#FromNowOn: The Fight for Better Treatment for Puerto Rico’s Women’s National Teams

The national teams of Puerto Rico and Argentina met in a friendly on Thursday, August 30, 2018. A crowd of 4,622 attended the match in Puerto Rico, the largest ever to attend a women’s soccer match on the island. The visiting Argentinians took the kickoff and then played the ball out of bounds. All of the members of Puerto Rico’s team, reserves included, stood silently in protest with their fingers pointed at their ears to bring attention to Puerto Rico Football Federation’s lack of responsiveness to players’ needs.

The match ended in defeat a 0-3 defeat for Puerto Rico; on Sunday, September 2, the teams met again and the match ended in a 1-1 draw.

The protest is a culmination of events that began with the dismissal of the team’s head coach, Shek Borkowski. Tribal Soccer has more on Borkowski’s release as well as the federation’s response.

Our Game Magazine contacted the Puerto Rico Football Federation for comment about the protest and the Federation provided the following written statement from the federation’s president, Eric Labrador:

“The Puerto Rico Football Federation is aware of the claims the players have recently made. Before their pacific protest occurred, we sustained formal and informal meetings, several phone calls and email exchanges with our athletes. We will make public the results of these conversations in the upcoming days.

We will continue fighting for and with our female players against a sports system which has historically promoted genre inequality. We stand by them all, not just with words, but with concrete actions in favor of the development of our Women’s National Team Program.

With the hiring of a new coaching staff, upcoming international friendly matches and the launching of the Liga Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico 1st & 2nd Division Tournament #LaPR) we will together rise and show that we are ready to take soccer in our island to the next level.”

 

Below, we asked midfielder Nicole Rodriguez to tell her story, including how the decision to protest was made.

 

What we want now is to be heard and for action to be taken. We want to write a different story. #FromNowOn

I began playing soccer at the age of four in the recreation league in Avon, Connecticut. I played in the rec league and on travel teams until I was 13, when I decided to tried out for FSA Soccer Club. As fate might have it, Tony DiCicco was my coach that year and he, as a coach and a mentor, changed everything for me. Tony was the one who encouraged me to go to the open tryouts for the Puerto Rican U-17 National Team at the age of 15, a possibility I had because my parents were born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to the States after getting married.

I went to tryouts in Puerto Rico and trained on a field full of holes and used syringes, but I grew as a player and person. My aspirations went from just wanting to play college soccer to wanting to represent my country and help in the effort to take us to our first Women’s World Cup. The exposure and experience gained by playing with the national team and competing against the best in the Caribbean gave me the opportunity to be a part of the team at the University of Notre Dame. While I didn’t get much playing time throughout my college career, I soaked up all I could in the training sessions and experiences and was more determined than ever to become my best and continue playing soccer. After college, I played for FC Honka in the Naisten Liiga, Finland’s first division; the following year, I headed to Durham University in England where I received my master’s in intercultural communication and education and competed for Durham on the field and in futsal.

It has been a very long 11 years as part of the PRWNT, with many ups and downs. This team has made history multiple times by being the only team (men’s or women) to break into the top 100 in the FIFA World Ranking. In 2016, we were also the first ones to make it to a CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championships. Despite these accomplishments, we — as women and athletes — are still not valued. There is so much potential on this island and we know that we can be a soccer powerhouse in the Caribbean and in CONCACAF. We have not lost sight of our dream — to make the Women’s World Cup — but in order for that to happen, some things must change. That is why we are fighting. It may not reap many benefits for us specifically, but if we can empower the girls who are coming after us and create a better environment for them, we will have succeeded.

Back Story

Many of the players have been a part of the national team program since the age of 17. We have a core group of players who have been playing together for more than seven years. Many of us have been given the opportunity to play at a high level  at universities and then abroad. It’s through playing abroad that we have experienced what it’s like to be treated as professionals. When we came back to play for our national team over the years, we realized the treatment we’ve been receiving, and which is still accepted as normal by the island’s football community, was intolerable. If we wanted to continue growing the game on the island, something had to change.

We decided that no one was going to take action for us and we needed to do it for ourselves. After many fruitless conversations with the federation, during which promises were made and no action was taken, we decided that conversations on our part were not going to be enough. At that point we decided to write a letter to Eric Labrador, the president of the Puerto Rico Football Federation explaining the issues with the treatment of the women’s national team and demanding change. With little to no response and no foreseeable action being taken, we took our story to media outlets such as Telemundo and local newspapers.

With the added pressure from the Puerto Rican soccer community, the federation agreed to meet with us on August 7, another fruitless meeting. We decided that our next action had to be big and had to be different from anything we had done before. Several of our team leaders decided that a protest during our first international friendly might be the way to make a statement. When we brought it to the team, they were all in. They knew that it was time to do something different and time to make sure that the girls who are coming up behind us have better conditions and better opportunities than we did. This act was not done selfishly; we did this for the little girls who watch us and admire us and dream one day to be on the national team.

