Madrid seems to be a natural habitat for golden-haired, footballing talismans, with celebrity David Beckham, party boy Guti, and El Niño Fernando Torres equally as defined by their blond locks as they were with their skill with the ball at their feet. Now in the post-Galactico era – and with a fading Torres at the Rojiblancos – it has fallen to Leigh Ann Lindsey to add that touch of glamour to Spanish football.
Shouts of ‘mark the blond’ regularly get tossed across the pitches of the second division of women’s football – Primera Nacional Femenino. This 21-year-old central defender, currently turning out for Vallecas Club de Futbol, knows she stands out whenever she takes the field. “I get marked closely and kicked more. I always hear the other team shouting la rubia, la rubia [the blonde, the blonde]“.
The Californian’s reputation precedes her. Her arrival at the club was an event in itself. “They were pretty excited when I came, it was a big deal; I’m the only foreign player on the women’s team, though a Cameroonian girl recently had a trial here”.
Her signature on the dotted line, it seems, has been coveted for most of her career, with coaches at youth level tracking her progress from the beginning. When she started off in the recreational leagues back in Southern California, she had two or three coaches trying to snap her up. She kitted out for Legends F.C. and Torch F.C. before signing for her first professional team.
Despite her obvious talent, she didn’t always love the sport. She relays how playing with a friend who was better than her made the game less enjoyable, until one day she passed the ball around with other friends in a park and began to love it. It was a love deepened by watching documentaries of the iconic, multi-title winning Mia Hamm. “She was a star, and she really paved the way for us”.
After eleven years of playing, she is enjoying her first season playing abroad. As seems to be the unwritten rule for all clubs from this working class neighbourhood, results have been mixed for Vallecas Club de Futbol. It is difficult to compete with better-resourced teams; losses are followed by wins, which in turn are followed by defeats. Money is at a premium, especially for the women’s team.
I wonder if it has been easy adapting to her new environment. Despite having grown up in a culture exposed to Spanish, the different accent and terminology of Castilian Spanish compared to Mexican Spanish is one minor obstacle. “The language can be a bit of a challenge because it’s not a direct translation; sometimes they’re shouting at me during a play and I don’t understand what they want to say. After the play, I can go up and ask them what they meant”.
“Another difference is with the tactics; football is considered a man’s game in this country and so it’s not considered feminine to play it”, she adds. “This, twinned with the lack of funding, means that coaches prioritise the men’s teams. They push them harder and do more tactical work with them; we’re more of a sideshow”.
This has a clear impact on the quality of the football, with the defender observing that the style could be characterised as kick and rush. “Here it’s more direct. I’m used to a more possession based style of play. We trained a lot more back in the States, even in university; there was a lot more money at stake”.
Her friend, Mirikian, chimes in and agrees. His father is an ex-Iran national player, and his two bids to play tournament football for his country were thwarted, first by his parents and then by the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
“In the States, I prefer watching women’s football to the men’s national team. They’re more skilful and they know how to play”, he says. “Whenever I watched guys playing, even in school, I knew that it would be like volleyball because the ball would spend so much time in the air”.
It’s clear that coming here was perhaps a difficult decision – leaving the home of women’s football for a stab at the European game. I ask if she thinks she can help modernise the sport in Spain. “I’ve tried telling them that we can build the play from the back, that we don’t have to kick it straight up the field, but it’s been ingrained in them for so long that they can’t play any other way”.
Lack of funding is a theme that crops up frequently throughout the interview, and it must be difficult to play a higher standard of football when the women’s team is so under-resourced. The men’s sides receive full kits, while Leigh Ann and her teammates have to settle for just warm-up gear and jerseys. Everything else comes out of their own pockets.
This reality brings another issue to the surface: the need to work a second job to make ends meet. For Leigh Ann, achieving wage parity with the men’s game would represent real success. Many of the players at Vallecas have been on the team for years and some are pushing to play in the first division, but they all must have an extra source of income. The number twenty-one also doubles as an English teacher, and her students are always excited when they learn she is a professional footballer.
It’s realities such as this that turn many away from the game, pushing it into a vicious cycle where no support means fewer players, and fewer players means less money. The Californian has doubts of her own.
“For me, it is 50 percent emotional and 50 percent logical. If football is my career, it would require a lot of sacrifices; top players like Hope Solo can get extra income from advertising. I have already put so many hours into it and people urge me to continue, but I’m not sure how far I can take it. Success for a female player is to play professionally in the States because that’s where the best players are. I’ve played semi-professionally there and I’ve been thinking about trying out back home”.
“On the other hand, I want to learn more languages. Football would be a way for me to travel and see the world”.
In that manner, she could follow the path of her compatriot, Brad Friedel. The much-travelled stopper spent a year in Turkey and has often waxed lyrical about the people and culture since. Though the home comforts of the inclusive neighbourhood may keep the defender in Madrid for a little while longer. Players socialise off the pitch and share jokes with Leigh Ann about having to train with a jacket during the cold Madrid weather. This item of clothing was never needed back in California.
The fans, mostly families that span generations, approach Leigh Ann and her teammates on the street to compliment them on their performances. The fan culture on a wider scale is something that is new to her. The intensity in the stands, which contrasts sharply with the more laidback soccer fandom in the States, is something she is not used to. She clearly is surprised by how emotionally invested supporters are in Europe. Though this starlet is no stranger to being hooked by the beautiful game.
“I remember being in Madrid two years ago when the women’s World Cup was in Canada; it was super exciting. When it’s the men, it’s everywhere. In the US, it’s the same for the women’s game, people are really aware of it. In Spain, however, there was nothing. My host family had to Google it and find what channel it was on. I was up at 3am watching the USA win the tournament. It was great”.
For all truth in the tagline of the world game, the sport itself is marked by shifts toward countries, with the Dutch school meeting Brazilian samba via Spanish tiki-taka. In the United States of America, football is as much the women’s game as it is the men’s; the atypical denomination of the USMNT and the USWNT putting both sides on level pegging. But tactics change. The question is can the division between the male and female variants of soccer change in other parts of the world.
“I find it very intriguing that football in Spain is so popular but completely focused on the men’s game,” she concludes, “and it would be cool for me if Spain could become a place where both the men’s and women’s game is popular. I’d really like for that to happen”.
And with that, Leigh Ann heads off to training ahead of another game on Sunday. If you happen to be in the Spanish capital, you can catch each home game for just €3.00 at the Estadio de Vallecas Club de Futbol. You may just see the opposition trying to stop the ball-playing rubia from California.