The fifth game. Since I was born, this has been the first and ultimate thought of every Mexican when the words “World Cup” are muttered. Prior to the start of Russia 2018, the country was not even convinced that Mexico would make it past the group stage, where they face Germany, South Korea, and Sweden. Despite the doubts, the dream of reaching the elusive fifth game (the quarterfinals) had remained alive … until El Tri faced Brazil.
Although the men’s national team makes three million USD per year, the professional league has the tenth-highest earnings in domestic football, and two players, Hugo Sánchez and Chicharito, have played for the most triumphant team of the UEFA Champions League (Real Madrid), Mexico has failed to ever win the fifth game, and has never reached the semifinals in the men’s World Cup with no age limit. The last time Mexico made it to the fifth game was in 1986, when the country played host, and lost against Germany. For the next 36 years, nine straight World Cups, Mexico hasn’t seen the quarterfinals. This means that Mexico has failed to be one of the top eight teams in the world for three decades, practically irrelevant in football recent history. In a country where the men’s professional league is one of the biggest businesses, and with a club, Chivas, that has the second highest number of fans in the world, just after Flamengo in Brazil, it is painful to admit that Mexico, the “giant” of CONCACAF, is a dwarf on the giant global stage.
The silence of the lambs is enormous once you realize it exists in a world historically dominated by wolves
The silence of the lambs is enormous once you realize it exists in a world historically dominated by wolves
Yet the annals of Mexican fútbol history contain a glorious story about the national team. Perhaps you’ve never heard it; honestly, it was only a few months ago that I learned about it. Maybe because it is the story of the 1971 women’s national team, and until recently women were shut out from Mexico’s abstract imagery of football, a fantastical yet real world historically dominated by men. The deepest wounds caused by gender inequality are made not when a woman is considered a priori as unable to do something, but when a woman is able to do something, yet doomed to intentional non-recognition and oblivion.
Charlotte Whitton, the first woman mayor of Ottawa, said, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” I don’t quite agree with the last part, but I get it: it is not that hard for women to do things well. However, it is extremely hard for society, as a whole, to recognize this. Consequently, throughout history it has been harder for women to be viewed as important characters who deserve to be remembered. It seems as if women’s actions were not worthy to be seen (by anyone). If something is not seen, then it is not talked about. If something is not talked about, it doesn’t transcend its own particular happening, gets lost as time passes by, and it never makes it into our collective or social memory. The silence of the lambs is enormous once you realize it exists in a world historically dominated by wolves. As you may (not) know, Mexico was the host of the 1970 men’s World Cup. As usual, Mexico made it through the group stage—they were actually undefeated— but lost 4-1 in the quarterfinals to Italy. This doesn’t count as that elusive “fifth game”, because in 1970 there were only 16 teams. That same year, the first women’s World Cup took place in Italy. As it was not recognized by FIFA as an official event, this was an amateur tournament. However, the Mexican women’s team, the only team representing the American continent, clinched third place. Despite living the information era, reality is, there is not much information out there about this World Cup. What has just been written was taken out of an article of El Universal, the oldest Mexican newspaper currently in circulation, but it is not enough to gain a true insight about this tournament, the first worldwide incursion for women in the football realm. Besides, the article focuses mainly on the 1971 women’s World Cup, which took place in Mexico City and Jalisco. Perhaps there are sources in Italy that could fill in the details of the 1970 women’s World Cup?
That 1971 World Cup hosted by Mexico was once again neither recognized nor organized by FIFA. As such, there were just six teams divided in two groups. The teams of Group A were Mexico, Argentina, and England, while Denmark, France, and Italy made up Group B. Mexico began with a 3-1 win over Argentina, with goals from María Eugenia “La Peque” Rubio and Patricia Hernández. Our men’s team has lost against Argentina three times: in 1930, 2006, and 2010. Actually, in 2006 and 2010, Argentina eliminated Mexico in the fourth game; in 2006 they did it in overtime, with one of the greatest goals in the history of the World Cup. Yes, Maxi Rodriguez, the executioner, is still remembered as a national enemy.
The women next faced England, an easy one for them with a final score of 4-0. Our gentlemen have only played once against England, in the 1966 World Cup, and they lost 2-0. It was on to the semifinals against Italy, a tough game, but the 2-1 win (Mexico’s men have never beaten Italy in a World Cup) took them to the finals against Denmark, the 1970 champions. Unfortunately, the 1971 Diosa Alada trophy went to the Danes, and Mexico ended up second place. The stage for this final game was the Azteca Stadium, where according to the journalist Pablo Ares Geraldes, 110,000 people gathered to watch the game. That number may provoke skepticism, but this video, showing a packed stadium, makes it believable. Officially, the women’s game that attracted the most fans is the 1999 World Cup final between host United States and China, which drew 90,185 people to the Rose Bowl. The Azteca numbers are not counted, because it was not until 1991 that FIFA began to organize the women’s World Cup.
Despite Mexico being one of the countries that consume football the most, I could find very few details to add to this brief overview of the 1971 team. This moment of history, second place in a World Cup at the Azteca, is practically unknown and almost always ignored. It is true that getting to the finals was easier for women, because with only six teams competing, they only needed to win three games. However, they defeated teams that historically and statistically have crushed the Mexican men’s squad, and played yes, a small World Cup final, yet, it was a World Cup final. And almost no one in Mexico knows about it. Why? Just because they are women.
Mexico men’s team has never been among the top six teams of the world, yet we know everything about them. On the other hand, the women’s final game in the Azteca is unknown to the majority of Mexicans. It looks like women are doomed to be ignored and forgotten—literally.
