Friday 08 February 2019, 20:13

Breaking barriers at the age of eight

  • Candelaria Cabrera's story a landmark in Argentinian women’s football

  • Eight-year-old had been told she could no longer play in a team of boys

  • League rules changed after lobbying by family and Argentinian women players

- Maaaaaaaa!... How much longer before we go to football?

Candelaria Cabrera’s pestering is music to the ears of her mother Rosana, even if on this occasion the interruption comes when she is chatting with

"Club training resumes today so she set the alarm to make sure she wasn’t late," says Rosana, who is still thrilled her daughter’s quest to play football has had the desired ending.

Eight-year-old Candelaria plays for Huracan in Chabas, a town of some 9,000 inhabitants in the province of Santa Fe, but is the only girl among hundreds of children competing in the Casildense League.

Back in July 2018, the club coordinator gave Rosana unexpected news: Candelaria, who has been at Huracan since 2016, was not going to be able to continue playing with her team-mates.

"With clubs increasingly looking for younger players, a while back the minimum age a player could sign for a club was reduced from 12 to 8. It has to do with training rights," Rosana explains.

"'Cande'" was seven and so was approaching the age when she could sign, but she was prevented from doing so because there were no girls’ teams in the league. As she couldn’t continue playing with the boys either, she was in limbo. She could keep training but couldn’t play."

Understandably, breaking the news to her was very hard. "She cried and cried when we told her. ‘Why are they so mean? Did I do something wrong?’ she asked us. She was inconsolable.”

Candelaria’s love for football is “very strong”, says Rosana. "I’m not a big football fan myself, but I’ve always followed Independiente. She took after her dad and became a Boca Juniors fan, and a football was always her favourite toy."

So enamoured was she with football, that when her parents brought her to girl’s hockey at Huracan, she was more interested in checking out the nearby football pitch. "One day we were all in the town square, and next thing we knew, Cande was playing ball with some other young boys she’d never met before."

And so it was then that Rosana decided to bring her to football training. "She was only five and I was fearful she’d get knocked around. I also worried they might not respect her or might tease her. I was even told by some mothers: ‘You shouldn’t bring her; she’ll get a name for herself, as if it were something bad."

In spite of everything, Cande was soon happily playing at left-back and never afraid to get on the ball. Nor was she intimidated by her opponents or the remarks she often heard. "Parents of opposition players would say things like ‘you can’t lose to a team with a girl in it’ or ‘how could you let a girl take the ball off you’ – that kind of thing. There were also plenty of words of support," says Rosana.

The young player prefers to watch videos of Carlos Tevez than Lionel Messi and has already shown herself capable of a little gamesmanship. "One day she got hit hard in the face by a ball and showed no signs of getting up. I went over to the fence and asked her if she was ok. ‘I’m just wasting time’, she replied. I didn’t know whether to get mad at her or laugh.”

Faced with the bad news last year, Rosana knew that doing nothing was not an option, so she began exploring some possibilities. One of the avenues for her frustration was Facebook, never imagining that it would generate such a reaction in the media and eventually involve some of the players from Argentina’s national women’s team.

"The first to write was team captain Estefania Banini from the USA. Then Ruth Bravo got in touch and later the Boca women’s team. Both those players recounted their own stories, which had a lot in common with Cande’s. They all said the same thing, which was not to give up. Those letters are now among her most treasured possessions."

The momentum was such that Bravo, along with others such as Belen Potassa, a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ participant in 2011 and current Albiceleste striker, came all the way to Chabas to give a clinic at Huracan. "Some of Cande’s team-mates at the club told her they didn’t even know Argentina had a women’s national team," Rosana reveals.

Candelaria, who turned eight last September, was given permission to play until the end of the year, when there was a meeting of the Casildense League to discuss her case. That in turn would lead to significant changes to the league, as Rosana explains. "They created a women’s football department, agreed there should be no gender distinction until 11 and that clubs would be able to register all-girls teams from the age of 12. We’ll have to see how it goes, but it can be a catalyst for more changes."

How did Candelaria react to the news? “The first thing she did was to convince her six-year-old sister to start playing. Now she is wondering what we’ll do when she goes to Boca," says Rosana with a laugh.

The last word goes to Cande, who can be heard shouting in the background: "Maaaaaa!... Where did you leave my boots?"