Four years ago my husband got invited to join a football group for amateurs. He doesn’t like sports and he particularly hates football. He “sent” me instead.
I started playing indoor football when I was seven years old as an extra-curriculum activity I didn’t choose. My sister wanted to join and I didn’t like the idea of being alone with my parents. Of all things I didn’t get to choose in my childhood (there is a lot of them), this one actually turned out to be good later in life.
I learned the basics of football in a very small team of girls and women of all ages. For a long time and due to a lack of younger players, I had to play against senior women. Much older and much bigger than me. I could say I got used to being the weakest, at least, in terms of physical strength.
I was a very well-behaved kid that did everything I was told to do (because life is a bitch and control is our mom’s favourite thing). Anyway, it made me a fast learner. I wanted to be liked and I soon managed to be an average player so the coach (a kind-hearted man with dreadlocks) decided that I should join the boy’s team. Mixed teams are allowed until you are 12 years old. I went along with it because people seemed to want me to do it. I would have appreciated seeing my parents in a match, but being part of a team had to be enough. In general, I felt out of place but the fact that they needed me as a player made me feel appreciated. Without I even noticing, indoor football became my sport.
At school, it wasn’t the same
Boys appropriated the playground, being football the only sport they wanted to play. Of course, they often refused to have me play with them and they would call me a tomboy when I did. I didn’t have friends then so this kind of experience would happen to me and I would take it as the most logical thing. Girls didn’t want me around either, they also insulted me. So when the tough guy in the class invited me to play I couldn’t refuse. He was a bully who had it going for me… He allowed me to join them because he enjoyed having an excuse to hit me in front of everybody. I didn’t understand the situation then, I was simply glad I had someone to play with. If I complained, I would get kicked out of the playground. This meant being alone one more day after many, so I quickly toughened up and learned to be fast and sneaky on the field. I guess you could say that some of my best football skills are mainly a defence mechanism.
The team of a kind-hearted man with dreadlocks
I have continued to play indoor football for years and years. At some point, we created a core team of 6 girls and we got to the regional competition. This is a heroic thing to do for such a team. We didn’t have any money and nobody was willing to contribute, so our coach and the parents of a team player would drive us to the matches. I stayed with this team until it disappeared, right the summer before I went to college.
After that, I joined another team, with the most terrible coach I have seen. There was no enjoyment in playing if you were not scoring every five minutes. I eventually left. One day I had a respiratory crisis in front of him, and instead of helping me, he ignored me and asked me to keep running. He is now in jail for taking advantage of an underage girl. I can’t say I am surprised.
This put me off for a while until a guy I was working with invited me a couple of times to play with his friends. He also invited my husband and we all went. It was very casual and didn’t happen more than twice, but it was enough for me to get infected with the football bug again.
My husband hated though. That’s why he totally refused the next time he got invited but said I would probably be happy to join instead.
Four years ago I arrived in a new country.
When I joined my current football group, I did because they were struggling to find people. On a Thursday evening, I introduced myself to a guy in football clothes waiting for someone. He was also new and didn’t know anybody from the actual group. We started with the regular talk about our nationality and such. He mentioned something about how popular football in Spain is… And when the rest of the guys came, we presented ourselves as newcomers.
The beginning was very awkward. “What’s a woman doing here?” I could see the confusion on their faces, but nobody dared to say anything. And I wasn’t going to mention it. I went for a self-confidence look, and I held it as long as possible. One of them distributed the teams and we just started playing.
After that first match, some guys approached me and congratulated me: “Wow, you do know how to play! You are fast!” I knew they were hiding that other part they were thinking too: “Wow, even being a woman, you can play!” I couldn’t care any less. At that time, I needed somewhere to exercise. Indoor football has always been my thing, and I couldn’t find any female team. So… that was it.
It is an international group of people. There are guys from all over the world: Brazil, Netherlands, Siria, North Macedonia, Yemen, Romania, Iran, Tanzania, India, Portugal… As you imagine, each of them has a different idea of a woman, and each one had to adjust to me in their own way. I heard all kinds of comments and saw all sorts of reactions. Some were amazed by me, and some would avoid passing me the ball. But eventually, they all adjusted to the idea that I was just another player.
We learned how to play together. We know what kind of tricks the other can do. This connection allows us to understand what the other will do without saying. We care for each other when someone is ill or even missing the matches for an extended period of time. We tease the tough guys and encourage the shy ones. But, still, I am the woman.
Why don’t I leave?
Recently I heard there might be a club creating a female football team, and I thought about joining. Just for a moment, though. They would be playing outdoors on a field, and I’m not too fond of that football. And most of all, I couldn’t give up on my boys!
After four years of playing with this group, I have friends there. I would miss our chats, philosophical discussions about cultures, and silly jokes during the game… In general, our friendship. Sometimes I still feel like an outsider, sure, but I must say, it is the place where I feel like it the least. It might have to do with the fact that from the beginning, I accepted I was going to be an unusual player, and I didn’t put any effort into hiding who I am as I used to do. Or maybe, at the end of the day, since we are all foreigners in this country, we are all outsiders, and they actually understand my feelings.
During this time, I had the opportunity to see some guys changing their concept of women because of this. Or at least opening their minds to a broader range of feminity. I have learned about them and myself too. My disregard for my physical well-being has been put under the spot since these guys taught me to stop when I am in pain and need care. I don’t know. I feel like Thursdays have brought me the strength to change certain things in myself, and I think I have to acknowledge it.
Maybe it’s only a few people, and it doesn’t sound like a significant shift in society, but, hey, not everybody has to change the world. I am proud to be part of this corner’s change.
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