How a Chilean women's soccer player scored for gender equality
For as long as she can remember, Iona Rothfeld has loved playing soccer (or football). But in Chile, soccer is considered a “boys’” sport. When she was 13 years old, Iona was named to the Chilean women’s national football team. She thought she had finally found a place where women’s soccer was respected. Instead, she was issued hand-me-down jerseys and told to shower in locker rooms that didn’t have hot water. But in 2016, at the age of 23, Iona founded the first union for women’s soccer players in all of Latin America. Things are finally starting to change in Chile for female athletes — but there’s still a long way to go.
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NOISE OF CROWD CHANTING:
Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay!…
IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
Over the past few years, the US women’s national soccer team’s fight for equal pay has captured the attention of the world, with former captain Megan Rapinoe taking her plea all the way to the White House.
I’ve been devalued. I’ve been disrespected and dismissed because I am a woman. And I’ve been told that I don’t deserve any more than less because I am a woman.
IBTIHAJ: But in some countries, the fight for equal pay has really just begun.
Whenever someone asks me, like, “What motivated this?”, I think they expect me to say that it’s, I don’t know, passion or the sense of purpose, but it’s — it’s rage. Like, rage moved me. They treat us like crap. They treat us like we don’t matter, and they make us feel, like, invisible. Yeah, of course I have rage.
IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Iona Rothfeld joined the Chilean women’s national team at just 13 years old. Over the years, she started to get used to playing in men’s hand-me-down jerseys and showering in locker rooms that didn’t have hot water. But in 2016, at the age of 23, Iona founded the first union for women’s soccer players in all of Latin America. Iona spoke with producer Paige Sutherland.
I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t playing soccer. My mom and all my family is really sporty. But soccer was my thing. Like, I didn’t — like she gave me the ball with the hand, and I, like, naturally kick it with my feet. It was natural for me, and since then it has been, like, the one place that I feel more comfortable in the world, like everything — it’s better when I’m on the field. Like, everything feels in place. It’s what makes me happy. Like more than anything.
I could feel, like, people looking at me differently, like, “Why is she playing? Why — why she’s the only girl playing?” And I didn’t realize, until I was told, that I was the only girl playing. Because when you’re a kid, you’re just a kid. You know? You don’t see gender. But yeah, I was, like, told from really little that that wasn’t my place. And it was hard for me to realize, like — the place that make me feel more comfortable, someone was saying it wasn’t my place. I remember wanting to be a boy, because it would be so much easier. I remember immediately feeling guilty for thinking or for wishing to be a boy. I thought my mom would be disappointed. My mom is — like, she has a really strong character. From that moment, I realized everything was going to be a battle. And it hasn’t stop being a battle.
The first, like, reality call that I had, I was playing, like, here in my school. My friends got to go to academy or to practice. They start getting better than me. I’m really competitive, and I told my mom, “I want to go to an academy. I want to, like, train, practice, and get better.” And we couldn’t find any academy that would accept girls. That was infuriating. Like, why? I’m better than my friends, and I’m not able to play. It’s hard to be a women’s soccer player in Chile, because of machismo. Like, here and in South America in general, soccer is seen as something built for men and men only.
That reminds me, I read this article where you were quoted saying there is this particular phrase that’s commonly used in Chile — that you hate — that if you are playing well as a girl, you are playing like, like a boy, right?
IONA: Yeah, yeah, I hated that, because please don’t compare me to them. To be, like, good at any level, being a girl or a woman, it’s twice or even more hard than for a guy. It’s almost shameful that you’re not good at soccer being a boy in Chile, but being a girl? Like, you have obstacles, like, everywhere. And yeah, I remember just watching women’s soccer, seeing, like, amazing players on the field, and another guy sitting, like, next to me saying, “Oh, she’s, she’s, she’s so good. She’s like a man.” Come on, like, it’s — why? [CHUCKLES] And it’s said, like — people say it all the time.
We always, like, practice on the last field, or had the worst locker room or have the uniforms that they weren’t going to use anymore. I remember the way some coaches talked to us. They made us feel like we should be grateful for whatever little thing they gave us, because they didn’t have, like, any obligation, because that wasn’t our place. They didn’t say, “This isn’t your place,” but they made us feel like that.
