Leveling the Playing Field for Women: The Homeless World Cup

Photo credit: Alex Walker
Eliane and her teammates from Team Brazil at the 2016 Homeless World Cup. Photo credit: Alex Walker 

In spite of a growing global audience for women’s soccer and the recent successes and media attention garnered by the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, there are still millions across the world who are left behind. For most of the world of women and girls, football/soccer is still a new frontier full of obstacles ranging from financial, to societal and religious. The opportunity to play simply does not exist and the establishment has kept women out of the playing field for a long time. Yet, at the Homeless World Cup, where men and women are basically treated equally, some teams being co-ed (including 2nd place Brazil this year), the tournament itself based on inclusion, provides a natural breeding ground for women’s programs to thrive and make a mark in history.

The Homeless World Cup is a unique, pioneering social movement which uses football to inspire homeless people to change their own lives. Photo credit: Alex Walker
The Homeless World Cup is a unique, pioneering social movement which uses football to inspire homeless people to change their own lives. Photo credit: Alex Walker

One of the world’s oldest football cultures, Argentina, is a prime example. This year, the Homeless World Cup featured their first Argentinian women’s team. It did not bring a men’s team. Yet in their soccer-crazed nation, the women’s national team has been unheard from for most of the last two years and hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 2008 nor the Women’s World Cup since 2007.

“Until very recently, football was almost a forgotten thing for women in our country,” head coach Sergio Rotman reiterates. “For us as an institution, we see ‘Hecho Social Club’ as providing a strong example of equality and respect for women footballers. My players love to play football and have all the liberty in the world to do so. So for us that comes first, above anything else.”

Granted, the current issues in Argentina stem greatly from a failing federation across both men’s and women’s competitions, however, the cultural stigma is squarely in the women’s direction. The story is heard across the globe: women in soccer support the fight of the U.S. Women’s National team and, if they’re lucky enough to join the NWSL, they do so readily, because it really is the best opportunity to play that’s out there, and because for a world of women and girls, the U.S. sets the bar for equality. I’ve often been told, by both men and women in at least a dozen countries with thriving men’s leagues, that women can’t succeed in soccer in their countries because no one would support them. I’ve also heard from women who have been raised with that stigma, that it’s not a feminine sport like tennis or swimming. It extends from the layman to the top. The infamous statement from Confederation of Brazilian Football’s Marco Aurelio Cunha about focusing on a female footballer’s looks as a potential solution for the lack of public interest is a prime example of the cultural institutionalization of inequality. He’s still in charge by the way.

“Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on make-up. They go in the field in an elegant manner,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2015. “Now the shorts are a bit shorter, the hair styles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.”

In Brazil the ban for women to play the sport from 1941 was just lifted in 1979. In 1921 a Football Association rule in the U.K. banned women’s football for 50 years. The problems extend across the Middle East, through Asia and Africa. The issue is global, has hindered progress of the women’s game and has touched every girl at some point in her lifetime because it always indicates an inequality not just in sport, but also in the rest of her environment.

But all those comments and rules come from outside the world of the Homeless World Cup. And honestly, I think it’s because within that microsphere, where true exclusion and daily marginalization bombarded participants beforehand, where each person has had to fight for opportunity, they know there is no reason a woman or girl can’t play. And they know there are bigger problems to deal with than continuing to uphold walls that keep people out of being empowered by sport.

Pre-match vibes with Team Argentina. They went on to win the Women’s Plate minutes later. Video

“It’s difficult to put into words the sensation of playing for Argentina. There are so many people behind the scenes supporting us. It’s a beautiful feeling. It’s an experience I never thought I’d be able to live through.” – Jimena Rocio Salomon, team Argentina. Jimena and her teammates brought home the Women’s Plate, a mark of achievement that will hopefully help ensure more support for their program’s future.

It’s an incredible reality to know that what you put out on the pitch and off the pitch in your life experience is truly more important than what many leagues get bogged down with (appearance, marketing numbers, tv ratings, attendance). Although the Homeless World Cup reached well over 100,000 in live attendance, 2 million online viewers and more on STV, the heart of the game remains the betterment of people’s lives. Bring on the soccer and spirit and the crowd will follow.

*Please visit the Homeless World Cup for more information and more inspiring stories from Team Argentina and beyond.

Feature Photo and all other Brazil photos by Alex Walker – please do not use without permission.

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