TIJUANA — Gates of Hell have creaked open at Caliente Stadium in this border city. The devil’s on the loose.
A sign in the visitor’s tunnel leading to the soccer pitch warns “This is Mictlan,” a reference to the Aztec underworld guarded by the sacred dogs, Xoloitzcuintles. The new Club Tijuana’s women professional soccer team is fired up and ready to give ’em hell.
In 2015 Club Tijuana became the first Mexican team to compete in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, a national circuit in the United States. Las Xolas were forced to play home matches in the border community of San Ysidro because league officials would not let them play in Tijuana, arguing that the town was unsafe. Former general manager Marbella Ibarra said team leaders tried to convince league officials that Tijuana was changing for the better, to no avail.
“Our team was not allowed to play at Caliente Stadium,” she said. “We are visitors even at our home games.”
In their first year competing del otro lado de la frontera (on the other side of the border) Club Tijuana’s women took fifth place. More important, they achieved enormous popularity with matches crowded with families and children.
Las Xolas witnessed first-hand the differences between Mexican and American soccer. American players are characterized by strength and power, while their Mexican counterparts emphasize ball control. Mexicans were also old-fashioned about gender roles, with some insisting women could not excel in soccer.
Americans know better and are proud of their elite women’s national team.
Head coach Andrea Rodebaugh of Club Tijuana said Mexican culture has held back women athletes.
“The biggest obstacle we have faced is the idea that women and soccer do not go together,” she said. “It is ridiculous to think this sport belongs just to men.”
Proximity to the border helped Club Tijuana as progressive American attitudes toward women athletes trickled over la linea.
“I had a group of girls that represented Baja California for 10 years,” Ibarra said. “We won everything, so we reached a point where we wanted to take one step further.”
Ibarra teamed up with Andrea Rodebaugh, Mexico’s former U20 coach, to structure a project they could present to Club Tijuana. Xolos general manager Ignacio Palou approved the project in 2014 and offered Club Tijuana’s headquarters and stadium.
“With a women’s soccer team representing us, we can open the door to those girls who want to be professionals,” said Palou. “We can offer them an opportunity for development, something that was missing here in Mexico.”
Finally, in December 2016, the Mexican Football Federation announced the creation of a women’s professional soccer league.
“It was like a scream on the dessert,” said Ibarra. “We did not know if the idea would turn into a reality.”
It was real for Evelyn Fernandez, wearing a red jersey with a number 19, when she looked down and prepared the ball on the grass. At the whistle, Fernandez kick the free shot and the fans roared the magic word — gooooal! It was the first Caliente Stadium goal by a female professional soccer player. Xolas won 2-0 against Monarcas Morelia.
But not everything is perfect in Mictlan.
In an unexpected turn of events, the Mexican Football Federation made a rule change one month before the start of the league. Female players with dual citizenship were banned, directly affecting Club Tijuana and teams with Mexican-American players.
SWC women soccer coach Carolina Soto said she hopes that rule will change because it limits the growth of female soccer players at the border.
“We need to be conscious that is a border city and we have Mexican-Americans that grew up feeling very proud of their Mexican heritage,” she said. “They speak Spanish and their culture is Mexican. It is unfair to (ban) those girls.”
Meanwhile, at Mictlan, Las Xolas work to imbue their team with an energetic style of play. Rodebaugh said they need to develop the reserve teams because, after the announcement of the new professional league and the changes of rules, the squad went through a lot of infrastructure changes.
“We need to start thinking about the future,” she said. “We need to form the new generation of players that are going to play for Xolos’ women’s team.”
Rodeabugh said the time for women’s professional soccer in Mexico has arrived. It is one hell of an idea.