Not only in Chile, in South America — soccer, it’s deeply rooted in our culture, in our identity. And I don’t know how that dialogues left women aside. It’s part of who we are. I don’t know why the men think soccer is something that belongs only to them, something that they created, or that it’s better played by men. So, yeah, when we try to, to gain that space, to gain that place on the field, they feel — even though they think of themselves so strong and masculine — they feel so threatened when they’re sharing the field with a girl. It’s almost funny, if it wasn’t terrible. But yeah, that’s how they feel, and they immediately try to make up excuses. “No, you shouldn’t play because you’re, you’re weak. You could get injured.” Or, “This isn’t, like, the place for you. Like, you should go to the kitchen. You should find a more feminine sport.” What’s feminine? What’s masculine? We know all of that is a social construct. So what, what do you think about that?
PAIGE: After high school, Iona went on to play soccer for one of the top universities in the country. Things weren’t very different there, but the women’s team still won a lot of games, including the national title three times. But during one of those seasons, she got hurt and sprained her ankle. She decided to get treated by one of the best sports doctors in town.
IONA: Yeah, I remember he told me, “Oh, this happened to you because you were playing a sport that’s not for girls.” Like, you picture yourself, like, answering those comments so good in your mind, but when — whenever that happens to you, like, I froze. Like, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And I was in so much pain and I was so sad, because whenever I get injured, I get so depressed because I can’t play anymore for a while, and it’s hard. So you’re there feeling so vulnerable, and you have to hear this from your doctor.
I felt alone for a long time, but when I got called for the national team, I realized, like, we all share the same story. Like, everyone in the national team at the time, we all, like, were the only girls playing on our team. We all get mugged, or we all get humiliated. And, like, I felt I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t by myself.
I thought everything would stop when I got called to the national team. Like I was, “Yeah, this is — this is my time. It’s the national team, like, here is what I’m watching on TV. I’m going to get, I don’t know, famous. I’m going to represent my country. Maybe I can make a career out of this.” I remember, like, getting for the first practice and that really, like, broke my heart. Like, we were sent to the last locker room that didn’t have, like, lights, or the water didn’t work. We didn’t have hot water to, like, shower. The uniforms were — they were men’s, and we were little. Like, I was called up for the national team when I was 13. So the shirt got to my knees. It looks like a dress, and you couldn’t play comfortably with that, you know? And what can you say? Like, I’m not going to be on the national team when that was my dream? So would you just, like, shut up and try to make it work. At the time, you don’t have many choices.
I never received, like, any money from playing soccer. Just when I was in the national team, if we got to travel outside Chile, we got paid, like, per day, just to cover — I don’t know, food or things that you need over there. But I never got payment. [CHUCKLES] When we qualified for the World Cup, we received, like, a prize. But yeah, at that moment you say, “Yeah, 100 bucks, it’s a lot.” But then you compare that for what the prize the men receive for qualifying for a World Cup, and it’s like, yeah, not even the one percent.
PAIGE: I mean, did it feel like a full-time job that you just weren’t getting paid for?
IONA: Yeah, for sure. You’re not getting paid for, and you’re, like, using your money to make it work. You have to spend for better food, for — to go to, to a doctor, to a nutritionist. It’s a full-time job. And even though it’s a full-time job, you’re never — like, I was never only playing. I was always making it work with my job, with my studies, with my family. Like, you don’t have, like, all the time in the world. And suddenly you realize, “Oh, I haven’t talked to my friends in a while. I haven’t talked to my family in a while.” So, yeah, it’s hard. Even though it has been hard and I’ve been discriminated, I’ve been lucky and I’ve been privileged to stay here. I have a lot of teammates that — they weren’t able to keep fighting for this. They have to get a job, or they couldn’t make it work. And that doesn’t mean that I was better to make it work. I just — I was lucky. I was lucky enough that my family support me. I was lucky enough that we were economically good at some point, and I could, like, to pay for practice, or pay for my trips or being able to take a gap year and play for the national team for the year.
