Alicia ‘La Pelé’ Vargas’ influences football
“Changed the Game” is a Emox News series dedicated to women who are often overlooked, underestimated, or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women’s sports history.
Fifty years before Megan Rapinoe appeared on the cover of GQ or Abby Wambach became a household name, Alicia Vargas led a team that was fighting for the championship at a world championship. While her history remains largely unknown, Varga’s talent and industry would become “una semilla,” which helped increase the undeniable popularity of women’s football.
Vargas was born in 1954 and discovered the sport by playing ball with her brothers on the streets of Guadalajara. Eager to be involved, she flew over the makeshift pitch. Whether she chased dead balls, honed her reflexes as a goalkeeper or dribbled on the field as a striker, she sharpened her physical and mental knowledge of the sport. The times when her mother – who disapprove of such unladylike behavior – pulled her away from the game (often by the ear) only heightened Alicia’s desire to play.
After discovering a blurb about a women’s squad in the local newspaper, a determined Vargas spoke into a rehearsal. At the age of 14 she made her debut for the Club Guadalajara.
Mañana en #Pioneras Alicia Vargas, a quien la prensa europea apodó “Pelé”.
Seis goles, nomás, en su primer partido en el mundial del 70.
Alicia estuvo también en la selección de las eliminatorias de 91, la primera avalada por la FIFA
– Claus Pedraza (@funkyclaus) July 8, 2020
Stories of Vargas’ abilities quickly spread across the 17 La Liga América teams – from her skillful dribbling to the “punch” of her power shot. She was quickly recruited by coaches to join a Mexican delegation that would fight for a World Cup in Italy under the newly formed International Women’s Football Federation. It was 1970. And it was on its way to the very first Women’s World Cup (although it was neither endorsed nor recognized by FIFA).
As a teenager who had never left her home country, Vargas arrived in Bari. She brought a small suitcase containing only a pair of white blouses, a uniform that Enrique Borja had given the team, and a pair of shoes. Obvious underdogs, the squad representing Mexico began to train in secret. With the help of a priest who offered them the use of a seminar near their hotel, the team practiced before the other clubs came to breakfast. The repetitions paid off as Mexico finished third and Vargas finished as the tournament’s leaders.
The European press was in love with the seedy midfielder they called La Pelé.
Despite being offered a contract to stay in Italy and play for Real Torino, La Pelé was keen to return home. Upon landing in Mexico City, she and her teammates were greeted by cheering fans and requests for autographs. Women’s football had apparently attracted the attention of the national audience. Even more exciting for Vargas was the fact that the World Cup was due to take place on familiar ground next year.
The second Campeonato de Fútbol Femenil took place in Mexico in 1971. The six-team (England, Italy, Denmark, France, Argentina and Mexico) tournament sponsored by the spirits company Martini & Rossi became widespread. While the cartoon mascot and pink goalpost made interesting marketing options, the effort resulted in massive ticket sales and packed stadiums. The competing women could sense an impending change.
After playing with no compensation for training or playing time, the women at Equipo México asked for payment. Unsurprisingly, they were turned down … and the press was appalled that female athletes would have the gall to ask for material reimbursement. At least they should have been grateful por las migas.
After the tickets had already been sold and the championship stage was due to take place at the famous Estadio Azteca – the venue for the 1970 FIFA-approved Men’s World Cup – the women felt obliged to play. The final on September 5, 1971 had an estimated 110,000 fans. Unfortunately, the moment was too big for the home team when Mexico fell 3-0 against Denmark. Vargas left the stadium in tears and refused to speak to the press.
But her talents did not go unnoticed as she was offered another paid contract with Real Torino. And again she refused. Instead, she wanted to be a master for her homeland. As an optimistic teenager, she believed, given the apparent zeal for women’s football, the opportunity would soon arise.
It was not like that.
Internal conflict and political attitudes prevented Mexican officials from taking full advantage of the success of the women’s teams of 1970 and 1971. The women continued to play, however … for nothing but passion.
In 1991, at the age of 37, Vargas accepted an invitation to play for the Mexican Football Association at the FIFA World Cup. However, due to the ongoing lack of organization and adequate funding, the team was unable to qualify. Her career as an international soccer player was over. She retired in 1992 and worked as P.E. Teacher.
Almost five decades after her first World Cup in 2019, Vargas was inducted into the International Soccer Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, she described herself as a happy woman who loves football. Unfortunately, she didn’t love football back soon enough.
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