It all began at a wake, nine days of prayer that ended with a conversation about football between a young woman and the sons of the deceased, Fernando and Manuel Emilio Bonilla. They wanted to set up a women’s team but could not find the players. She wanted to play but could not find a team.
“We were seven women and we left there determined to find friends and family who would help us put a team together,” said Maria Elena Valverde, the central character in our story. The date was 27 February 1949 and within just three weeks she and her comrades in arms had assembled a squad of 30 players.
They formed what was the first women’s team in the whole of the CONCACAF region, Deportivo Femenino Costa Rica. And on 19 March, the feast day of St Joseph – the patron saint of the Costa Rican capital San Jose – they held their first training session at a farm known as Las Delicias.
“The first thing we had to do before we started training was to clear away all the cow pats because there were cattle grazing there. It helped us warm up,” recalled the pioneering Maria Elena, who as a young girl had dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. “A lot of the girls told their families they were going to play basketball because their parents wouldn’t have let them play football. I never had any problems, though.
“My mum even went in goal whenever we had a kickabout in the square with my cousins and aunts. She was pretty small too. She set an example for my five brothers and me.”
Now 87, and speaking slowly but with genuine sense of enthusiasm in her voice, Maria Elena cast her mind back to those early days: “I never imagined all the things I would experience thanks to that, all because of football.”
What began as a near-clandestine gathering of friends ultimately led to her becoming an ambassador of Costa Rican women’s football and to receiving the FIFA Order of Merit in 2014 for her contribution to the development of the game.
I never imagined all the things I would experience... all because of football.
Wherever she goes she proudly takes with her a bulging photo album containing snaps of her football travels, which have taken in the Opening Match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and the Final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ and on which she has met legends such as Just Fontaine and Frank Beckenbauer.
Returning to the black and white days of Las Delicias, Maria Elena spent a year there honing her skills as an inside-right before the project took on a whole new dimension on 27 March 1950. It was on that day that the local men’s’ fixtures were suspended to allow their intrepid female counterparts to show what they could do with the ball, with the members of Deportivo Femenino Costa Rica splitting into two teams – one wearing white and the other sky blue.
“The Bonilla boys went from house to house asking for permission from the players’ families, and they got it,” said Maria Elena. “In La Nación the next day they said that we played even better than the men.”
Such an impression did she and her fellow female footballers make that within a week they embarked on an international tour that took them to Panama, Colombia, Curacao, Honduras and Guatemala for a series of exhibition matches. “We couldn’t play in Bogota because the Liga de la Decencia (a movement that sought to uphold what it saw as moral decency) said that our shorts were too short,” an indignant Maria Elena recalled. “They were formed by women too!”
A staunch defender of women’s rights, she had this to say about her efforts to put the women’s game on the map: “When I want something I achieve it. You can’t be weak in mind and get left behind. Everything hinges on how determined you are to fight.”
Her determination to play the game she loved led her to leave her husband, who disapproved of her passion for football. “I couldn’t be there giving in to everything he wanted. It wasn’t as if I was doing something I shouldn’t, something scandalous. It was right for me, and it was what I wanted to do,” she explained.
“My family were right behind me and I told him where to go,” she added, happy in the knowledge that she has made the most of the opportunities life has had to offer her. “That’s the way I am. I have a lot of character. If I’d just bowed my head, none of this would have happened.”
Supporting the biggest act in football
Valverde finally hung up her boots on 15 August 1961, and did so in style. “When Real Madrid came to Costa Rica for the first time to play Deportivo Saprissa they asked us to play another women’s team – of which there were a few by that time – in a curtain-raiser for their match. They’d seen us in Colombia and really liked us.”
The game was to be played at the Estadio Nacional in San Jose, the stadium where she first fell in love with football as a fan and where she saw the player who, in her expert opinion, was the finest Costa Rica ever produced: Alejandro Morera Soto.
As she revealed, however, Maria Elena barely slept before the final match of her career, and not because she would be sharing the spotlight with the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Paco Gento. “The coach asked me to play in midfield, something I’d never done before. They said that I did really well, though, and they chaired me off the pitch at the end. It was my last game and my best one too.”
A mother of four, a grandmother of 13, a great-grandmother of 14 and a great-great-grandmother of three, Maria Elena has maintained strong ties with Costa Rican women’s football, which went through some hard times in the 1970s and 80s. Its renaissance came in 2014, when the country played host to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
“It was a very special time,” said the woman who laid the foundations for Tica football over 60 years earlier. “It was lovely to see all those girls. Who would have thought it?”