Ecuador may have qualified to its first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015, but women’s football is still in the early development stage. This was made clear by Ecuador’s results in Canada, having finished last in its group with 0 points and a -16 goal difference. Nonetheless, this was a great learning experience for the players, the coaches and everyone who is a fan of women’s football in Ecuador.
Not to mention that a boom in popularity of the sport emerged from this experience. There are clubs with a solid background in women’s football, and the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) needs to recognize, promote and support such clubs for the sport to truly grow, before the momentum is lost.
Espuce is a club with both men’s and women’s teams but, unlike most football clubs in the country, their women’s side play at a higher division than the men – and it’s also a lot more popular. With over 10 years of experience, both national and international, Espuce has established itself as one of the best women’s football clubs in the country. Since 2013, when the National Tournament began, Espuce has been one of the top four teams, winning the first phase in 2014 and thus earning a spot in the 2015 Copa Libertadores Femenina.
Neither success or popularity have come easy. The women’s side plays in the top division of women’s football in Ecuador. None of the players, coaches and staff who have been part of the team have ever received a financial compensation for their time and effort. The current coach, Mauricio Garcia, has been there since the club’s creation and does his job purely out of love of the sport and the club. The rest of the coaching staff is composed of former players of the men’s side, who’ve now earned their coaching licenses and donate their knowledge and time to the team.
Espuce, founded in 2005, was formed by former professional footballers and students who wanted to find a space to practice the sport they love. Many of the founding players of the club are still associated with the team, whether as coaches or as sponsors. Unlike many other clubs, who are supported by universities or owned by private companies, Espuce is an independent club run by its own members. Espuce, on its own, does not generate enough income as it needs – or any income, in fact. But the budget for operating costs alone is $35,000 per year. The support of those with a direct connection with the club is the reason it has managed to survive for 11 years. But it’s still not easy.
The team trains three times a week in the evenings, the only time most of the players are available, after work is over and the younger ones are done with school. With their commitments and responsibilities outside football, training on a daily basis is nearly impossible. 11 years after the club’s foundation, Espuce doesn’t own a training ground, so practice takes place on public football pitches in a local park. This is one of the few places in Quito where the pitches are both free to use and have decent lighting for evening trainings.
When injuries occur the players have to seek private treatment; in Ecuador, state health care is not as effective as in other first world countries. To be back on the pitch as quickly as possible, players must pay for private care. If they can’t afford it, the club finds ways to help them. This might mean queuing for hours in the morning to get an appointment at the state sports health center, or each member of the team making a financial contribution to a general fund. This last year the club partnered with a sport consultancy center owned by a former player, which provides a kinesiologist and a doctor for free at every official match. This is a great step forward, but injuries that occur during training, or ones that require treatment, are still not covered.
The lack of funds and resources certainly makes things more difficult for Espuce, but the perseverance and dedication of those associated with the club means it manages to thrive. The players and staff leave behind family and sacrifice friends and their social lives, amongst other things, for the club. The members of Espuce, each of whom contributes in some way or another, on or off the pitch, get to feel part of the club’s on-the-field success. Everyone hopes that soon this success will catch the media’s attention, bringing support from private and government entities.
Espuce is not content, however. After participating in the 2015 Copa Libertadores revealed the disparity between their team and clubs from elsewhere in South America, former and current players decided to create a commission in order to find ways to create funding for the team. The plans include marketing, promotion, and sponsorship of the team. In addition, the club is working on a strategic plan to establish greater organisation and clearer goals – everything from finding a regular space for training to promoting its players internationally.
If the FEF won’t support women’s football, Espuce will wait any longer. But despite the efforts Espuce and other clubs are making to take women’s football to the next level, it’s unlikely women’s football in Ecuador will continue to progress if the FEF does not help. The association received approximately $2 million for Ecuador’s participation in the 2015 World Cup; each of the 23 players were given $2000, but the remainder has certainly not been used to promote or develop women’s football. It’s unknown where the money is or what it was used for.
CONFA (Comisión Nacional de Fútbol Amateur), under the FEF umbrella, organizes and finances the women’s tournament. Without sponsors, CONFA is entirely dependent on FEF’s goodwill to ensure the tournament keeps running – in 2016, it was delayed for six months while the FEF withheld funds. Whether the tournament will continue is uncertain, as there’s no obligation for the FEF to make resources available, nor is there an alternate flow of income to guarantee its existence.
Meanwhile other countries have taken advantage of the popularity boom resulting from the 2015 World Cup. Colombia, for instance, recently created a private professional football league recognised by the Colombia FA. There’s also enough in the women’s national team budget to allow them to travel internationally for friendly matches, which gives them better preparation for official tournaments. Mexico, too, has announced a plan to form a women’s team, hoping it will help their national team find greater success.
Ecuador, on the other hand, has not capitalized on the increased interest in women’s soccer. If the FA does not take advantage soon, it will take years – possibly decades – for women’s football in Ecuador to reach the next level.