Brazilian soccer: No girls allowed?

Soccer may be hugely popular in Brazil, but the girls and women who want to play have largely been left on the sidelines.

Whitney Eulich/The Christian Science Monitor
Teens from the under-17 elite Centro Olímpico de Treinamento e Pesquisa soccer team in São Paulo stretch before practice. There are far fewer opportunities for young girls to play club soccer in Brazil than for boys.

Scores of young women wearing purple mesh jerseys and black shorts lay sprawled out on wide concrete bleachers here, stretching. A handful of men and women in white lab coats walk through the maze of bodies, periodically leaning over to help deepen a stretch.

In Brazil, where soccer is referred to as religion, it comes as little surprise that youth players would have resources like team trainers and matching practice uniforms.

But these girls are the select few, says coach Jonas Urias. He estimates in this country of nearly 200 million that there are about 10 elite soccer clubs for girls under 17. He loses count for boys, but estimates it’s closer to 150 teams at the same level.

Brazil has kicked holes in its glass ceiling in recent years – electing its first female president in 2010 and naming a women to lead Latin America’s largest firm, Brazil’s Petrobras, in 2012. But when it comes to the South American nation’s most famous pastime, women have largely been left on the sidelines.

“It’s not that Brazilians think women shouldn’t play sports,” says James Green, a professor of Brazilian history at Brown University. “It’s that they don’t think soccer is the appropriate sport…. It’s the man’s domain.”

Millions of fans are traveling across Brazil to cheer their teams in the World Cup this summer, and part of the excitement comes from doing so in a nation where soccer is king. There are entire institutions – like São Paulo’s Football Museum – devoted to exploring the sport’s history. The two-story space that sprawls out underneath the bleachers at Pernambuco stadium touches on everything from how Brazilian crowds sound cheering in different stadiums to a church-like setting that lists the country’s most famous players. Tucked near the museum’s exit is a single panel on women’s play.

Some stereotypes are familiar. Folks here say men are faster, more powerful, can kick further, and just generally put on a better show. But there’s also the idea that women playing soccer is simply unnatural.

“It’s disgusting,” Juliana Maria Castilho de Sousa, a waitress browsing World Cup soccer jerseys at an outdoor market in Rio de Janeiro, says of women’s soccer. “It goes against what it means to be a woman.”

History may have helped solidify this idea: From 1941 to 1979 Brazilian females were legally banned from playing professionally or recreationally. The game was considered “incompatible” with the female nature.

'They can play soccer very well'

An estimated 400,000 girls play soccer in Brazil (compared to about 13 million in the US). Pay for female professional players is meager, starting close to minimum wage, and a fraction of what young male pros make. Sponsorship levels are low, which means games are rarely aired on TV; and stands sit near-empty on game days.

Mr. Urias says were his girls' team made up of boys with the same skill level – 50 percent of his teenage roster has played on the national team at least once – there would be nearly 2,000 fans at every game. Instead, the average is about 20.

“I feel less valued, less worthy than boy players,” says 16-year-old Julia Kuboi, who wears braces and has a dark ponytail stretching halfway down her back. She plays on Urias’ team at São Paulo’s Centro Olímpico de Treinamento e Pesquisa (COPT). “Eventually, I want to leave Brazil and play in the US.”

It’s a pity, says Urias, who has been coaching women’s soccer since 2010. He understands why fans aren’t interested, but says they may not realize what they’re missing.

"My perception of women players has changed. These girls taught me they can play soccer very well,” says Urias. He suggests female soccer could attract more fans if the game was adjusted so that the field was shorter and goals were smaller. “All sports are modified for girls, except for soccer,” he says.

Soccer equality in Brazil is 'wrong idea'

Players say they can face discrimination and name-calling – sometimes referred to as “big shoes,” a euphemism for being a lesbian. But some of the toughest criticism comes from within their own families.

“In the beginning I was playing to prove my dad wrong – to show him that I could make it,” Julia says. “I never had any big role models or inspiration. Soccer is something I fell in love with on my own.”

Azania Barbosa, who recently started playing for the COPT professional women's team, says the sport offered her opportunities she never would have had otherwise. She just returned from the US where she played and studied on a soccer scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University.

But for girls in Brazil, finding a way into the game can be a challenge. Ms. Barbosa started playing “seriously” when she was 13, and soon after her team folded due to lack of funding. “I can’t imagine how much harder it is for people who don’t live in a big city to find ways to play on a team,” she says.

After years of playing in both Brazil and the US, Barbosa says she thinks focusing on the idea of equality in Brazilian soccer may be a waste of time.

"I think about that idea that soccer is a 'man's game' a lot. I wonder what can we do to better the situation for women players," says Barbosa, clad in her green uniform and flip-flops after practice.

"My conclusion is, we can't think of the two as the same. It's the wrong idea to try to strive to get to an equal point. Women's soccer will never be men's [soccer] in Brazil. We have to try to be something else ... almost as if we were playing a different sport."

She dreams of playing on the national team, competing in the Olympics or World Cup, but says she often toys with the idea of just going back overseas, where the pay – and respect – is better.

"Maybe my perspective is different after living abroad. I've been in a world where everyone had access [to soccer]," she says.

Whitney Eulich reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

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