Argentina is back in the Women’s World Cup for the first time since 2007 looking to build off a third-place finish in the 2018 Copa América. In that time period away from soccer’s biggest competition, including two years of inactivity due to lack of support from the Argentine Football Association (AFA), members of the squad have emerged in the fight for equality. Recently, members of the squad went on strike in 2017 after stipends went unpaid and they had had enough of wearing hand-me-down uniforms from the men’s program.
Small steps have been made, of which are discussed here in a wide-ranging interview with defender Natalie Juncos. A new professional league is scheduled to launch in June with support from the AFA that includes a performance center in Buenos Aires and a monthly wage for players. But cultural attitudes against women in sport still persist and Juncos touches on the progress she sees as well as previews Argentina’s group-stage opponents.
Editor’s note — This interview has been edited for clarity.
Brandi Ortega: When was the first time you touched a football? When did you start playing?
Natalie Juncos: I was four, but I was born in the United States, both my parents are Argentines and my parents were very open because here in Argentina before it’s kind of viewed as more of a masculine sport. So it was something my parents were very open-minded about. There are parents that are very closed about it still. But yeah, so I was four when I started playing in Michigan, actually.
Ortega: So you grew up here in the States and played college soccer at Florida and then Houston. What was your college experience like?
Juncos: Both universities were very different. University of Florida, obviously, it’s a big-name school, there’s a lot of pressure. It’s a good program. It just the style of play was a little bit different for me and there were a lot of girls on the team and so that’s why I decided to leave Florida and go to the University of Houston. And Houston was developing, so I wanted to be more a part of that. The experience for both places was very disciplined, no BS involved whatsoever. You had to show up on time to classes, obviously. I learned a ton regard to discipline and time management. That was a big thing because, obviously, studying, you had to keep up with your grades and you had to perform on the field as well.
Ortega: Did you play different sports growing up or did you specialize in soccer from an early age?
Juncos: My parents are pretty down to earth with me with regards to sports. I was also a swimmer until I was about 13, 14. And when I was about 12, 13, my parents were kind of telling me, ‘Hey, if you want to be really good at one sport, if you want to be competitive, like we were, you’re going to have to probably leave a sport and focus on one. Obviously, though, it’s okay if you want to do both, but just know that you probably won’t get to that level like we did.’ So I was also a big-time swimmer and then naturally I started swimming less. I honestly find it a little bit boring.
It was really tough mentally because it’s the type of practice, it’s not as creative as soccer. And so for me, I ended up slowly heading towards the soccer and it just kind of happened naturally. It wasn’t something that one day I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to quit swimming and play soccer.’ No, it just happened that my direction went towards soccer and I started dedicating myself more to that and then I still swim just for cross-training.
Ortega: You mentioned some of the differences in how soccer for women is viewed between Argentina and the United States. Talk a little bit about that in terms of growing up and how it’s viewed and some of the differences that players face.
Juncos: In the United States, obviously, it’s one of the most played sports for women. I want to say I was ignorant because I also young, but I didn’t realize the differences in the United States compared to other countries. Growing up, I thought everyone played soccer. It was a norm and especially in Argentina that the men’s team is the number one sport there is.
Then I came to Argentine in 2014. That’s when it hit me, how different it was. I was about 23, turning 24 that year. And that’s when it really kind of slapped me in the face how different it was in regards to how it was viewed. Obviously five, six years later, it’s a lot more positive.
But thinking back on 2014, I was playing at River Plate and I remember that we would borrow clothes from the men’s team pretty much in whatever sizes that they had. We had to use that for training. Obviously it wasn’t dirty, it was clean. But it kind of surprised me that we didn’t have our own gear like we did in the U.S.
So it was [the same with] how they paid attention to the sport, too. For instance, I got into a taxi and I would tell him, ‘Hey, yeah, I played for the Argentine national team. They’re like, oh my God, there’s an Argentine national team? I’m like, yes there is.’
Several times that’s happened to me. Others are pretty open about it now, just honestly depends on the age. I’ve been told other things like, for instance, it’s becoming more accepted. I think the results in Copa América also changed a lot of it. It kind of raised awareness of women’s soccer.
Ortega: Does every professional men’s team in Argentina have women’s side or is it just up to the club whether they want to have a women’s side?
Juncos: Before, yes, it was up to the club team. Now within CONMEBOL it’s mandatory. I believe in 2019 that in order for a team to participate in the Libertadores or Sudamericana, they have to have a women’s team.
Editor’s note — In addition to the requirement that participation in Copa Libertadores and/or the Copa Sudamericana requires men’s teams to have a women’s side, the AFA will launch a professional women’s soccer league in June.
Ortega: What’s the level like now for women’s professional soccer in the country?
Juncos: It was raised. AFA declared that it is professional this year. And there’s more regulations now. We actually get paid a lot more, before we got minimum beyond minimum. […] It’s heading in the right direction.
