On the field, football is about goals and shots and tackles. Off the field, however, football is about much more than that — from the impact it has on the players to the impact it has on the world at large.
A new nonprofit, Girls United FA, combines these two spheres of football: it uses the most global, unifying sport to positively impact young footballing girls and the communities in which they play by establishing footballing academies in low-income areas and recruiting volunteer coaches from all around the world.
The first program will run this summer in Bacalar, a town in the southeast of Mexico. It will have two programs, one which will run from June to July — with official academy inauguration on June 5 — and a second that will run from August-September.
But these academies will not only focus on dribbling, taking shots, or perfecting the technique of a header. As Girls United FA founder Romina Calatayud explains: “We want to go beyond the technical, tactical side of things to focus on leadership skills and develop the self-confidence of the girls and their development as a whole.”
From top to bottom, Calatayud hopes the academies will “promote gender equality and improve physical health of the girls — as well as boost the economy of the community and establish genuine cultural exchanges between the volunteers and the community.”
Calatayud is a footballer herself; in fact, this project was partly born simply out of a personal passion for the sport, especially as someone who has experienced its global nature first hand through stints living in Mexico, the United States, and most recently London.
From there, Calatayud realized she wanted “to use globalization and this interconnected world to benefit individuals, as opposed to just big corporations.”
“On one side, [I want to] use the tools we have to impact communities globally,” she explains.
“But on another side, it’s just that women’s football is something that needs development — and there’s finally a big market for it as well as a big desire around the world for girls to play.”
This is especially true in Mexico right now, where the footballing climate is finally ripe for developing the women’s game. This spring, the first-ever professional Mexican women’s league, Liga MX Femenil, will kick off. It marks a commitment to strengthening Mexican women’s soccer — especially the national team — from the inside out.
“I think it’s a really good moment for [women’s football in Mexico],” says Calatayud. “There’s a lot of talk and hype around developing the women’s game.”
And, it’s especially important for this development to begin at the local level, she continues. “If you’re not training girls from grassroots on, they’ll never reach the same level.”
Such an excitable atmosphere made the first step of Calatayud’s project quite easy: finding the girls to play in the academies. She says that “the community [in Bacalar] immediately warmed to the idea. Straight off the bat, they got really involved [in helping recruit].”
Between that and going classroom to classroom to speak with the girls personally, Calatayud laughs that they “might end up with more girls than [they] can have!”
It’s a good sign for the sustainability of the program if they’ll already have girls lined up for the next one. And hopefully those girls won’t have to wait long for that; the goal of each single program is to have an academy up and running year-round with full-time coaches.
Only after that happens, as proof of long-term sustainability, will Girls United FA move on to establishing programs in a next location.
And although Calatayud may not have a timeline on that, there is another timeline she did set: when we’ll get to see these newly developed Mexican women in a World Cup Final.
She laughs: “Two more cycles.”