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For the love of the game, a warrior, a coach, a women...
March, 2016.- The recently wrapped up CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying in Texas was a tournament were the best in the region’s women’s soccer faced off to book a ticket to Rio. Heavily favourites both the US and Canada managed to advance to the Olympics, Costa Rica made it out of their group moving to the semi-finals behind the US positioning them against Canada. Even though the dream was not to be for the TICAS, their performance in the tournament is worth mentioning and gratifying to see their talented players demonstrate their skills. The sport considered to be the most beautiful around the world is an elusive dream for many and a hard fought one on and off the field for girls chasing the dream. This reality is not far from the truth than Costa Rica’s Women’s national team and its coach Amelia Valverde. With a young head coach at the helm of the program Costa Rica’s progress and success is evident with its participation in the Women’s World Cup this past June in Canada, where they participated for the first time, not being able to move out from the group stage they delivered a respectful performance with 1 loss and 2 draws, slightly missing the next round. Recently defeating Mexico and advancing to the semi-finals in the Olympic qualifying championship will position them to become the third strongest team in the CONCACAF region, a region home to the World Cup and Olympic champion the USWNT and Canada, two of the strongest most developed teams in women’s soccer.
First and foremost it is important to touch on the subject of the dominance North American teams have in women’s soccer and the rest of the continent, leaving Europe aside who has a long culture of supporting women is sports. Purely simply put North American success comes in part because it has had a stronger support for women in sports and developing competitive opportunities for women to practice the sport. The reality and the direct involvement of government through legislation allowing direct financial investment in all avenues from little league to physical education programs in the education system at an early age. The other key factor is the culture of sports you find in North America, it is much more diverse and open than any other culture in the hemisphere when it comes to women. These realities are little to non-existent in the rest of the Americas and the Caribbean, and it is a very crucial component if we want to be realistic and optimistic with a higher level of competition from emerging and developing nations. The public and private sector need to play a major role in facilitating women the necessary conditions for competitive gains.
I recently had the opportunity to interview and talk to the Costa Rica’s head coach Amelia Valverde while she and her team were in Frisco Texas playing for the dream to reach Rio 2016. We talked about the challenges, the adversities, the passion and the love for the game, the realities of playing soccer, and coaching soccer. The progress in Costa Rica’s soccer success has not been an overnight and easy journey as explained by Valverde, “it has been a long process since early 2006 with the current group of players that are participating in the 2016 CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers. They have played in the FIFA U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups and reaffirms this by going to the 2015 Women’s World Cup.” Valverde credits the hosting of the 2014 U- 17 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica as fundamentally important that “marks a before and after in the development of women’s soccer in her country.” It is very important to note this she says as “FIFA encourages the creation of an office of development to offer different base programs for girls in soccer for groups 9-12 and 15 after the tournament, which is currently a reality.” She is satisfied with these programs but realizes that it has to improve, the subject of development is fundamentally important to the continued success of a generation that has accomplished great things and continues to grow.”
I mention that there is a growing respect towards the development Costa Rica has shown in recent tournaments and matches, to which she agrees with, but emphasizes that it is a “respect well earned by her players, by the results gained in qualifying to their first, two world cups by defeating Canada.”
Amelia Valverde is not only the head coach of the Women’s national team, she is also in charge of other divisions coaching the U-15, U17 and U-20 Women’s soccer teams in her country with her small technical staff supported by an assistant coach who also happens to be a women, her name is Patricia Aguilar . I ask her how she takes on this responsibility; she simply states that it is a “great honour, a blessing that God and life have given her the opportunity to be in charge of the project, to be able to carry her nation’s flag on her chest every day at work.” She considers that it is a “privilege to be able to represent her country through sports, that maybe not too many know off or understand but above all very grateful that God and the Costa Rican Football Federation has given her and her technical team the responsibility to be in charge of women’s soccer is an honour.” This assignation of having all the teams under a female coach is worthy to note in a sport dominated by male coaches. FIFA itself has notice the need to educate and train more women to fill in more coaching positions, in the last women’s world cup most of the teams were led by male coaches in fact only 8 of the teams were led by female coaches, Valverde being one of them and the second youngest at that.
The dedication and love for the game is clearly evident in the way and form Valverde has devoted herself to it, being at the helm of her country’s female soccer program is no easy task it’s a responsibility she takes with honour. I asked her how and when did this passion for soccer began. Without any hesitation she simply says “since birth” as far as she can recall “always playing with her older brother with whatever and wherever possible.” She recalls at the age of 7 her family moving to a new place far from the city with more space and every day after school she would play the traditional “mejenga” which is the Costa Rican term to your typical neighbourhood ball game. She would play a tournament with her neighbourhood’s team, all boys she would be the only girl, and did not feel comfortable she explains. At the age of 15 she gets the opportunity to play with a team in the first division in a woman’s league playing for 8 years. Her coaching opportunity would come when the coach for the team she played for did not continue and the team was going to be dissolved so they turned to her and offered her the coaching role. She stayed as coach for two years, this is when she was contacted by a trainer of the Costa Rican Football Federation asking her to collaborate with the physical training to which she accepts, this then leads to her becoming assistant coach and recently back on January 2015 becoming the head coach of the women’s national team.
