “Once you get to 25, they want to push you out. There actually was a tournament in Ecuador and they only took 16 to 22-year-olds. They didn’t even call the older ones. We were so disappointed because we’d given so much to the team and they don’t even want us to play any more, it seems.”

The women just get one Gatorade and one cereal bar. Some girls don’t even have the money to actually go out and buy something for when they’re tired after and really need something.

Ageism is compounded by blatant gender discrimination. During training, female players receive only 20 soles (around £4.40 or USD$6.20) a week for transportation to and from the pitch, whereas the men receive a salary. Money’s not the only resource withheld from female players. “When they get out of training men usually get fruit juice, bread with ham and cheese, things like that,” Fiorella tells me. “The women just get one Gatorade and one cereal bar. Some girls don’t even have the money to actually go out and buy something for when they’re tired after and really need something.”

I ask Fiorella why, after everything, she continues to play. “Football for me is a release. It’s like breathing. It’s like it makes me live and be calm, be liberated, let’s say.” Her hopes for the future of her football career are heartbreakingly modest. “I hope that with this tournament, if we win, that we would be able to change the name and not be Fuerza Cristal [the name of the women’s side] but be Sporting Cristal—the actual team.”

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A few days later, I take a taxi out to the San Luis district to watch Fuerza Cristal compete. They’re strong, fast and flashy, easily defeating their opponents and playing to a crowd of around 30 people. Afterwards, I snag two players and we take seats at the far end of the pitch.

Adriana Lucar is a 23-year-old forward who’s just played; Kiara Ortega, 22, is her teammate who watched from the bench because of a suspension. “I got a yellow card,” she says. I ask her why. “I think I hit someone,” she shrugs, and they both laugh. Fiorella, I learn, could not attend the match. She’s at work.

It takes no time for their frustration about their coach to show itself. “You can’t ask a girl who is 25, 26, 27 [years old] to come to practice at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. You work in the afternoon. You work.” Adriana shrugs like it doesn’t matter, but her face tells a different story. “We can practice, if you want, at 6 am. Or we can practice at 8 or 7 when we’re done working, but [the coach] doesn’t want that.”

It’s not just the practice schedule that gets in the way for these two. Tournaments often involve travel and female players receive no stipend. “You can’t mix both things—play [football] and work—because you don’t have the facilities to say, ‘Hey I need 10 free days because my team needs me.’” Kiara explains.

The decision to place such an emphasis on young players rather than player development over time means that there is always somebody willing to step in and play for free.

The decision to place such an emphasis on young players rather than player development over time means that there is always somebody willing to step in and play for free. “The young girls, they don’t understand. They ask, ‘Why didn’t you travel with us to Ecuador to play?’ Well, I’ve got a job right now,” Adriana continues. “They don’t get it because their life is [football] right now, but in two to three years they are going to realize they have nothing. [Football] doesn’t give you anything.”

Kiara nods. “At first, you play for free. Because you want to play, you like to play, you love [football]. But…” I ask her if she’s hoping to train for a Women’s World Cup. “It’s our dream. You know, we are 22, 23, and we have to wait for four years for a qualifier tournament,” Kiara answers. “What happens if they don’t take care of us for that four years?”

Adriana has a much more pragmatic answer. “I’m expecting next year to get paid… something. If I don’t, I am just not okay. I have a job right now. It’s not easy, it’s not easy to get back to work and then think I have to go run, I can’t sleep. It takes time. It’s just something extra you’re doing. You need to get paid for that. If they don’t give me what I want - it’s not a lot - I’m just not going to play. And it’s not like I’m going to cry. I really just don’t care any more.”

As we’re talking, a man from the club walks through the stands distributing a full-colour magazine. Adriana holds up a copy. “This is the real club,” she says. “We use the shirts, but it’s not like… official.” The 12-page fanzine has stats, photographs, and editorials about the Sporting Cristal players; there’s even a pull-out poster. On the back of the last page, in with the advertisements, there’s a team picture of Fuerza Cristal. “Yeah,” Kiara sighs. “We’re not official from the club.”

The Fuerza Cristal women’s side finished their 2014 season in the champion spot. They still aren’t allowed to use the official club name, Sporting Cristal.

Although Lima’s JC Sport Girls play in the same league as Fuerza Cristal, this team makes a different first impression. When my translator Jimena and I walk onto their practice field in el Callao, the players are sitting in a circle reading the Bible. It makes me wonder if the JC in their name stands for Jesus Christ; it turns out I’m half right.

“In the beginning, it had to do with a man that supported us, Mr Jesús Canessa.” María Inés Ticona Acuña—known to her friends as Inés—is a club founder and, at 31 years old, semi-retired. She’s moved from her position on the defensive line to assisting as a teacher with the team. “It also coincided with the theme of ‘committed youth’—Juventud Comprometida.”

Ines

Inés came to the professional game fairly late, after learning at 17 years old that there was women’s football in the first division. She was talented and determined, and she got called up to Peru’s first U-19 team where she got the chance to play internationally. Though she loved the sport, she detected a lack of discipline in the players - a failing she saw as contributing to the poor reputation of the women’s game. For Inés, this was something she could resolve. “Being [a coach and teacher] is another responsibility. Not only making sure the girls play well but making sure they conduct themselves well. They are professionals. They not only have aspirations in the area of football but also to pursue a career, to pursue their studies, and maybe both things at once. If they really love football, they’re going to have to discipline themselves.”

One of the “girls” benefiting from Inés’ coaching is Amparo Chuquival Lizana, a 22-year-old midfielder for the JC Sport Girls and sometimes national team member. She knows first-hand what the stakes are and she takes her efforts seriously. “I think that for any girl that started out playing football in the street—and the majority of us started out playing in the street—to be told, ‘Hey, you’ve been called up to represent your country’… It’s like, wow, out of all the girls you were chosen to represent your country and go out and show that in Peru there are also girls that play like us!”

But her success comes with a social price. “I mean, who doesn’t suffer discrimination?” she asks. “Being a woman who plays football… [people who don’t know her say] ’Gee, you’re machona.’ They insult you.” Inés agrees. “They say that football is not for women.”

“I think if you ask each and every one of us, we’ve all been through that, but thank God little by little it’s decreasing,” Amparo adds. “Besides, we’re showing that we can also play and play well, maybe even better than the guys… Definitely better than the guys.”

There’s a famous quote by Scottish midfielder Bill Shankly. “Football is a matter of life and death, except more important,” he said. I ask Inés and Amparo what they think about this.

“More important than life? No. Let me tell you something,” Inés says. “Before I met God, football was my refuge. At that time my family wasn’t it, so football was my refuge. But the day I met God, the tiers changed. Now it’s God, family, football. In that order.”

“We can be fantastic football players, but if we’re not real people, if we don’t love God and we don’t love everyone else, well, we’re nothing,” Amparo adds. “I think that’s the loveliest thing you can have in a club.”

This piece first appeared on the now-defunct journalism site, Contributoria. It was also translated into Spanish and published on the Peruvian football site, Punto Izquierda.

Copyright © 2014 by Keph Senett. All rights reserved.