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Girls & Women

This Girl’s Football Team Beat the Odds to Win a Boy’s League

The football season is almost at a close. It’s sad, it’s exciting, and, as Sir Alex Ferguson once said, we are quickly approaching “squeaky bum time” - the time of year where champions are crowned, dreams are shattered, and Arsenal probably finish in the Premier League top four.

But in Spain, one team is already celebrating. It’s not Barcelona or Real Madrid — at the top, the battle continues. In fact, it’s geographically somewhere between the two, in a small city called Lleida. An amateur football side there have won plaudits all over the world, as a team of young girls has defied expectations to storm to the top of a boy’s league.

AEM Lleida has already won the Men’s Second League - a junior division dominated primarily by young boys. But this season, they’ve found themselves beaten at their own game. AEM has won every single game bar one, pipping 13 male teams to the championship. Now, they’ve gone global, as the New York Times covered their remarkable story.

In Spain, mixed sex teams are permitted until the age of 14. Although AEM Lleida have been coaching girls for over a decade, they only joined the boy's league in 2014. Since then, the team has grown from strength to strength. But in Spain, women’s football has often faced an uphill struggle.

Real Madrid could very well make history in the next few weeks as the first ever team to win back-to-back Champions League titles. Madrid have already won the trophy 11 times - more than any other team. However, unlike the majority of the world’s most successful clubs, Madrid doesn’t have a female team. In the last week, it was widely reported that Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo charged £920,000 for half a day's work on a photoshoot, five signed shirts, and two social media posts. Yet despite existing for over 30 years, the top female league in Spain has only just found corporate sponsorship in the last 12 months.

However, AEM Lleida’s story has coincided with a recent upturn in fortunes. In 2014, Spain’s national female team reached the quarterfinals of the European Championships in Sweden. The following year, they qualified for their very first World Cup, getting knocked out in the group stages. Now, they’ve already qualified for the next European Championships without losing a single game under new coach Jorge Vilda La Roja.

Real Madrid may have beaten Atlético Madrid just days ago, but their rivals still have much to teach them. Atletico Madrid have finally given their women’s team permission to play at the Vicente Calderón, their official home ground. In testament to the growing popularity of the women’s game, 14,000 people turned up to watch Atletico top the league with a 2-1 win against FC Barcelona. Clearly, there’s an appetite to see the sport grow.

Of course, progress always breeds problems, especially for the extraordinary feats of the young women at AEM. But barriers are often found in the most unexpected places. Daniel Rodrigo, who coaches the side, confessed to reporter Raphael Minder that a referee once officiated a match whilst addressing their team as “las princesas”, whilst another questioned if they had turned up to the wrong pitch. 

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 “It’s really been more a problem for parents rather than their boys,” José María Salmerón, the general director of AEM Lledia, added in an interview with the NY Times. “It’s strange, but most of the macho comments and insults have come from the mothers of some of the boys we play.”

Indeed, many of the boys they play against recognise their quality.

“It’s hard to lose against girls,” said Oriol Marchal, a boy on the losing side of AEM’s final home game of the season. “But these ones really are very good.”

Andrea Gomez, 13, is both team captain and the league’s top scorer, with 38 goals this season.  One day, she wants to move to the USA, where women’s football seems to be better valued.

“I always try to show that soccer isn’t just for boys,” Gómez said. “If you’re technically better, you can compensate for being perhaps physically weaker.”