Migrate to win: the struggles of Venezuelan women footballers

By Mark Biram.

Versión en español aquí.

In the words of Alejandro Dominguez, the president of the South American football confederation CONMEBOL, ‘the sky is the limit for women’s football’. In one sense he is right. The breakneck growth of the sport has seen increasingly impressive levels of interest in club games – most notably an attendance of 91,553 fans at the Women’s Champions League semi-final clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Notable increases in television coverage, sponsorship and investment from major clubs have each meant more opportunities for women players than ever. Unfortunately, this growth is deeply uneven – in the case of Venezuela opportunities for women footballers lie only outside their country’s borders. Success depends on migration when the national federation still pays so little regard to the women’s team.

Double-header friendlies (when home and away matches are played in the same place a couple of days apart) are a common practice in women’s football insofar as national federations look to limit accommodation and travel costs in ways they never would with the men’s team. Moreover, in the cases of Colombia and Venezuela, playing friendly matches at all has become an infrequent event. Venezuela women have played just six friendly games compared to 38 friendly and competitive games for the men since the Central American games in July 2018. Similarly, the Colombian federation waited 15 months without organising a single friendly game between a double-header friendly in Buenos Aires against Argentina (9th and 12th November 2019) and another in Orlando against the United States (18th and 22nd January 2021). The matches were intended to provide a warm-up for the upcoming Copa América Femenina to be hosted by Colombia in July 2022.

Deyna Castellanos (centre) from Venezuela playing for Atlético de Madrid, February 2020 (image: Wikimedia Commons)

On 9th and the 12th April 2022, the Venezuelan women’s national team travelled to play Colombia in two such international friendly games (inexplicably only one of these games was made open to the public) at the Estadio Pascual Guerrero in Cali. Both games ended in draws – 2-2 and 0-0 respectively. In the first game all the goals came from clubmates Venezuela’s Deyna Castellanos and Colombia’s Leicy Santos who ply their trade together at Atlético Madrid in Spain.

In more ways than one the goal scorers were symptomatic of the migratory flows which are currently shaping both national teams in the absence of more sustained support from their respective federations. It is no coincidence that as well as moving to Spain for better conditions both players also spent a formative period playing in the US college system – the only place where players can work and study, according to the players themselves. Seeing the results of the games took me back to my own ethnographic fieldwork spent with three club sides in South America – two in Brazil and one in Colombia. In both countries I became aware of a considerable presence of émigré Venezuelan players. They would always be forthright about the lack of opportunities and the extremely low likelihood of making any money whatsoever from women’s football in Venezuela.

In much of South America the term professionalisation is bandied about in ways that empty it of any meaning. Nominally professional, players in the Venezuelan Women’s Super League frequently report no running water in the showers and having to walk considerable distances just to reach training with no transport provided by the clubs. During the first year of COVID there was no women’s competition whatsoever and in 2021 an extremely short transition tournament with just four teams was eventually hashed together. The FIFA Forward programme claimed that a dream was born after the ten-day tournament finished with games taking place at 7.30am.

Beyond these problems in providing a meaningful club calendar, in October last year more than 20 Venezuelan women players wrote a letter revealing years of sexual abuse and harassment by former national coach Kenneth Zseremeta. This comes just over a year after ex-Colombia coach Didier Luna was sentenced to 28 months in prison after a series of sexual harassment accusations – but had the sentence reduced to a fine after his legal team struck a deal with the Prosecutor’s Office.

In light of a threadbare to non-existent institutional polity, the migratory flows that exist are all the more remarkable. Male players often migrate to Europe after ample opportunity to place themselves in the shop window during the domestic season. In spite of relatively non-existent exposure women players from Venezuela and Colombia have made successful careers abroad. In the Colombian squad 12 of the 23 play their football abroad (seven in Spain, three in Brazil, one in Israel and one in Mexico). A far more radical case is that of Venezuela. None of the 20 women called up for the two friendly games currently plays club football in their home country. Of the Venezuelans nine play in Spain, four in Colombia, four in Brazil, one in Chile, one in Portugal and one has recently moved to CSKA Moscow in Russia, despite recent developments. For linguistic and cultural reasons Spain is the destination of choice (9 Venezuelans and 7 Colombians play for Spanish clubs). This, in theory, sounds like an ideal set of circumstances, but gives lie to the precarity that characterises their experiences. Many of these players are on short contracts and will most likely play for two or three more clubs before the calendar year is out. This implies, of course, moving to a new city or even country multiple times, and re-settling in new accommodation and getting used to new colleagues in each place.

As of April 2022, Venezuela’s women lie 53rd in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings behind a number of countries with no record of exporting players, such as Myanmar, Uzbekistan and Papua New Guinea. This is because ranking points are only accumulated whenever a national team plays in a FIFA recognised friendly or tournament game. With this in mind, it is reasonable to wonder where a country with a prolific production rate of high-level players might be with a federation and national league willing to support them. Given the level of potential the players have shown in earning moves to more prestigious leagues, maybe it is reasonable to believe that the sky is the limit. However, it must be acknowledged that in their own country and perhaps even continent, the women continually run into a gendered glass ceiling that thwarts their progress at every turn.

Mark Biram is a Teaching Associate in the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University of Bristol, where he studied for his PhD. His doctoral research focused on the contestation and reproduction of a gendered social order within women’s club football in Latin America (specifically Brazil and Colombia).

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