Ortega: Now tell me about the national team because in the U.S., the women’s national team plays a lot of games, but that’s not the case for Argentina and a lot of other teams as well. What are the conditions like for the national team right now?
Juncos: Going back, let’s say after 2015, from 2015, 2016, for two years, we are on hold. There was no national team for two years. And then at the end of 2017, we started training again as a team. So before that, I didn’t have my citizenship, my dual citizenship, so I wasn’t able to be a part of the team. At the end of 2017, they announced that the team’s going to come back together because we have the Copa América in 2018. We were completely on hold for two years, two-and-a-half-years almost. From 2018, in January, that’s when we started training together as a group to prepare for the Copa América that was at the end of March, early April.
And the thing is, a lot of girls are overseas. And so we really are all together as a group for only about a week and a half to prepare for the Copa América. The girls who are in the country already were able to come and train enough. So now after our result, we kind of asked for a little bit more. We had conflicts about money, with clothing. It was kind of a mess. And now that the World Cup is coming around, we’re actually [wearing] women’s clothing because before, we’d have men’s, small sizes in men’s — it was a mess. There’s more of an importance now with women’s soccer in Argentina.
Ortega: Since Argentina is back in the Women’s World Cup for the first time since 2007, what is the Argentine Football Association doing in terms of marketing? Have they done anything to help market and let people know that you’re off to France to compete in the World Cup?
Juncos: Yes. So luckily there’s a lot more marketing. We have more [personal] sponsors: there’s a lot of Nikes, there’s two girls from Puma, I think there’s one from Adidas. So sponsor-wise it’s getting better. We have another sponsor, Rexana, for deodorant. So we have more sponsors.
They also made a [broadcasting] package for women’s soccer; they advertise the package to watch the games for everybody. And so that’s nice, that’s a positive. The [federation] president’s also kind of paying more attention to it, they’re sending more messages out to people in the media and [on social platforms like] Instagram, Facebook. There’s a lot more importance to it compared to before.
Ortega: What about the men’s team? Do they acknowledge or recognize the women’s side at all? Do you get any support from the men’s team at all?
Juncos: To be honest, very little. I think it happened with two players, maybe three […] may have posted a picture on their Instagram saying that we’re playing against Panama, support the team. Advertising it a little bit, but not that much.
Ortega: What do you think the federation needs to do to help grow support for women playing soccer in Argentina so that it’s accepted and encouraged?
Juncos: I think one is definitely integrating the men’s and women’s [sides]. Like, literally taking a picture and posting it right there to show, ‘Hey, the men support the woman.’ Something as simple as Barcelona has done recently. Men and women taking pictures [together]. I know other teams have as well in Spain. I think something like that would be really beneficial.
I think it [has a lot] to do with the future generations. I think it’s changing a lot and that it’s going to be very different for the next generation that comes up and plays. Just because of how it’s already changed in just a few years. For instance, now you have pick-up soccer and there’s always going to be a woman there, before it was unheard of.
Ortega: I take it for granted that here in the United States it’s not as difficult, it’s not looked down upon, and there aren’t as many cultural issues compared to what players from other countries face. You’ve seen it from both vantage points. What’s it like going from playing in the United States, where everybody plays soccer when they’re little, to Argentina, where it’s a soccer country but not for women so much.
Juncos: It still catches me off-guard, the whole situation. Because I do travel back and forth from the U.S. to Argentina. After being here for a while, it’s like I kind of get used to it. But the first week or two, it always catches me off-guard what people say. But what’s also been catching me off-guard, is that it has been more positive each trip I make regarding the comments. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, women, they can play well now,’ that’s what they say. Before they would say, ‘No. Women should play with their dolls,.they shouldn’t play with a soccer ball.’ That’s literally what I got once. I got that once from a taxi guy, I’m like, ‘Oh, God.’
Ortega: And the thing is, a lot of people making those comments are not players. So it would be funny to see them out there because it’s always easy to make a comment when you’re not the one playing.
Juncos: Kind of to add on what you said about coming and going, like you kind of mentioned [about] taking it for granted: That’s something that I’ve kind of realized, too. It’s like, wow, I never realized how much I took for granted being in the United States and raised there, that these things were normal, to play in the universities. And then for some girls they traveled two hours to go to practice. Like those are things that you kind of forget. Some of the living situations, some of them have jobs, too, when they’re trying to play. So it’s definitely a little bit of a culture shock in some ways.
Ortega: Let’s talk about who you’re playing because the group stage you’re in includes a couple of heavy hitters: England, Scotland, and Japan. Tell me a little bit about your preparation for the first match against Japan and how the team is approaching the group stage.
Juncos: We’re really trying to set a solid structure defensively right now because that’s going to be key against with regards to Japan. Obviously, all three games are going to be hard. Japan, comparing it to the other two, they’re top in the world, obviously. But due to their style of play, I think that we have a chance, but we’re going to have to play super organized, super structured, and have to be very disciplined in everything.
