MISSOULA — The Women’s World Cup may be over, but international women’s soccer continues — right here in Missoula.
The University of Montana women's soccer team joined 20 Peruvian athletes at Fort Missoula Regional Park Tuesday afternoon for a soccer clinic. The latter group was on the second day of a 10-day cultural exchange trip to Montana, organized by the University of Montana’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center and funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
A women’s soccer program like UM’s is a far cry from what Camila Zapata and Ana Sánchez Pajuelo say exists in Peru. “Girls have the opportunity here to grow up watching soccer,” said Zapata. But in Peru, Sánchez said through an interpreter, “you don’t see female players. Field soccer is not as popular in Peru.”
Latin America may have a reputation as a soccer powerhouse, but women have mostly been left on the sidelines, said these members of the Peruvian delegation.
“Our press doesn’t really cover (women’s) soccer teams,” said Camila Zapata, a journalist for media company Movistar. Leading up to and since their World Cup Victory, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team has made headlines in demanding pay equal to their male counterparts.
In Peru, Zapata said, the imbalance is dire. While Peruvian male players receive an average salary worth about $3,000, she said, women only receive $250.
“That’s the reality they are encountering."
By bringing these reporters, athletes and coaches to Montana, the State Department aims to help them achieve that goal, explained Susan Crystal, deputy assistant Secretary of State for professional and cultural exchanges for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
“From the U.S. government’s perspective, we do these (exchanges) because they can fill a foreign policy objective — in this case, women, gender and development — but also (provide) opportunities to increase mutual understanding between our two countries.”
The University of Montana’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center is taking part in the State Department’s Sports Diplomacy Program, sponsoring four exchanges between UM and Latin America in 2018 and 2019. The Peru program’s first phase was in May, when a delegation from Montana spent a week south of the Equator.
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The participants included Keane Hamilton, an assistant coach for men’s soccer at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, who was struck by the lack of public facilities. “Pretty much every space available to play costs money,” he said. Working around that left him with “a new appreciation for the game.”
Tess Brenneman, a 2017 UM alum and center back on the team, went on that trip and agreed with Sánchez and Zapata’s assessment of the sport. Soccer in Peru, she said, “is seen as kind of a man’s sport.”
The soccer clinics and connections they made, she said, were a way “to be able … to kind of break that story.”
Now, Brenneman and her teammates are continuing that work, leading the Peruvians in drills and clinics throughout the week. On Tuesday, the players were scheduled to appear in an evening panel at UM with Crystal and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox. But first, they drilled and faced off in a practice match, with Spanish interpreter María Claudia Carmona repeating the U.S. coaches’ instructions.
“Participants are coming from Peru, some of them don't speak any English, perhaps some of our participants here from Montana don't speak any Spanish,” Crystal observed, “but through sport they have the opportunity to share and grow together.”
The lessons won’t end when they go home. Each of the Peruvian participants was competitively selected by the U.S. Embassy in Lima and Peruvian soccer association Ligas Femeninas Fútbol 7, on the basis of an action plan they had prepared. “They will be working on these action plans throughout the next couple of weeks and then they will stay connected with their partners here," Crystal said.
Zapata, the journalist, is making a documentary entitled ¿Quienes son los mujeres de fútbol peruano?, or "Who are the women of Peruvian soccer?", in an effort to reshape attitudes around the sport. “The society needs to recognize women, to feel respect for them,” she said.
Sánchez, meanwhile, is looking for volunteers to help with an ongoing exchange program she aims to start in Lima, to teach soccer to girls there. On her second day in Montana, she’s confident that this is the right place to look. “The Americans, you guys, are the top world champions,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s a win-win situation where the volunteers will have a cultural exchange as well as the girls.”
And Missoula, she added, “is a beautiful, lovely place … the people are very friendly.”