Women fight inequality in soccer

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BUENOS AIRES — In a country where the soccer conversation is overwhelmingly dominated by talk of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, female players in Argentina struggle to be heard.

We live in a soccer-mad country but with a lot of machismo

That’s changing rapidly, however, and it’s partly because of a picture that was widely shared on social media.

The photo, taken in April before a Women’s Copa America match in Chile, showed the Argentine players with their hands cupped behind their right ears, a sign of protest highlighting that no one was listening to them. It took social media to spread the message because the traditional media, including Argentina’s top TV channels and newspapers, didn’t even cover the continental championship.

“We live in a soccer-mad country but with a lot of machismo,” Argentina forward Belen Potassa said at the national team’s training grounds on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

“Soccer is Messi, (Gonzalo) Higuain, (Diego) Maradona and no one else.”

While those players are adored and even idolized, the women’s team has been sidelined — just like in other countries around the world.

The Argentine soccer federation often is late in paying travel expenses while the players have routinely faced the prejudices of a chauvinistic society that sees soccer as a men’s only game.

Still, the long-disadvantaged team of women may be on the verge of a game changer by defying long-established gender inequalities and proving themselves on and off the field.

By finishing third at the Copa America, the team in the light blue-and-white striped shirts earned a place in the playoffs for this year’s Women’s World Cup in France. Argentina will play Panama on Thursday for a spot in the 24-team tournament. For the first time in the country’s women’s soccer history, the game will be played at a sold out stadium in Buenos Aires.

Another major achievement came in practice.

The women’s team was recently allowed to train at the same complex where Messi and the rest of the men’s team prepare for games, grounds that until recently were reserved for men only.

“Women fight since they’re born because we don’t have the same rights as men. But in sports the sacrifice is twice as tough. They don’t pay you, the clothes are not the same, the sponsors are not the same,” said Potassa, who recently signed a contract with a well-known sports brand that supplies her with boots and clothing.

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