Albiceleste eye victories at Women's World Cup after long fight for equality
National team plays first Group D match on June 10 against the runner-ups of the previous Women's World Cup, Japan. Then they will face England, currently ranked third in FIFA’s list. Their last game will be against Scotland.
Exhausted players lie scattered on a field at the Albiceleste's training complex on the outskirts of Buenos Aires after a double dose of training, including an exhibition match against a teenage men's team.
The concerns about things like a lack of uniforms and the refusal to allow them on fields previously used exclusively by men are in the past. Now Argentina's women's national team is focused on trying to get its first win in a Women's World Cup when the tournament kicks off in France.
"Most of this group is coming with a background filled of disappointment. For us it would be an award for so many years fighting," goalkeeper Gabriela Garton told The Associated Press.
Garton spends half her day in football and the other in a master's programme in sociology.
Argentine players who are taking the team to its first Women's World Cup in 12 years helped organise a strike in 2017 after their stipends went unpaid, kicking off a movement for equality that eventually pushed the Argentine Football Association (AFA) to grant the national women's league professional status.
The complaints from national team players coincided with the country's feminist movement that has taken to the streets with marches against violence and inequality.
"Football was this last place that was so hard to break the barriers and come in. This year the dam opened and I hope it remains this way," Garton said.
The milestones have included women playing one of their league games in Boca Juniors' historic La Bombonera stadium earlier this year, the first time an official women's game was played in the stadium. The game was held prior to a Boca Juniors-San Lorenzo men's game.
Players from the women's national side have also enjoyed some visibility advertising sportswear, household appliances and even a special edition of the historic Panini World Cup sticker book. It's totally new for women who not long ago were invisible.
Only nine Argentina squad members play abroad. But Levante's midfielder Florencia Bonsegundo said she wants to inspire girls "not only in the national team, but also at the country level."
The Albiceleste lost all six World Cup matches the previous two times it qualified, in 2003 and 2007. The team will play its first Group D match on June 10 against Japan, the runner-up in the 2015 tournament. They will then face England, currently ranked third in the world. Their last game will be against Scotland.
"Our main goal is to win one match, and we will focus on debutant Scotland," said striker Mariana Larroquette. "We could match England and we are far from Japan, but it is not impossible."
Argentina's team has played together for less than two years, which accounts for some of the modest expectations.
"We have to have our feet on Earth," said captain Estefanía Banini, who wears No. 10, like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. "From the halfway line onwards we can make the difference in one-on-ones, we have skills, but we know we are slow in comparison with countries with bigger preparation. We need to work to know how to defend against the speed of other teams."
The national side's players have a last wish before they travel to France; to be visited by Messi, who will soon be in Buenos Aires for Copa América preparations.
"We hope we can share a moment because we are in the same building, and he can tell us how to live a World Cup," said Bonsegundo. "There are girls that have never been to one, it would be beautiful for them to get closer."
Argentina's opponents in France
FIFA RANKING: 3
QUALIFICATION: Won Group 1 of UEFA qualification.
WORLD CUP APPEARANCES: 1995 (6th), 2007 (7th), 2011 (5th), 2015 (3rd), 2019.
WHAT TO KNOW: There were a lot of questions when Neville took over the team from Mark Sampson, who was fired because of inappropriate conduct. Neville, the former England fullback, had never coached a women's team and most of his experience was as an assistant. But England has fared well under Neville and won the 2019 SheBelieves Cup, a tournament that included the United States, Japan and Brazil. Celebrities, including David Beckham and Prince William, announced the players on the team's roster for the World Cup. Nickname is the Lionesses. Steph Houghton is the team's captain.
STATE OF THE GAME: There are 11 teams in the professional Women's Super League, the top tier of the women's game. The league recently struck a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with Barclays.
FIFA RANKING: 20
QUALIFICATION: Won Group 2 of UEFA Qualification.
WORLD CUP APPEARANCES: 2019
COACH: Shelley Kerr
KEY PLAYERS: Kim Little, Rachel Corsie, Jennifer Beattie.
WHAT TO KNOW: Scotland is making its World Cup debut in France. The team made its debut in the Euros in 2017. Kim Little won the National Women's Soccer League Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot awards in 2014 while playing for the Seattle Reign. She now plays for Arsenal. Shelley Kerr is a former center back. As a coach, she led Arsenal to back-to-back FA Women's Cup titles in 2013 and 2014. Scotland and England wound up in the same group in France and will play on June 9 in Nice. Rachel Corsie is the team's captain.
STATE OF THE GAME: In 2013, the federation pledged to invest more in women's football, and the recent achievements of the team have been seen as the effort's result.
FIFA RANKING: 7
QUALIFICATION: Won the 2018 AFC Women's Cup.
WORLD CUP APPEARANCES: 1991 (12th), 1995 (8th), 1999 (13th), 2003 (10th), 2007 (10th), 2011 (Champions), 2015 (Runner-Up), 2019.
COACH: Asako Takakura
KEY PLAYERS: Rumi Utsugi, Kumi Yokoyama, Saki Kumagai.
WHAT TO KNOW: Asako Takakura took over as coach in 2016, replacing Norio Sasaki, who took the team to two World Cup finals, including the title in 2011 when Japan beat the United States on penalties. The US team got revenge with a 5-2 victory in the final in Canada in 2015. The team's nickname is Nadeshiko. Japan won silver at the 2012 Olympics in London. Rumi Utsugi plays for the Seattle Reign in the National Women's Soccer League in the U.S.
STATE OF THE GAME: Japan has a robust three-tiered women's professional league.