Football: Spanish girls' team breaks barriers to win Under-14 boys' league title

Left: The AEM Lleida girls' amateur team celebrating their league title triumph last month, as they emerged tops in a junior regional boys' league in Spain. Far left: AEM's top scorer Andrea Gomez leaping high to head the ball over the boys. She scor
The AEM Lleida girls' amateur team celebrating their league title triumph last month, as they emerged tops in a junior regional boys' league in Spain.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Left: The AEM Lleida girls' amateur team celebrating their league title triumph last month, as they emerged tops in a junior regional boys' league in Spain. Far left: AEM's top scorer Andrea Gomez leaping high to head the ball over the boys. She scor
AEM's top scorer Andrea Gomez leaping high to head the ball over the boys. She scored 38 goals during AEM's title- winning season.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LLEIDA (Spain) • The pony-tailed forward cut through the rain and the defence and drove a low shot past the outstretched arm of the goalkeeper.

The pin-point strike - her 38th of the season - confirmed Andrea Gomez as the top scorer for her championship team.

The boys that she left in her wake, though, were not the first ones forced to retrieve one of her shots from their net.

The 13-year-old Gomez and her teammates had been confounding boys all season, playing so well that their girls' team recently won a junior regional league in Spain over 13 boys' teams.

"I always try to show that football isn't just for boys," she said. "If you're technically better, you can compensate for being perhaps physically weaker."

In the United States and a handful of other countries, it is not uncommon for women to upstage their male counterparts when it comes to football success.

SURPRISING ABUSERS

It's strange, but most of the macho comments and insults have come from the mothers of some of the boys we play.

JOSE MARIA SALMERON , AEM Lleida's general director, on comments directed at his all-girls team during their matches in the boys' league.

But in Spain, women's football, despite the country's first Women's World Cup appearance in 2015, remains a sideshow.

Spain's top women's league did not sign its first major corporate sponsorship deal until last summer - three decades after the league began - and the country's most successful club, Real Madrid, have no women's squad.

Gomez plays for AEM Lleida, an amateur club which decided almost a decade ago to focus on coaching girls.

In 2014, coming off another season in which their girls dominated other girls' teams, AEM registered one of their teams in a boys' league for the first time.

"To push these girls, we felt they had to play against boys because you need strong opponents to make real progress," said the club's general director, Jose Maria Salmeron.

AEM took advantage of a Spanish football federation rule that allows clubs to field players of any sex - including mixed teams that combine boys and girls - for junior league competitions until age 14. Back then, though, not everyone was convinced the decision was a wise one.

"A few parents called us crazy when we registered the team," said Sergio Gonzalez, AEM's president. "If this had gone very wrong, we would have been held responsible for humiliating the girls."

The transition was not easy.

The girls finished 12th in an 18-team league in their debut season. But as the team improved, and began to beat boys' teams with more regularity, their progress generated unpleasant reactions.

"It's really been more a problem for parents rather than their boys," Salmeron said of comments directed at the team during matches. "It's strange, but most of the macho comments and insults have come from the mothers of some of the boys we play."

It is not just opponents who have struggled to adapt, however. AEM coach Daniel Rodrigo recalled a recent match when the referee asked him before kick-off whether his team had not travelled to the wrong field.

During another match, the referee upset the AEM players by regularly referring to them as "las princesas" - the princesses - while he directed play.

In AEM's final home game, Gomez led her team past their toughest rivals this season, the boys from La Noguera, a club from about 20km away.

La Noguera fields teams in different age groups from an overall squad of 113 players. Only one of them, a seven-year-old, is a girl.

"We just don't have a tradition of girls," said La Noguera's technical director Pere Clariso. He highlighted AEM's superior discipline as one reason for their success.

"Tactically, you can see that these girls listen to every word from their coach," he said. "They really try to do as they're told."

After the match, the AEM girls celebrated their title by tossing Rodrigo into the air and holding up their trophy as the stadium loudspeakers blared We Are The Champions.

The boys from La Noguera looked dejected but were quick to offer praise, too. "It's hard to lose against girls," said one player, Oriol Marchal. "But these ones really are very good."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline 'Girls' team emerge winners in boys' league'. Print Edition | Subscribe