Women’s football | North Americans on a mission as ‘new Portuguese’

Integration of players from disparate backgrounds can be challenging. The new recruits—most second- or third-generation—bring a different perspective, style of play and, sometimes, minimal conversation skills in the language in which their teammates are fluent. The cost to transport players, sometimes halfway around the world for camps and games, can squeeze a federation budget in which women’s football stands already as a low priority.

But Jorge, corresponding by e-mail, counters that women’s soccer in Portugal must make up for years of lost opportunities. “We have already ‘lost’ the path of magnificent players of Portuguese origin who play in other national teams as France, USA, Australia …,” she writes.

Women’s football in Portugal is nowadays starting from zero and therefore needs a greater development in terms of championships and of its general organisation. … Our national teams need to be more competitive and need a higher physical and athletic level. As the players of Portuguese origin come from more competitive championships, they bring those advantages to our team—athletic power, tactical maturity and competitive rhythm.

Jorge adds that there are 3,700 women futsal players in Portugal, but these are small numbers when facing European powers such as Germany, Norway or Sweden for continental or World Cup qualifying berths. By promoting the women’s national team in Portuguese communities around the world, she can present playing for Portugal as a viable option.

For their part, American players do not see the decision as one of abandoning their country—most will stay in the United States for school and careers. With chances of playing for the U.S. national team remote, Portugal offers them the opportunity to play internationally and to connect with an ancestral home.

FIFA uses a player’s heritage, determined by the origins of the player’s parents and grandparents, to determine national-team eligibility. The players must acquire a passport for each nation for which they compete. FIFA also allows players under 23 who are eligible in multiple countries to play with multiple federations at youth level. They lock themselves in permanently once they have played with a federation’s senior team.

Brandão

Rather than mercenaries, North American players now competing for Portugal see themselves as missionaries, helping to spread their love of soccer to a country where women’s football is in its infancy. Kim Brandão, Jersey Sky Blue veteran and former Rutgers player, says she has encountered no resentment from her European-based teammates. “The players in Portugal have welcomed me better than I could have expected even though I don’t speak fluent Portuguese.” Brandão, who has also played professionally in Sweden and Spain, nevertheless was brought up with Portuguese traditions and customs. She plays on the senior team along with a sister, Lissette (New Jersey Wildcats).

Despite being the only import on the U-19 team, Valerio did not feel like an outsider. Given that her father emigrated from Portugal at 16, Valerio says she was not “severely diluted in my heritage.” She plays for Princeton and, in the summer, for the Ottawa Fury in the W-League. “Everyone was friendly,” she says of her U-19 teammates. “They thought nothing of it. Portuguese people are very passionate about their soccer. They’ll do what they can to win.”

Jorge currently recruits players largely through word of mouth, with recommendations from coaches and players on both sides of the Atlantic, along with occasional assessment trips to North America. If coaches cannot see a player in person, the potential recruit pays her own way to Portugal; if selected during trials, the federation absorbs the cost for future trips.

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