In the 1960s the North American Soccer League brought players from abroad to spread the sport’s seedlings in a strange land. Forty years later, with enthusiasm for the women’s game expanding worldwide, the flow of talent has reversed. North America has dispatched many of its best players to, among other places, Mexico, Greece and Portugal as these countries have sought Americans and Canadians of mixed ancestry to build national women’s sides.
In contrast to places where soccer has been a male bastion, North America, especially the United States, has benefited from a unique historical evolution that makes soccer an acceptable—even encouraged—activity for females. Long-standing association between elite sport and higher education combined with advocacy for gender equality within such institutions have helped make American universities attractive talent pools for countries seeking footballers of the correct lineage.
|The Selecção A, spring 08. (Photo courtesy Federação Portuguesa de Futebol | Francisco Paraiso)|
Ahead of the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the United States, Mexico stocked more than half of its roster with American collegians of Mexican descent. Eight American college players and graduates with Greek ancestry supported 10 home-based players to build a side before Greece hosted the 2004 Olympic Games. Seeking players with Irish roots, the coach of Ireland’s national women’s team in early September attended a player combine for Women’s Professional Soccer, which will become America’s top division when it launches next spring.
While Mexico and Greece have subsequently reverted to native players, Portugal has stood by the controversial strategy it started in 2004, even expanding the practice to age-level squads through active scouting and recruiting in Canada and the United States. To Portuguese coaches and football authorities, these North American imports are “new Portuguese.”
Portugal’s federation four years ago launched a cooperative arrangement with the United Soccer Leagues’ top women’s division, the W-League—founded by Francisco Marcos, born and raised in Portugal—to find foreign-born players of Portuguese descent. The tie-in allows Mónica Jorge, coach of the senior women’s team, to add numbers to a limited selection pool. “We’re told that only 1,300 females are registered in total to play soccer in Portugal,” says Canadian striker Alex Valerio, 18, called up in April to Portugal’s squad for two UEFA U-19 qualifiers. “Some youth clubs in Ottawa have more than that.”
The so-called diaspora players stir impassioned arguments. Becky Hammon, for example, faced charges of disloyalty and mercenary motives when she played basketball for Russia against the United States in the 2008 Olympics. Consider, too, the besmirched Brazilian footballer Emerson, who accepted Qatari citizenship in order to play for the West Asian team in World Cup qualifiers. Further, some argue that using foreign recruits restricts development of domestic soccer by taking spots from homegrown players.
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.
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.
“We try to adapt them to our play model in the training sessions,” Jorge says of guiding the “new Portuguese” players. “Although they come from different football cultures, they are intelligent players who adapt easily and that adaptation to our playing style has been easy. We did not make training different for them.”
To João Maria Xavier, capped 76 times for the national team as defensive midfielder, the newcomers have challenged the native Portuguese in practice with their strength and speed and brought a high understanding of tactics. The expatriates, in turn, have learned technical skills and a different approach to the game.
“In my opinion all the players should have the same opportunities to play for the national team,” Xavier says. “This includes the players from other countries—with some conditions. They have to be better than the others playing in Portugal.”
Portugal managed just two draws, against Scotland and Ukraine, in qualifying for the UEFA Women’s European Championship in Finland beginning in Aug 09. The senior team finished at the bottom of Group 5.
A 0–0 result against Norway on Oct 1 gave the U-19 Portuguese side the final slot in the second round of qualifiers for the UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship. Twenty-four teams will be drawn into six groups on Nov 19. The finals are Jul 09 in Belarus.
About the author
Tim Grainey is a regular contributor to World Football Pages in Canada and has written previously for the Global Game on FC Indiana (18 Jul 08). He is writing a book, Beyond “Bend It Like Beckham”: Women’s Soccer as a Global Phenomenon. Grainey can be reached at Tgrainey@gmail.com.