At age seven, Candelaria Cabrera goes after the ball with determination. She drives toward her rivals without caring much about getting hurt and deftly manages the bumps on the dirt field.
She wears a loose white jersey from Huracán de Chabás, her hometown, located 230 miles (370 kilometres) north of the capital, Buenos Aires.
Printed on the back and on her red shorts is a number four. She uses white boots and shin guards. Her long, copper-coloured hair tied in a ponytail distinguishes her from the rest of the players.
“Cande,” as she is known by friends and family, is the only girl playing in a children’s football league in the southern part of Santa Fe province, birthplace of stars including Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta and Jorge Valdano. Former national team coaches Marcelo Bielsa, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino and Jorge Sampaoli were also born there.
But a regional regulation that prohibits mixed-gender teams in children’s categories threatens to send her off the pitch — a ruling that has helped dramatise the inequality in opportunities for men and women in this football-crazed county.
“I had to sit down with her and tell her that there are some people who have to make rules in football and that these rules do not agree with what she wants,” said Rosana Noriega, Candelaria’s mother. “And, well, we both cried, and she said: ‘The people who make the laws are bad people.’”
She was three-years old when her parents gave her her first ball.
They understood that it didn’t make sense to insist she play with dolls, even if there were “comments from other mums that they should not give her male toys because it would encourage her to be a lesbian,” Noriega recalled.
Two months ago, the regional football authorities notified Huracán that the team could no longer include Candelaria. She could only play on a girls’ team — which does not exist where Candelaria lives.
Noriega took to social media to speak out about her daughter’s case and was surprised to find that she was not the only one. Girls wrote to her saying they were facing the same problem in nearby towns and more distant provinces.
Of the 230 regional leagues recognised by the Argentine Football Association, only 68 have women’s teams. This is just one of the many disparities with men’s football.
The most notable is financial: the best-paid contract in men’s first division is around US$3 million a year. In contrast, women who play in their top category receive a travel voucher of US$44.
Argentina’s female players, who will play in a November run-off game for the 2019 World Cup, have struggled financially when their payments were delayed. They also expressed discomfort when Adidas, the brand that sponsors a few members of the national teams of both genders, unveiled the new shirt for the Female America Cup this year with models rather than players.
“The biggest lack is that they don’t have younger players. They start playing at age 16, 17 and by then they’ve missed out on a bunch of issues that have to do with understanding the game,” said Ricardo Pinela, president of the Argentina Football Association’s (AFA) Women’s Football Commission.
“The important thing is that every club in every corner of the country gives a girl the possibility of joining a female football team, to play with other girls, even if it’s just for fun, and from there generate the necessary structure that ... sets them on equal standing as the male players”, he argued.
After Candelaria’s case became widely publicised, her regional league committed to reviewing the rule in an assembly at the end of the year — leaving her case in limbo until then.
While she’s officially now banned, the team has let her keep playing — at least until an opponent objects.
Candelaria’s most recent match ended with her team beating rival Club Atlético Alumni de Casilda 7-0.
“No-one should say that a girl can’t play football,” she said.