Review of Futbolera

Elsey, Brenda and Nadel, Joshua. Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press. Pp. 271. Notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel have added an important volume to women’s sport history with Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America.

University of Texas Press, 2019.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Latin America, and the world, and is popular with both men and women. As is often the case, however, considerations of women playing the game, once thought to be the sole province of men, have been relatively sparse. There has been some work written in English, primarily regarding women soccer players in the Anglophone world, but little has been written on Latin America as a region. Elsey and Nadel have produced a fairly comprehensive survey of women playing the game, as well as other sports, there. Most of the consideration below will deal with women playing soccer, which makes up a large part of the work.

The narrative of Futbolera focuses primarily on Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, but also briefly ventures out into Central America, and other South American nations. Elsey and Nadel have delved deeply into press reports to uncover the scattered mentions of women’s soccer, and have also consulted government documents from the various countries to demonstrate how governments promoted women’s athletic activity as a means of nation building in the nineteenth century. That promotion went only so far, however, and once women moved from participating in sports that were seen as fitting for women to instead play soccer, they often faced resistance.

Many of the themes they identify, including the “authorities” promoting physical fitness, but not competition, for women; medical concerns about the strain of sports on reproductive health; and worries that women should not become too fit, less they appeared “mannish” or be accused of lesbianism, are familiar to historians of women’s sport. The authorities included the usual group of physical education professionals, both male and female, who dominated the educational systems of their nations. Those themes can also be seen in the United States, and in European nations.

What seems to be unique about Latin America is the extent to which national governments involved themselves in sport policy. Those governments also often included military dictatorships, and Brazil is perhaps one of the few nations to have women’s soccer banned by a military regime. Several football associations globally have banned women from taking the pitch, but in Brazil, it was the generals.

Futbolera is divided into five chapters. The first centered on Argentina and Chile, where eugenics inspired theories encouraged the governments to promote women’s physical health as a way of “bettering the race” (23). State actors saw the benefit of sport in making women more attractive and healthier, but promotion of playing games ended once women reached child bearing age. Nevertheless, women’s soccer teams played their first recognized games in Buenos Aires in 1923, and participation increased as industries sponsored teams in the 1930s, which allowed working-class women the chance to compete. In the 1950s, after having some press support, the soccer press turned on the women in both countries, and this truncated the public’s knowledge of the game in those countries. Women still played, and Argentina sent a national team to Mexico City for the second women’s world championship in 1971, but mostly they did so out of public sight.

The next two chapters deal with Brazil, and the eventual governmental ban of women’s soccer. The first recorded game occurred in São Paulo in 1921. The 1941 ban on women’s soccer was apparently triggered by José Fuzeira, a “concerned citizen,” who wrote a letter to the Brazilian minister of education. When the letter reached Dictator Getúlio Vargas, he passed it along to his government’s national sports council which prohibited women from playing several sports, including soccer. The reason stated for the ban was because the activities prohibited for women were “violent sports and not adaptable to the female body” (100). The following chapter made it clear that despite the ban, which suppressed the growth of the women’s game, women continued to play soccer. The government finally officially lifted the ban in 1983, but their sports council had begun allowing teams in 1971.

The final chapters focus on Mexico, beginning with a discussion of how the Mexican government not only promoted women’s fitness in the nineteenth century for the same reasons that other nations did, but also believed that the spread of sports for males and females would help the government struggle against “fanaticism and religious prejudice” (160). Organized clubs did not appear until the 1960s, but Mexican women’s soccer received a boost around the world championship that was held in Mexico City in 1971, when perhaps eighty thousand watched Mexico defeat Argentina 3-1 at Azteca Stadium. At the moment of their triumph, however, some players demanded to be paid for their play, and that turned public opinion against women’s soccer. The controversy and the Mexican sport federation withdrawal of support for women’s soccer meant that few fans saw the women play, and they had difficulty finding venues in any case.

Soccer is not the only sport considered, and the authors include some discussion of basketball and athletics as well. One of the more entertaining sections dealt with women in Costa Rica. Soccer was not considered a feminine sport, and many of the players had to be tricked by their friends, who invited them to play basketball, but brought them to soccer training. Others lied to their parents, telling them they were playing basketball, when they were actually playing soccer (174).

The current environment for women’s soccer in Latin America has begun to expand, but women’s national teams in several nations are still hampered by a lack of support from national federations. The spread of social media has given the women’s teams and athletes new tools to broadcast or spread word of their games and to recruit new players.

The history of women’s soccer in the nations considered in Futbolera makes an interesting read, even for those, including me, that are not soccer fans. Particularly interesting for someone who has mostly dealt with U.S. sport, is the role that governments have played in promoting sports in Latin America. Those governments had various motives, including interest in eugenics and nationalism, or to further the revolution in Mexico. In Costa Rica, where the government debated the issue, but decided to let women play without interference, the sport grew more rapidly. More discussion of the nations where the heavy hand of government or national federations did not hinder women’s soccer would be a story to expand upon. It also would be interesting to read the same histories from the perspective of private efforts to spread women’s soccer.

Futbolera is an eminently readable work and should be considered both by academics and soccer fans. Elsey and Nadel wrote in their introduction that “History telling can confer legitimacy on its subjects,” (2) and in their work, the have done a fine job of providing that service to the women who struggled against considerable odds to play the game they loved.

Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a history of women playing tackle football in the U.S. and around the world. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963 was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

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