- AEM Lleida’s junior girls team beat the boys to win league title
- “In football, it’s all about the ball,” says their coach Dani Rodrigo
- The club is hoping to one day have a team in the Spanish women’s top flight
“The girl’s been asking me for a while.” Jose Maria Salmeron, the general supervisor at Catalan amateur football club AEM Lleida, has got used to hearing those words, which are uttered by virtually every parent who comes along to enrol their daughter. “Whenever a little boy kicks a stone, they take him to a football club straightaway,” he told FIFA.com. “But when a girl starts kicking a football around, a lot of parents will say: ‘Let’s see if she grows out of it. Football and girls don’t mix’.”
Things are changing, however, as AEM Lleida’s junior girls team have shown. Over the last two months, they have attracted media interest from around the world, after winning a junior regional league in which all the other teams are formed by boys.
Did you know?
- There has been only one other precedent in Spain, where girls and boys are allowed to compete together until the age of 14: Rayo Vallecano’s girls team, who won their league in 2016.
- AEM Lleida won the championship, with four games to spare, after suffering just one defeat and drawing twice in 22 games. In total, they scored 93 goals and let in just 25.
- The team was created three years ago to allow junior girls to play 11-a-side football, as Catalonia does not have a girls league in the age group.
- On the back of their success, AEM Lleida will run two more female teams next season, taking the total number to eight. Almost 25 per cent of the club’s registered players are female.
“We’re very pleased because it’s really important,” said 14-year-old Alba Cano. It was her goal that clinched the title for her side, and her club believe she has the makings of a star. The midfielder has already attracted the attention of Barcelona, who have invited her to train with them on a couple of occasions. “I hope I can play there one day. That’s my dream,” she said, her face lit up by a broad smile.
The team’s coach, Dani Rodrigo, knew his players were on to something special almost as soon as the season got underway. “We won our first six games and we said: 'You know, they might just be in the mix here’.” Rodrigo knew from the start that if they played to their strengths, they might just have a chance of success.
“I told them that we couldn’t compete with the boys when it comes to strength and speed because it’s a physiological thing, and that we had to really focus on keeping possession of the ball,” he explained. “The more we had the ball, the less damage they could do to us.” Add to that, the team’s tactical discipline at the back, their excellent use of set-pieces and the superb technique of the players and it is easy to see why they ended up topping the table.
(“Congratulations to the junior girls’ team, who won the league title after winning 2-1 at Pardinyes 1-2. ⚪️#campiones”)
*Images are the property of AEM Lleida
“It’s a pleasure to watch them,” said David Cano, Alba’s proud father, who usually goes along with his wife and older daughter to watch the family’s star play. “The boys just seem to play against the girls as if they were playing another boys team. It’s all very natural. The other teams have shown them a lot of respect.”
Sadly, that has not always been the case on the touchline, with the odd derogatory remark being aimed at the players, mainly by other mothers. “That’s one thing that has surprised us,” said the coach, who then played the problem down: “What’s important is that the girls have surpassed themselves and they’ve shown that in football, it’s all about the ball.”
“We love playing football and they shouldn’t say things about us just because of that,” added Alba, who acknowledged that the team sometimes got annoyed about the comments thrown their way: “Once, the mother of this boy said something when the score was 1-1. It made us want to beat them even more and we did.”
It was in response to those remarks that AEM Lleida embarked on a crowdfunding campaign under the slogan 'Las barbies también juega' ('Barbies play too!'), the aim being to raise the money they need to continue developing their women’s teams. “Maybe it’s a utopia, but it’s our dream to see our women’s first team break into the first division,” said Salmeron. For the time being, though, he is making sure that the achievement of Alba and her team-mates is the start rather than the end of something: “One of the things that makes me happiest of all is coming across so many little girls who want to sign up with us.”