PAIGE: And that leads me to your organization that you, that you founded. What was going on with the women’s national team that you thought something needed to be done?
IONA: I think it was 2014, for the juegos ODESUR that were held here in Santiago. I remember that being, like, the last drop of a process of me waking up to a reality that I couldn’t, like, get through anymore. Like, I couldn’t believe they treated us that way. We were preparing for this tournament. We had, like, the women’s soccer team — which were us — which was adult team. And for the men’s team, they play the under-16. So they were boys. Even though we were supposed to have the priority there, it wasn’t like that. They were staying in Juan Pinto Durán, which is like the national team complex where the first team practice, and they have, like, rooms and everything — it’s like a hotel. And we were practicing at the same — like, the field next to them. We got there by ourselves, like, walking, or in the bus or in the subway. But they got here, like, as a team, because they were all staying in this complex.
You need to rest between sessions. This, this complex has like, like classrooms. So we had to grab a mat and throw it on the classroom and, like, make all the chairs go back and try to rest there. Of course, that was the moment that the gardener started, like, cutting the grass. So it was a noise that — you couldn’t sleep, you couldn’t rest. That was outrageous, because you saw, like, the boys getting on the bus and go to the complex and sleep on their rooms. Then they came back to practice well-rested, and it was like, they’re just boys. At least we should be at the same level. And we got to the final, we got the, the silver medal. And you know, when you’re at this level, every detail counts. So how much farther we could get if we practice, and they — if they gave us the same conditions that they gave to the boys? And that’s the moment that I said, “We need to do something.” Like here, the federation doesn’t care, like, the authorities doesn’t care. No one is doing anything to develop women’s soccer.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates.
IBTIHAJ: And now back to Iona Rothfeld and her story about women’s soccer in Chile.
IONA: So I start speaking with my teammates. I’m telling this crazy idea of doing something. At the beginning, I didn’t know what, but I knew that we needed to do something to at least, like, raise our voices. So, yeah, I started, like, saying, “OK, let’s — I don’t know, create something that would call the authorities and tell them, ‘Hey, start doing your job.’” We just wanted to raise our voices and to have someone that would defend us and try to, to make it work.
PAIGE: And what did your teammates say when you first reached out and said you wanted to do something?
IONA: Everyone knew, and thought that things could be better. But they didn’t think it was worth the fight because nothing was going to change. Because it was always being like that. Even before we, we enter the national team, that was just the reality. And everyone told us, “Stop wasting your time.” Like, “This is not going to change.” Like, “Be grateful for what you have. If you don’t like it, you can go.” “Being in the national team, it’s an honor.” Yes, of course — it doesn’t mean that you should treat us this way. I question myself, like, every day. Like, I don’t know if I’m wasting my time, or if this is going to work, but I knew I needed to try.
At the beginning, it was just me knocking every door, talking to everyone, trying to get support, trying to get ideas, because I was kind of improvising. Like, I knew some cases in Europe, or some fights, but I didn’t knew, like, how to make it work here. I had to study a lot, like, how the system work. Yeah, I tried to reach people that could work with me or could guide me. That was for a year that I was working, like, almost by myself, and then I said, “OK, I need more people, more hands, more minds.” I offered every player that I know to be part of this, and we did everything, like, legally to create this association that works, like, within the union’s players. Because we can’t be a union because we are not professional. We don’t have that. But we’re working inside the union and that — and they recognize us. They made, like, an assembly and recognized us as peers, and the FIFPRO — like, international union — recognized us, too. So every step, like, gave us a little more strength.
We founded ANJUFF in July 2016. Our organization — it’s called in, in Spanish, Asociación Nacional de Jugadoras de Fútbol Feminino. In Chile, ANJUFF. And translation would be “Women Soccer Players’ National Association.” We are, like, the first association of this kind in South America, so we are very proud of, of the work we do and we are trying to make a path for women’s soccer to be professional, so the players are recognized as workers and women’s soccer is recognized as a job. So we’re trying to make more opportunities, visibility and better labor conditions for every player. Every woman player here.