Excerpt from the letter the members of the Puerto Rico National Team sent to the federation.

Excerpt from the letter the Puerto Rican National Team players sent to the president of the country’s football federation.

Missing the Basics

We are missing a lot of the basics, including:

Fields — The national teams (men’s and women’s) don’t have an official training ground. Whenever either team is called into a camp, the federation must negotiate with local clubs to use their fields. Often, fields aren’t given or training is held after 8 pm to allow for club play. During this training camp in preparation for our games versus Argentina we were given a field that was almost entirely mud… it rained that day and the ball wasn’t rolling.

Transportation — Some girls travel from the west side of the island for camps/practices to the east side of the island (up to 2.5 hours one way). No compensation is given and no transportation is provided to these players, leaving many players with no option but to not participate due to school/job commitments and/or the inability to travel.

Insurance — The federation doesn’t provide insurance to national team players (men or women). Players pay for their own medical costs for injuries suffered while on national team duty; the federation is then supposed to reimburse the players. However, this hasn’t happened. For example, a U-17 player tore her ACL seven months ago, and to date, hasn’t been reimbursed by the federation for her out-of-pocket costs and one of our senior  team players had to have shoulder surgery, paid $3,000 out of pocket, and has also not been reimbursed.

Equipment — Much of the equipment for training is personally provided by the coaches/trainers.

Compensation — men’s national team players are paid per game and are also provided stipends for training while with the national team. The women’s national team doesn’t receive monetary compensation. After our games in May, the federation told us that those who played in the games would receive $200 per game (totaling $800) for our participation and we would be paid one week after our return from competition. We have yet to receive anything. After these games against Argentina, the federation will owe some players up to $1,200.

Staffing — In the past two years, technical staffing has improved. We now have a coach, an assistant coach, a goalkeeper coach, and an athletic trainer. While this is a huge improvement over what we previously had, we believe there should be more help in periods of inactivity, such as an injury-prevention program or training programs. Players have to find their own trainers/programs when the national team is inactive and pay out of pocket since clubs/universities on the island don’t have these resources available.

Coaches have changed every year for the past 10 years and in some years, there was no coach on the women’s side due to firing from the federation and then a period of inactivity. The coach who coached us during these friendlies was brought on on August 10 (20 days before the first game) on a short-term contract.

Matches/Training — There is a lack of continuity with training. Before the games against Argentina, we had been inactive since May, before which there was inactivity since February 2016 for CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship. They called players on the island for tryouts on August 16 and gave girls who don’t live on the island (because of jobs or school) seven days to ask for time off. Confirmation of convocation was given four days before the trip to the island. The first day of convocation with the team was exactly five days before the games. Many of these girls have been out of the national team pool for many years and many haven’t been in any national team before. In addition, we have two U-15 players, one U-17 player, and one U-20 player.

The games against Argentina are the first international friendlies we have ever had. The games we previously played have all been in official CONCACAF competition.

Respect — The national team players aren’t given respect. Clubs, universities, schools are given priority when it comes to releasing their players to their national teams. More often than not, players aren’t released from their clubs or universities on the island to play. There isn’t a sense of pride to have players playing on the national team; rather, it’s an inconvenience because they will not be participating in the club’s or university’s games.

Argentina

When the federation announced the game on August 1, the team leaders got together to discuss some ideas. I reached out to Estefanía Banini, Argentina’s star midfielder, to give her some details on what was going on in our fight against the federation. Estefanía and her team have been fighting this fight for many years and have been some of the pioneers in seeking respect and equality in women’s football in Latin America.

She told us that she was willing to help and we would continue the conversation. Once our plans were solidified  days before the first game, I reached out again to her. We decided to meet in the hotel where both teams were staying and further discuss it. Estefanía was very receptive and even offered some advice based on her experiences in Argentina. She told us to continue fighting and to remember that it wasn’t going to be easy and that we would receive backlash, but that it was something that we needed to do for our island and for women’s football in general. While she would not be playing in the games, she told us that she would spread the word and that the Argentinian women would support us and show respect on the field.

All of the Argentinian players, specifically the captain, thanked us for our efforts and told us that they stand with us in this fight.

 

What we have seen the most is complete support from the soccer community. It is incredible to see the reactions from people all over the world and not feel alone in this fight.

We have not had any direct comments from the federation or president to date. We were told that after the game, the president told several sources that what we did on the field in the protest was useless whining and complaining. They also blamed the first two goals that were scored to our lack of concentration because of the protest, instead of thinking it might have something to do with lack of preparation.

The federation has often agreed to meet with us and have conversations, but it seems like these conversations have fallen on deaf ears. The federation seems to be more about politics and less about developing and bettering football on the island, specifically women’s football. The president and those who work at the federation continuously say they want the best for women’s football, but as we’ve seen over the years, actions speak much louder than words.

What we want now is to be heard and for action to be taken. We want to write a different story. #FromNowOn

 

 

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