Brenda Elsey is an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and co-host of the sport and feminism podcast Burn It All Down. She recently wrote an article for The Guardian, “From the Ashes, South American Women Rise Again For the Copa America Feminina,” about female soccer players in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina and how they have changed their federations by self-organizing themselves. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and you can listen to a longer version of this interview on the Edge of Sports podcast, sponsored by The Nation.
Dave Zirin: Can you give us a sense of what the women’s soccer federations looked like in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina before the players started organizing?
Brenda Elsey: In 2014, when the last Copa America was held—which is the only time you really get to see these federations come out—it looked like there was some momentum, some kind of organizing in all of those places. The president of the federation at that time, in Chile, was really interested in developing the women’s game. He’s since been displaced. Brazil has such a depth of talent that they can maybe get by without much support sometimes. And Argentina was a disaster, as it is today. So in 2014 you saw them go to Ecuador. There was some momentum around them at that time, and then, between then and now, it was a complete disaster. The majority of teams in CONMEBOL [The South American Football Confederation], six out of 10, sometimes seven out of 10, were considered inactive by FIFA.
DZ: How have the players organized to turn this around and how much have they turned this around?
BE: I think it’s amazing how much they’ve turned it around. This tournament, so far, has been better than we’ve seen. They’ve gotten, just by their own efforts, a TV station in Chile, for the first time, to cover the tournament, entirely. The stadium attendance is record-breaking and they’ve done it through really political organizing, collective political organizing, in different ways.
The Chileans have formed a union. This happened all around 2015, 2016, during the whole FIFA scandals when they really fell into complete disarray. Meaning, their federations weren’t even answering invitations, so they might’ve been invited by the Colombian federation, but the Chilean women didn’t even know. They didn’t have coaches. They didn’t have anything assigned. And so around then, they really started realizing, hey, after all this work—because most of them had gone through the system as youth players—and they saw their rankings go from 15, 16, to 0, at the end of 130. So they really got together around 2015-16 and they’ve done it in different ways, but collectively, the Chileans, like I said, they started a union. The Argentines went on strike. And the Brazilians had a collective combination of letter-writing and, sadly, and this is so painful, retirements.