PAIGE: But back in 2016, the Chilean women’s national team didn’t qualify for the biggest tournament in the region: the Copa América. After that, the soccer federation decided to ignore the women’s team. They didn’t book any matches for almost two years. With no standings to be had, Chile’s women’s team was kicked off the FIFA rankings and disappeared from the world stage.
IONA: It got leaked that the US invited us to a tournament over there, and we had, like, a lot of invitations to play. And just — the federation rejected them, because they didn’t want to spend money having us practicing if we didn’t have, like, a big tournament coming. And it was like, “How are we going to get better, how are we going to get into those tournaments if we don’t practice? If you have us, like, not playing for two or three years?” We just stop being there, stop existing. I mean, that’s how it felt. So yeah, one of our first proposal was, “You need to reactivate the national team.”
PAIGE: But just bringing back the team wasn’t going to be enough. Iona and her association looked at all the ways women’s soccer in Chile could be better supported.
IONA: You need to have, like, a department of women’s soccer inside the federation. We were — at that time, we were part of young football. And we were women’s soccer, like, we were adults. We didn’t belong there. Try to bring, like, a championship here, so we can have more visibility. Try to make our soccer closer to the people — we need support. We had, like, a one-sheet, like, with a lot of things, and we sent that to the federation, to the sports ministry, to the women’s ministry. And we called them for a meeting. And we had the first meeting with a lot of authorities that didn’t even knew that women’s soccer existed. And we told them everything that we lived, our reality, and they didn’t know. Like the — in the federation, they didn’t know how women’s soccer worked. And we say, “This is the first problem. Like, you don’t know what’s our reality, so you’re not working on us.”
PAIGE: Let me just repeat that. The women’s soccer team was so ignored that those in charge didn’t even know there were any problems. But to Iona’s surprise, the soccer federation listened, and things started changing very quickly. They began scheduling games again for the women’s national team. And in 2018, Chile didn’t just qualify in the Copa América tournament, they hosted it. And they did really well.
NEWSCLIP WITH CHILEAN ANNOUNCER SHOUTING OVER CHEERING CROWD:
Goooooooooooal! Chileno! Francisca Lara!…
PAIGE: Chile placed second overall, officially stamping their ticket to France.
NEWSCLIP WITH WOMAN SPEAKING OVER CHEERING CROWD:
Welcome to Roazhon Park in Rennes, where Chile are making their FIFA Women’s World Cup debut. And they’re up against the former runners-up, Sweden…
IONA: It was huge by itself, but it make a greater impact because our men’s team didn’t qualify. So you have like, “OK, who’s going to World Cup? The women are.” Even though we have, like, less support than them, not even comparable. And that help us, like, build our cases and start the conversation that we needed to have. Like, why we have less support than them? Why we deserve less? If it wasn’t for us — at least at that time — the national team wouldn’t have been back that year, and we wouldn’t have brought the Copa América, which led us to qualify for the World Cup. But yeah, I feel part of that achievement. I don’t know, I think everyone is part of this. Every player that have been in the national team or have tried to gain a little bit of space in the field is part of that achievement.
PAIGE: Iona, sadly, wasn’t on the national team anymore. Instead, she was pursuing her university degree in the states and focusing on her studies. So she wasn’t going to play in France, but she was still going to be there.
IONA: It was the first time my team qualified — like, I wasn’t going to miss it for the world. I wasn’t in the shape to be on the national team, but I started, like, a project with a friend of mine to go and kind of cover the World Cup. Because, of course, the media wasn’t going to send all the journalists that they sent for the men’s World Cup. It’s not that important for them. We luckily could go and cover all the World Cup. It was crazy.
It was so emotional, I couldn’t describe. I had so many emotions inside me that I felt I was going to explode, like, I couldn’t manage all that. I just — I said, “OK, I just need to enjoy everything.” And at some point, I was sad. Every time I saw my teammates, I felt so proud of them. I have a lot of friends still in the national team, so I was proud of them, seeing they’re achieving our dream — something that we discuss many, many times. I was sad because I wasn’t able to be there as a player to fulfill that dream. But I couldn’t, I couldn’t feel, like, prouder or happier for them. Seeing them having all that I wish I had when I was there: having the best staff member, having the best preparation — like, Chile, for the World Cup, is the first time that they prepare us, a professional team. Like, they played with the best teams in the world. And when we got to the World Cup when I was under 17, we barely play international games to prepare. So yeah, it’s — it was emotional. It wasn’t — it was really emotional. I have a lot of things going on inside. But it was, in general, it was happiness — feeling part of that, feeling part of the achievement, feeling part of the fight.
