PACHUCA, Mexico—A packed stadium of 30,000 cheering fans is no big deal for the finals of a men’s soccer game in Mexico. But the same crowd for a women’s match? That’s historic.
On Monday night, as las Tuzas of Pachuca and las Chivas of Guadalajara faced off in the first of two championship games for Mexico’s first ever women’s professional soccer league, so many people came that hundreds were stuck outside the stadium.
It is not lost on anyone—the players, spectators, league officials—that the mere existence of the league is a huge step toward gender equality in a country where male entitlement has long been tolerated and even supported, especially in sports.
“Soccer was always masculine, always a show of strength for men. And now women are gaining more and more ground,” said Tuzas’ fan Rosa Maria Andrade, 50, who went to the game with her older sister. She added that the women also play better than the men. “They play cleaner and give it all their effort.”
Starting a women’s league in Mexico has been years in the making. In December 2016, the CEO of the Mexican soccer league finally announced that all of men’s soccer teams in the premiere division had to field a corresponding women’s team (with the exception of two teams facing financial problems).
At the end of the July, the women’s season began with 16 teams spread out across the country. Four have female coaches, Las Tuzas among them.
“A lot of years passed by with talk about La Liga. They always said ‘next year,’” said Monica Ocampo, the 30-year-old star of Las Tuzas. “Finally they gave us notice that it was actually going to start. It took me by surprise. I was happy… finally we were going to be training daily.”
On Monday, she scored the second of las Tuzas’ two goals, in its 2-0 victory over Chivas.
Indeed, part of the drive behind the league is to cultivate a generation of young, female players to improve Mexico’s women’s national team, which has struggled in international tournaments.
While Mexico’s men’s national team has long has feeder teams that groom young talent, no such infrastructure has existed for the women. In fact, many of the players on the women’s national team played with boys most of their childhood.
In its three appearances in the World Cup, the women’s national team has never advanced beyond the first round.
Ocampo remembers the parents of players on opposing teams yelling at her during games that her place was in the kitchen cleaning dishes.
Gabriela Herrera, a goalkeeper for the national team and also for Pachuca, grew up playing soccer on the streets. The league, she said, is a “great opportunity” for girls who didn’t have anywhere to pursue their dreams of professional soccer.
“The men have had opportunities since they were 10 years old. We didn’t. We played where we could.”
But while the league is a huge step forward for women, it has also underscored the divide.
Women players don’t make enough money to live on. Ocampo earns around $500 a month, and that’s on the high end among women players. By contrast, many of Mexico’s male soccer stars earn millions of dollars per year.
Media coverage of the women’s league has been spotty, at best. When the league began in July, newspapers buried coverage of it, and none of the games were televised. But by October, Fox Sports was airing commercials hyping the semifinals (albeit with the players shaking their butts after scoring a goal).
Joel Camacho, the editor of the Mexican soccer magazine Futbol Total, said he's optimistic about the women’s league.
"It has been received with enthusiasm. And for just starting – and to see the crowd that it has gotten tonight – it appears to be a good start,” said Camacho, was covering Monday’s game. “I think that as the league grows, it will have more sponsors and airtime on television – and that will help improve the player’s situation as well.”
Fans of all stripes turned out in droves for Monday’s game: fathers with their children, couples, teenagers, older women.
As has been the case for nearly all of the women’s games, the tickets were free, which is part of the league’s strategy to drive attendance.
Lucero Maiz was among those stranded outside the stadium Monday. She came with her nine-year-old niece, an aspiring professional soccer player. Maiz said the league has generated a lot of attention because it’s a “novelty.” She hopes it will continue to attract as much attention in future years.
She waited outside the stadium until past halftime, still hoping to get in.
“I never expected to see so many people today,” she said.
The next game is Friday, November 24, at 9:06 p.m. in Estadio Chivas in Guadalajara.