Vazquez: Athletic Club never take a backward step
Erika Vazquez reflects on 15 years with Athletic Club
Top scorer lauds club's commitment to equality
37-year-old charts rise of the women's game
At her third birthday party, Erika Vazquez was more interested in kicking balloons around than opening presents. Getting the message straightaway, her father went out and bought her a ball. Though he was a handball player and football held no appeal for him, he did not think twice about helping his daughter pursue her passion.
That little girl has since grown up to be one of the captains at Athletic Club, having spent the last 15 seasons there. The winner of three Spanish women’s league titles, Vazquez is the second-highest goalscorer in the Basque club’s history with 260 goals. The only person ahead of her, on 335, is the legendary Telmo Zarra, who was Spanish club football’s leading marksman for fully 60 years.
“No. I’ve thought about it but I’ve got no intention of breaking his record,” joked Vazquez. The striker has an infectious laugh and an equally infectious joy for a game that she has seen grow exponentially in the last few years.
“I wish I’d been born ten years later so I could enjoy what lies ahead,” sighed Vazquez, who still cannot quite believe she is playing the game professionally now and does not have to dash from morning training sessions to a part-time afternoon job just to make ends meet.
“I never thought I could be a professional footballer,” she said. “I grew up thinking that I’d have to make a living from my studies and my job. My first job was at the club in fact and work was really important for me. I didn’t have any role models and I didn’t even think about the possibility of making a living from football. It just seemed unreal to me. It’s all different now; girls can grow up and think about becoming footballers.”
She nevertheless has some valuable advice for young players, both male and female: “The girls shouldn’t give up their studies. We still don’t make as much as the boys and we can’t retire at 40 and live on our savings. We’re not there yet. And as for the boys, I’d remind them that they’re not all going to become professionals, that they need to make the most of their time to keep on studying too. What’s more, you never know if you’re going to have a bad injury one day.”
The goal-getter has practised what she preaches. As well as completing a degree in Physical Education, she has her three coaching badges and is now studying English and taking a scouting course.
Leading by example
Vazquez joined the Bilbao club from an unfashionable Pamplona side 15 years ago and has since witnessed the growth and consolidation of its women’s section at first hand. Though Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have dominated the domestic scene in recent years, Las Leonas (“The Lionesses”) are still a major force.
“Athletic moved fast to set up a women’s team and they’ve kept on progressing since then, taking short but steady steps,” she explained. “Every time they’ve made an improvement they’ve built on it and kept moving forward. They’ve never taken money away from the women’s section to make up for shortfalls in the men’s or youth teams.
“They’ve invested in the youth academy and they’ve really looked after the foundations that support us. They’ve always treated us in the same way as the boys and given us the best medical services and the best facilities. We’ve always played on grass pitches and they’ve given us the best time slots too. You really value things like that.”
The club is also committed to a genuine policy of gender equality that has made its mark on society. Vazquez is still surprised to be recognised in the street, to have autograph hunters waiting for her after games, and to see boys wearing the famous red and white shirt with her name on the back. They are all signs that society is changing and that footballing equality is here to stay in Bilbao, where the club has done much to make it an everyday fact of life.
The awe-inspiring San Mames has itself played a part in all of this. In January 2019, the New Cathedral attracted a capacity crowd of 48,121 for a Copa de la Reina quarter-final tie.
“It was amazing,” said Vazquez, recalling that historic day. Anxious, nevertheless, not to get carried away, she added: “It’s still not our everyday reality though. You only fill San Mames on a day when everything comes together. We wouldn’t fill it up every Sunday. What we want to do is fill Lezama [the side’s customary home ground] every week, like Barcelona fill up the Estadi Johan Cruyff.
Though she is now 37 and has fulfilled her dream of playing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, at Canada 2015, she retains her love for the game and has a few seasons left in her yet: “Playing football has always been a hobby for me and I think that’s why I’ve always been excited about it. I play because I enjoy it, not because I have to. I’ve also been lucky with injuries and it never takes me long to get fit again.”
Vazquez has every confidence that the Spanish league will consolidate its position as one of the best in the world. She is also taking great pleasure at seeing the new generation break through. And she is, of course, still dreaming of glory: “I’m really excited about the Copa. Anything can happen in a cup tie.”