SPAIN — Andrea Gómez beat the boys on the soccer field game after game, and by the end of the season, the goalkeeper and her teammates clinched the top spot in an otherwise all-male league.
It’s a rare achievement for a girls’ team in Spain to dominate the sport the way AEM Lleida has — and it could mark a turning point for gender equity in Spanish soccer.
For Andrea, upstaging the competition was simple.
“We felt like another rival, as if it was normal, because in fact, it is,” she said. “We were going to compete, and that’s it.”
The girls, ages 12 to 14, were crowned champions for the first time on March 31. They won 22 matches, and were so far ahead of their competition that they earned the title four games before the season ended, according to the team’s GoFundMe page.
“This achievement is the result of a bet that started in the club 8 seasons ago for women ‘s soccer and they have called us crazy a few times,” the fundraising page states. “I do not know if we’re crazy and mad, but what I do know is that the way here has not been easy: our players have reached the top through effort and sacrifice, like any other athlete. ”
The girls from AEM Lleida are in a local junior division league and have been playing against boys’ teams for three years — a decision made by their club after seeing their potential.
Overcoming the odds
In Spain, women’s soccer still has a long way to go to reach the impact it has in other countries. In the 2015-2016 season, more than 112,000 boys were enrolled to play, compared with fewer than 4,000 girls, according to the Spanish football federation.
Though the girls said their gender didn’t limit them, Andrea recalls enduring insults.
“There was a match in which a referee told us that we were ‘Barbies’ and that we could not play soccer. Or a mother who insulted us and told us that we had to go and clean,” she said.
The players say part of their success owes to their coach, who has believed in them and prepared them to beat their male rivals.
The game plan
“What we planned from the beginning with the girls is that if we wanted to beat the boys, we would have to have the ball much more than them because, in strength and speed, we cannot compete against them,” said Daniel Rodrigo, the team coach.
Rodrigo also had to convince some skeptical parents, but they finally decided to cheer their girls’ success.
And while the thought of girls competing with boys raised some adults’ eyebrows, their rivals often welcomed the competition.
La Noguera club was one of the hardest teams to beat last season, but the boys recognized that the girls of AEM Lleida won because they were superior.
“They fought more than us. We also worked hard, but they wanted to win the league, and they deserved it,” La Noguera player Alex López said.
And Rodrigo is betting on his team setting an example for future generations of female players.