Giving new meaning to the phrase “goals”, a girls’ football team in Spain has made headlines by coming top of the league – a league which, until recently, was open only to boys.
AEM Lleida, an amateur club based in Lleida, around 100 miles west of Barcelona, has coached girls’ football for almost ten years. Their under-14s team has now won a junior regional league, defeating no less than 13 rival boys’ teams in the process.
The New York Times reports that the league in question had been filled exclusively by male teams until 2014. It was then that officials at AEM decided that their girls, who had consistently bested other girls’ teams in the area, were ready to take on the boys.
In entering AEM into the boys’ league, the club took advantage of a Spanish football federation rule which allows boys and girls to play against each other (including in mixed teams) until they are 14.
AEM president Sergio González says that the decision to enter the girls into the boys’ league wasn’t an easy one, despite their obvious talent on the pitch. “A few parents called us crazy when we registered the team,” he tells the Times. “If this had gone very wrong, we would have been held responsible for humiliating the girls.”
Ana Maria Biela, whose daughter Cristina is on the AEM team, admits that she initially had reservations about allowing her daughter to play against boys.
“I delayed as long as possible because I was afraid that she would get hurt by the boys,” Biela says. “She kept answering that she could also hurt boys.”
The girls did not immediately ascend to the number one spot: they suffered several gruelling defeats, and finished 12th out of 18 teams in their first season. But talent, determination and sheer hard work eventually prevailed.
“I always try to show that soccer isn’t just for boys,” says Andrea Gómez, AEM’s 13-year-old captain and star striker. “If you’re technically better, you can compensate for being perhaps physically weaker.”
AEM’s final match of their winning season came when they defeated a boys’ team from local club La Noguera. Pere Clarisó, technical director of La Noguera, agrees with Gómez that the girls’ discipline and technical prowess sets them apart from other amateur teams.
“Tactically, you can see that these girls listen to every word from their coach,” he says. “They really try to do as they’re told.”
Unsurprisingly, the girls have had to endure more than their fair share of prejudice. AEM coach Daniel Rodrigo cites an incident when a referee asked him if his team was on the wrong field, and another match where a different referee upset the AEM players by repeatedly calling them “las princesas” (the princesses).
Perhaps less predictably, the AEM team – who, it’s worth repeating, are all girls under the age of 14 – have also faced hostility from adult women.
“It’s strange, but most of the macho comments and insults [during matches] have come from the mothers of some of the boys we play,” says José María Salmerón, the club’s general director.
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The boys themselves, however, seem remarkably philosophical about being beaten. “It’s hard to lose against girls,” says La Noguera player Oriol Marchal. “But these ones really are very good.”
And AEM’s success has proved inspiring. So many girls have now joined that the club’s membership is now more than 25% female – the largest ratio in the region. Officials say that they plan to use the season’s success to start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the girls’ coaching programme, which receives little support from the Spanish football federation.
Ana Maria Biela, the mother who once worried about her daughter playing against boys, says she couldn’t be prouder of the AEM girls.
“They are young,” she says. “They aren’t perhaps aware that they’ve done something quite extraordinary.”
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