One thing with Argentina is that we’ve never won a game or even tied a game in the World Cup. So for us, honestly, to go and tie Japan would be a huge accomplishment. So it’s not like I’m saying that we’re going to go prepare to tie Japan. No, but we’re going to go attacking, we’re going to try to get a result in, definitely. But, for us, it’s going to be structure and defense for us to be able to compete with these three teams.
Ortega: Growing up, who did you watch? Who are the players that you watched?
Juncos: So in men’s, I watched both men’s and women’s [football]. In men’s, I liked Maradona, but I was also eight or nine, right? I got older, [and I] like Xavi, [Andrés] Iniesta, obviously.
In woman’s, I’ve always loved Marta; always loved her as a player, admired her as a person. And so I told my parents, I think it was in 2007, 2008, I told my parents I’m going to play against her one day, I promise. Like, I swear it’s going to happen. And so my first game, my debut game was against Brazil and I was there in the line, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s Marta.’ So, I always admired and liked Marta. And I even talked to her for a few minutes and she’s really down to earth. And it’s nice to kind of see how human these people are. The other one I would say that I really like is [Megan] Rapinoe from the U.S. I’ve always loved her style of play, I think she’s great.
Ortega: Tell me about the style of football Argentina plays.
Juncos: We play more with the ball. It’s more similar to the men’s style of Argentina. We’re very good on our feet. We like to play the ball a lot. We don’t like to have foot races typically. We have a lot of control on the ball, so we try to keep the ball at our feet at all times. And obviously there are times you go and be a little more direct with the play, but we tend to have more possession.
Growing up in the United States, I was mainly more of a midfielder. I ended up grasping more of this side of tactics of the United States and the physicality. Because in the United States, it was very physical, the style of play, especially in college.
What I try to do is grab the best of both sides, both worlds. My dad did play in the reserves in Argentina a little bit, just trained with them. So he kind of taught me a little bit more of the technique side so that way I would be able to develop more as a player. And so that’s why I’m able to play with this style here in Argentina.
Ortega: What was the adjustment like from the very physical, very fast style in the U.S. to Argentina, which is much more possession-based and much more creative?
Juncos: I play a little more direct. I try to look for the fluid speed a little bit more than what they kind of like here. I tend to look for the feet unless there’s space behind, obviously. There’s a different time for everything, but I do play a little bit more direct compared to some of my teammates.
I think it also has to do with the change in tactics. It took a while, that transition. Before it would catch me off-guard; I’m like, ‘Oh, this girl just did a heel pass.’ Which wouldn’t happen that often in the United States compared to here. So it’s like I have to kind of be on my toes a little bit more to anticipate it. But it’s also getting to know your players and knowing what they’re going to do. So it’s kind of a mix of things.
Obviously the language, it’s a different type of communication. Obviously English and Spanish. The type of directions they look for something a little bit different than the U.S. did. And so that was a little bit of a barrier that kind of a little bit tougher for me. The last tournament, the Copa América and then now, t’s getting easier every time. So luckily I’m not having that issue. And it’s nice to be able to adapt to both styles when I need to.
Ortega: What are some of your personal goals heading into this tournament? And what do you want to get out of this tournament in terms of the experience?
Juncos: One is, obviously, we’d like to play against Japan, have a good game against England, obviously same result against Scotland. We’d like to make it a good game as well. Try to win. I think that the style of play is going to be tougher against England just because of their style of play, it’s a little bit more direct. They’re very fast. So whereas Japan is very structured, they’re also fast, but very structured and they play more with their feet.
Goals for us to get out of our group and obviously winning the World Cup — that’s everyone’s goal, but for us, it’s getting out of our group. That right there would be a huge accomplishment and obviously it’d be a good stepping stone to continue growing women’s soccer in Argentina.
For me personally, it’s just having the experience to play with the best girls in the world who have the same passion [for the game]. It’s always been a dream of mine to be able to do that.
Ortega: Tell me about some of your teammates and who we should look out for. Who is going to have a good tournament?
Juncos: There’s going to be a few. There’s also another American. She was born, actually, in Minnesota where I grew up. Gaby Garton, she’s the goalie. She’s the other American, she played at USF [University of South Florida], and then she transferred to Rice. So I actually played against her several times. It’s pretty funny how that worked. The two goalies — Vanina [Correa] as well. It’ll be between both of them who starts.
And then there are, you have Sole Jaimes who plays for Lyon in France. She’s, to me, one to definitely look out for. And then you have Estefanía Banini, who played in the United States for a little bit of time as a professional and then she went to Valencia. She plays for Levante [now]. And I think those players are going to be big. Obviously our defense. I think the biggest thing with Argentina is you have a few key players, sure, but it’s how we come together as a group, the passion we have for the game.
Juncos and the rest of the Argentinian National Team open up Group D play against Japan on June 10 in Paris.