Is this intentional? It is frightening to say it is. However, Alicia “La Pelé” Vargas —yes, she was named after Pelé, who had just won the World Cup in Mexico a year before— a key player for Mexico in 1971, argues that the Mexican Football Association (FMF) did ignore them and women’s football. Perhaps not out of malice, but in the end, the FMF carelessly closed its eyes and did nothing to help women to keep playing football competitively in Mexico.
The first bad omen loomed just before the final against the Danes. As Claudia Pedraza, a journalist specializing in gender issues, the Mexican team “dared” to do something “unthinkable”: they asked for a wage. La Pelé Vargas recalls asking for a million pesos for the whole team, including their coach—which amounted to something like $3 per person. Given the fee for tickets, that the team had a sponsor, and that the games were covered widely and prompted a huge response from the fans, who stacked the stadiums in Mexico City and Jalisco, they thought it was fair to ask for some money. Keep in mind, these women were not even reimbursed for their bus tickets to and from the stadium. However, the press branded them as “greedy”, and the FMF argued that they couldn’t get paid at all because they were technically amateur players. In response, the women threatened not to play the final. But their coach, as well as Octavio Sentíes, Mexico City’s governor, convinced them to play. The tickets for the final at the Azteca had already been sold.
In the end, each was paid 21,000 pesos, which is equivalent to approximately 1 USD in today’s money. Famous actresses and singers of the time, like Carmen Salinas, Susana Alexander, Verónica Castro and Cristina Rubiales, raised money for them, and Jaime Haro, a football promoter, gave them allowances of 11,000 pesos. After the 1971 World Cup, players like La Pelé Vargas rejected offers to play in Europe, waiting patiently for the FMF to create a Mexican women’s professional football league. But such a project was never carried out. The mass media urged the FMF to invest in a professional football league for women, but despite acknowledging that there were nearly 20,000 women amateur players, the FMF disregarded the pleads and did nothing. In La Pelé’s words, the women’s national team performance in 1971 was so “unexpected” that the FMF didn’t know what to do about it. There was talent in Mexico, but the FMF “didn’t care.”
So by 1991, when FIFA finally organized an “official” women’s World Cup in China, Mexico was not even able to qualify. Given that a professional league was never made, and that the carelessness of the FMF had ensured there was no training up of a women’s national team, there were few younger women playing football, and certainly not a coordinated team. The FMF improvised a Mexican team with some of the 1971 players. But now in their forties and just playing occasionally on the weekends, these silver ladies couldn’t be expected to be competitive.
These players thought that maybe, given the fact that now the 1991 World Cup was an official FIFA event, the FMF would now make professional football a reality for women. But again, investing in women was not a priority for the FMF. With no money, the 1991 team had to train in the Alameda Central, a public park in Mexico City’s downtown with no football pitch. With no real interest in them, women in the team came and left. It’s little wonder they were a “mess” at the qualifiers in Haiti, not making it to the first ever official women’s World Cup. That silver team of 1971 was gone, and only those who got to watch them had a clue they existed.
After the 1991 failure, the FMF started to invest more in the national women’s football team. Some years later, Leonardo Cuellar, once a football player at Pumas and in the men’s national side, became the women’s national coach. In his nearly two decades of coaching, neither the senior Mexico women’s national team nor its younger counterparts accomplished much. The farthest they got was the quarterfinals, and that was the U-20 squad. But given that the women’s World Cups are smaller, with only 16 teams, playing the quarterfinals requires only making it past the group stage. As for the senior side, in four FIFA women’s World Cups, they haven’t been able to win a single game.
This is not surprising considering there was no women’s professional league and no real interest in supporting women’s football in Mexico (Cuellar’s teams were made up mainly of Mexican-American players who played in the NWSL or the NCAA). Taking 1971 as our point of departure, it took 46 years to the FMF to create its first women’s professional league. Yes, only last year was the Liga MX Femenil born. I would love to say that this league was created because the FMF really wanted women to play football professionally in Mexico. The reality is a women’s professional league is required if the men’s clubs intended to play the Copa Libertadores. Each South American country that participates in this Cup has had a women’s professional league since at least 2009. In addition, a women’s pro league in Mexico was thought useful in helping the North American bid compete to host the 2026 World Cup. And sure enough, Mexico, Canada, and the United States will now put on the tournament.
Therefore, it can be argued that women’s football in Mexico doesn’t still stand for itself. It depends on the men’s football clubs, on the men’s national team, on the federation’s interests. Yet World Cup football and professional football are finally a reality for Mexican women. After just one season of play, the Liga MX Femenil has made clear three things that should have been evident since 1971: 1) There’s talent in Mexico, 2) Women are able to draw huge crowds to the stadiums, and 3) The FMF is reluctant to pay women for playing football. For the first time in history, Mexico won the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship, the region’s qualifying tournament for the U-20 World Cup, and this time the team was made up mainly of players in the pro league. In fact, Miriam García, from Chivas, took home the Golden Ball. In May, the final game of the season between Tigres and Rayadas drew the largest crowd (51,200 people) in women’s club history. Nevertheless, asking clubs to raise wages for women playing in this league is still daunting. The average pay last year was 3000 pesos or roughly 150 USD a month, barely more than minimum wage—and Mexico is the OECD country with the lowest minimum wage. Although the league has proven itself capable of drawing many fans, and has seen games with higher TV ratings than some of the men’s Copa games, it still unknown how much wages are going to improve.
Pioneering is definitely a tough task, and success does not come quickly. Women in Mexico are starting to write their own history in professional football. But they are still silent lambs in a world systematically dominated by wolves. By talking about the women’s overlooked past, cheering on their present-day players, and advocating for better future wages, this bleat could become a howl.