Consistently striving to play and live the game there obviously has to be challenges that have presented themselves to Valverde and her players, so I asked her what were, and what are still these challenges facing women in the sport of soccer from her own experience. Unequivocally the response simply is as expected, that women’s soccer is or has very little economic or financial sustainability for a woman who wants to practice the sport. Social and gender connotations are also attributed to women who practice the sport. The fact that there is no remuneration, there is no professional soccer so “if a women wants to play she has to decide in order to play, simply chose to leave aside what needs to or not, distinguish what is worth or not in order to be an athlete” This is evident in the commitment the players have, the national women’s team will hold practice as early as 5 am in order for them to meet their other responsibilities and have enough time to make it to their jobs, and school right after practice. She explains that she did not receive any salary during her coaching with her first team, she recalls having some form of minimal per diems during the first tournament and nothing at all in the second tournament. She would hold three jobs, as a trainer for the university’s soccer team, a fulltime job in a school run by nuns and on Saturdays a soccer school for a very prominent soccer club. She would save part of her earnings from the job with the school to pay for uniforms, team lunches, transportation; players would have to sometimes collaborate with their own money an equivalent of $6 for transportation. Sometimes they would have to charge $2 entrance fees to their games in order to have a bit more revenue. This she realizes is all a result of a decision she made, the decision to play soccer, a reality of the circumstances surrounding women in sports. Besides all the hardships she recognizes the assistance of some in the league, the committee in the organization would provide with what they could in forms of field time for practices twice a week.
The lack of financial and economic opportunities for women playing soccer professionally in Costa Rica while developing their competitive game some players have opted to go play in Europe and the US. The first division women’s league in Costa Rica consisting of 10 teams with 4 or 5 teams that are very well organized basically allows only a minimal form of per diems and transportation costs. Valverde sees it very complicated in having a salary based incentives for women in the league while recognising that it has improved greatly from when she first started and played herself, but clearly the ideal would be if the conditions improved. She credits this improvement to teams and people around the country that are making great strides and efforts in improving the project and the women’s league. As she states “there have been some great pioneers for the game in developing the women’s league in her country that have improved conditions from what used to be.”
Having to deal with all the social and economic shortfalls and responsibilities being at the helm of the national soccer team how does Amelia Valverde deal with the external criticism and social media backlash when results are not favourable. Obviously a sport so full of passion from both players and spectators, critics seem to come out from everywhere when things don’t go as expected, I ask Valverde how she handles setbacks and criticism. She chuckles at the question and explains that is timed perfect especially after a game like the one they had on their opening match in the Olympic qualifying against the US where they lost 5-0, goes on to say “is not easy, tries to be really careful with what she reads so not to focus her energy in the negative aspects rather than focus on how the team can improve… is that simple.”
“For example I have been in my current position a little over a year now and the first challenge I had was the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the commentaries were positive, everyone in the country responded well and became familiar with the players even more, including the Pan Am Games after defeating Canada, even though I have it clear that we have a debt for our loss to Ecuador we received a good response. As time passed other challenges presented themselves with results we were not expecting, our U-20 did not qualify, this was very hard, very hard, then the women’s national team qualifies for this tournament and the U-17 qualifies for the CONCACAF women’s championship this March, so I have learned how to discern when and when not to read all forms of media.” Is not that she doesn’t want to read or accept criticism, but she emphasizes that she needs to evaluate what is maligned and not constructive criticism. “She concludes her thoughts by simply allowing us to come into her personal space on how she deals with challenges and setbacks from a self-criticism, self-evaluation point, especially after their opening game against the US “which was very hard, the results having to be down already on the first 12 seconds when the objective was to remain scoreless as much as possible.”
Amelia credits all her motivation and purpose to her faith, family and love of the game, states that through sport many lives have changed for the better and that purposeful meaning of what she does day in and day out is rewarding. “The primary and principal motivation is God, first and foremost what I have present everyday whatever may come, I am one that thinks God has a path for everyone and that path is uncertain with the decisions one makes. Then obviously I love what I do, futbol has been my life, I’m 29 and futbol has been near me at all times as far as I can recall I have been running after a ball. My family is fundamentally important, the pillars in my life are my mom, dad and brother and all those few and near to me.” The purposeful motivation as she explains derives from the performance and success of the team, as coach the team has to deliver and secondly very important that through sports one can change lives, you can be a different person and as a country that has no army it can demonstrate to the rest of the world that we have people who can fight, that have convictions and can defend a flag.”
I asked if she would be open to the idea of working outside of Costa Rica if the opportunity and offer presented themselves, her response was as expected after a lengthy conversation and getting to appreciate her passion and love of country for what she does. She states that I’m not the first person to ask but “her dream is to remain where she is for many years, and live many of the things already lived, but if God has other things in mind… I don’t know that’s his path, I would love to remain here because my country is my country although in certain circumstances new experiences however you want to call them would be very good, very important and interesting but obviously is not what excites me right now, for now my priority is to be loyal to my work, I’m very happy here, I love my work, I love my country, and as I said before that through sports we can do something different.”
Their dream to go to Rio 2016 did not pan out as planned and hoped for, but regardless of the outcomes Costa Rica outshined and outperformed the two teams that did go through, their talent is pure raw passion that comes from the undisputed reality of playing the game against all adversities and challenges that you seldom see in men’s professional sports. It is a team and a coach that has great things coming to them once the world gets to know their work and dedication, that at the end as they have humbly accepted they wear their nations jersey without expecting anything in return but the pure joy and taste of victory. These victories will soon enough start amassing once all the pieces fall in place and the necessary support and resources are allocated accordingly. What is next for Valverde? She and her team have the upcoming CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship in Grenada looking to classify for the 2016 U-17 World Cup in Jordan.
Dallas Texas February 2016