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

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.

Jorge, 30, coaches the senior and U-19 sides. She was named director of the national women’s program in Aug 07. (FPF | Francisco Paraiso)

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