Enrico Castro Montes from DeMontfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture looks at Alicia ‘La Pelé’ Vargas, a pioneer of Latin American women's football.
Mexican women had created amateur teams as early as the 1930s, and the sport gained popularity in the 1950s. Foreign female teams touring Mexico in 1960 boosted its appeal even further.
In 1969, the Liga América organized Mexico’s first women's tournament with 16 teams from Mexico City and some neighbouring cities. This led to the formation of the Mexican Association of Women's Football (AMFF) in 1970.
Vargas was 15 when she attended a friendly game between two women's teams near her home. She persuaded the Guadalajara coach to allow her to play some minutes, and they were so impressed that she was invited to join the team. Two years later, the AMFF selected Vargas for the Mexican national team to compete in the first unofficial Women's World Cup in Italy in 1970.
Vargas wowed the European press in Italy. After defeating Austria 9-0, the Mexicans advanced to the semi-finals and, although losing to the tournament hosts, finished third by defeating England. The hosts named her the tournament’s most valuable player and the Italian press compared her playing style to that of Brazilian superstar Pelé. Since then, she became known as ‘La Pelé’, the feminine Pelé.
The success of the Mexican women's team inspired Mexico to organise the second unofficial World Cup a year later. However, even after the previous year's success, many Mexicans thought football was too ‘tough’ for women.
That is why the tournament decreased the length of each half from 45 to 35 minutes and added 'feminine' elements to the stadium such as pink stripes painted on the goalposts and flowers behind the goals and on the players' benches.
Vargas' football exploits propelled the Mexican squad to the final, but at that moment, Vargas and her team-mates started asking for payment.
In an interview Vargas spoke up: "It is improper that the organisers keep all the money and they do not give us anything because we are the most important part of the show."
After several days of heavy negotiations, the organisers managed to convince the Mexican women to play the final. At the Azteca stadium, 100,000 people watched Mexico lose 3-0 to Denmark. Eventually, the organisers decided to pay a small sum to the players after the event. This sparked Alicia Vargas' struggle for equal pay that she continues to this day.
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