Being there, I realize that this is happening today, and tomorrow, everyone was going to forget it. I started thinking to make, like, a documentary. And we made this short documentary about — “The Voices of the World Cup,” that’s the name of it. And we started talking to everyone that we found there: fans, people that travel, people that work there, outside the stadiums in the clubhouses…
[CLIP FROM “OFFSIDE: VOCES DEL MUNDIAL FEMENINO FRANCIA 2019” TRAILER WITH WOMAN SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
IONA: …and it’s not my voice. It’s not the voice of one player. It’s a lot of voices — of different voices — telling our story. A story that — it’s built on fighting, fighting for what we deserve, fighting for what’s right. And I think that’s, that’s beautiful. You can see on that documentary — which is one of my favorite parts — a little girl, I think she’s, she was 10 or 11. We ask her why she wanted the US to win, because she was from the US. You expect from a girl to tell you, “Because it’s my team.” I don’t know. “Because I love Alex Morgan.” And she said that it was so important because they were fighting for equal pay and they were fighting for what was right.
CLIP FROM “OFFSIDE” TRAILER WITH YOUNG AMERICAN GIRL SPEAKING:
…So it means a lot if they win, because it will change the world.
IONA: That is so hopeful. Like, if you have that mindset from a girl, like the future is going to be better, for sure.
PAIGE: When the Chilean women’s national team returned home, things were different. The team now had their own designated locker rooms. They had jerseys for sale with their names on them. And they had a lot more funding. But that was only the national team.
IONA: Now, what is happening with the national tournament? What is happening with the team clubs here? They don’t develop women’s soccer. We do a lot of work, like, social work. We have alliances with football teams that work with people that have, like, less opportunities. We go and speak with them. We try to make alliances on everything that can help players to develop better, have social support, have psychological support, have legal support. We didn’t have health insurance, either, like, women’s soccer didn’t have health insurance. We were always raising money to pay for injuries or recoveries for our teammates, so — it’s little steps, like, little victories. But for us, they are huge ones. Like, now we — we have insurance, now we have our national team getting to the World Cup, getting to the Olympic Games. Now we have TV broadcast, we have supporters. Every time that they talk about soccer, they still talk, like, 20 minutes about men’s soccer, but at least they talk about five minutes about us.
PAIGE: Iona graduated with her political science degree and moved back home to Santiago in 2020. She still works for ANJUFF and, in fact, uses her degree as its head political strategist. And of course, she still plays soccer.
IONA: I wake up and I go to sleep trying to think different ways to make it better. And I don’t think many people know what they’re doing or why. Why are they doing? They’re just going through life. And I feel lucky to have a purpose, like, I have a goal, and I know I try to work toward that. I wanted to be a professional. That’s my dream, that at some point I could stop working my ass off and focus on myself and trying to get back to a field, or just play and be a soccer player, and not an activist, director — all the things that I know I need to do right now because no one was doing it.
I get emotional whenever I see little girls playing soccer, because it’s not just one. There are teams. But it’s, like, little steps. Little steps. We need to get our contracts. We need to be professional. We need to stop referring to us like second-class soccer players. You know, that’s, that’s the dream.
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Paige Sutherland and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation.
Next week on the podcast: In 2012, Annet Negesa qualified to represent Uganda in the 800-meter run at the London Olympics. But just weeks before the games, she got a call from her agent. A test had shown high levels of testosterone in her blood. She would not be allowed to compete. But Annet’s ban had nothing to do with performance-enhancing drugs.
This is high testosterone, which is naturally occurring high testosterone. So there is nothing to hide about it. There is nothing to be ashamed about it. This is how they’re born.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next week, on The Long Game.