Clinching a World Cup place for the first time was an achievement of momentous proportions for Chile’s women’s national team, but what La Roja Femenina embody cannot be diminished into the three-to-seven games this summer has in store. It is an extended play, like the beat that flows within Fernanda Pinilla, a versatile defensive performer, and a beacon of hope and cognizance.
To see Chile at number 38 in the FIFA Women’s World Ranking would, at surface level at least, paint them as a team sitting just on the outer edge of international football. In reality, though, they are coming from far further back.
They were not quite as high up in 2016. In classically courteous nightclub queue terms, their name wasn’t down and they weren’t coming in, as two years of inactivity had left them unranked.
It is an all-too-familiar tale for women’s national teams in South America, with deeply ingrained issues, the like of which are currently being highlighted most notably by some players from Colombia and Argentina. Chile’s runners-up placing at last year’s Copa América Femenina secured qualification for the 2019 World Cup, but it owes hugely to those at the heart of driving the conversation for higher standards of federation support and recognition.
In June, La Roja take their place among the elite, broadcast before a worldwide audience, and while individual players and staff will not be trying to claim the credit, the likes of Fernanda Pinilla should reflect with immense pride and encouragement. Primarily a left-back, the 25-year-old plays her club football in Spain with the recently-established Córdoba CF Femenino, and yearns for this to go down as the time the tables began to turn for her nation.
“For Chile, it is a very important milestone,” she said. “It is the first time of qualifying for a World Cup and puts women’s football in the spotlight and in front of everyone in Chile.”
“It begins to open doors and options to more girls who like soccer and dream of dedicating themselves to the sport. Personally, it’s a girl’s dream to live out the qualification on the field and to now be preparing for the World Cup.
“I am fighting to be on the final roster, but the most important thing, I think, is what it can deliver culturally and socially to our country. Women’s football has been and remains in the shadows and very invisible.
“With these achievements, we get more support, and above all, more opportunities.”
Chile had previously come closest to qualifying as they finished just short of the second available place for the 2011 tournament, but it will at last begin for real in Rennes against Sweden on 11th June. José Letelier‘s team then face world champions the United States five days later in the iconic Parc des Princes.
For La Roja’s players, the enormity and prestige need no explanation, and for Fernanda, a ‘pichanga’ in Paris would be quite a prospect. The term, which can be likened to ‘pickup soccer’ in North America or a ‘kickabout’ in the UK, was a vital piece of vocabulary in her childhood, as she recalls.
“I grew up in Puente Alto, a commune on the outskirts of Santiago. Football was always an important part of my life, seeing my brother playing in different teams – my brother is eight years older than me – and playing with my cousin, Sebastián, with whom we have a difference of a year.
“Sebastián lives a few blocks from my house and I played with him and his friends, who became mine as well. There was not a day that we did not play a pichanga; I played all my childhood in the street and squares of the neighbourhood!
“At age 11, I started playing in the little grass soccer fields on a Sunday, but always played in the street with friends.”
Like school friends, your siblings go through a lot with you, and it is inevitable there will be a certain bond that comes as a result (even if it may not always feel that way…). Fernanda, who figures in a holding midfield role on occasions and was part of Chile’s 2010 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Trinidad & Tobago, credits music, and more specifically rap, with helping her make sense of many aspects of life on her way to adulthood.
She remembers the sounds that went with the street soccer days once upon a time in Puento Alto, with Spanish hip-hop acts taking precedence.
“There were always many records and cassettes. My sister and brother, both older than me, listen to different music and they were always buying the albums of their favourite artists.
“I like rap because of my brother; I grew up listening to his music and it was the one that I fell in love with. Artists like ToteKing & Shotta, SFDK, Violadores del Verso.
“I remember songs like: ‘Tu Madre Es Una Foca’ (ToteKing & Shotta), ‘El Niño Guey’ (SFDK), ‘El Ingeniero’ (SFDK), ‘Vivir Para Contarlo’ (Violadores del Verso), and ‘Filosofia y Letras’ (Violadores del Verso).
“From my sister, I remember hearing a lot of Shakira and Alejandro Sanz! The Shakira song ‘Pies Descalzos, Sueños Blancos,’ and the Alejandro Sanz albums ‘Si Tú Me Miras’ and ‘El Alma al Aire.’”
There are some interesting titles in there, not least ‘Tu Madre Es Una Foca,’ which translates to ‘Your Mother is a Seal.’ Whether it is hip-hop or one from another genre, however, certain song content signifies a great deal for Fernanda, an articulate and heartfelt voice in South American women’s football.
The one-time Audax Italiano and Universidad de Chile player has a degree in physics and last year began a PhD, which is on hold for the time being. She is also one of the players who has led the National Association of Female Soccer Players (ANJUFF), formed by Chilean female footballers in 2016 after they found they had been removed from FIFA’s rankings, and in response to the neglect of women’s clubs in Chile.
Fernanda, who won the Campeonato Apertura with Universidad de Chile, finds enjoyment in music that reflects how she likes to be as a person.
“It means a lot! I listen to music all day; to train, to cook, to read.
“I love music with social messages. Actually, I consider myself a very open person in musical tastes, but if I had to choose my favourites without thinking, it is rap, especially the Chilean, but I also like Spanish.
“Groups and artists I like are: Matiah Chinaski, Chystemc, Gran Rah, Jonas Sanche, Liricistas, SFDK, Kase.O.”
Chile are captained by goalkeeper Christiane Endler, the former Chelsea youngster now with Paris Saint-Germain, with forward Yanara Aedo spending time at Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Aedo is now one of a number of Chileans playing in Spain (with Valencia), and there is also María José Rojas, an attacker fresh from a spell with Canberra United in Australia’s W-League and set to represent Slavia Praha against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League later this month.
Those are just three examples, but when you see such players who have emerged from the country despite the historically chauvinistic culture and the women’s game there essentially being told to be grateful to even be an afterthought, it brings the words of Juventus forward Cristiana Girelli flooding into the thoughts. The Italian international said during UEFA Women’s Euro 2017, after her side beat Sweden 3-2: “If you think we can get this result with not so many resources, think how we can do if we have good ones.”
Fernanda and her compatriots have become the visible examples, but when asked about any inspirations she had in the game as a youngster, she recalled seeing the Campeonato Nacional on TV, though clarifying that it was of course the men’s competition.
“They have never given the women’s club games TV coverage in Chile, including now. I remember seeing the national championship with my family, and the World Cups, and then with my brother we watched the Spanish La Liga or the Premier League all weekend.
“I really liked the Colo-Colo players when I was a young girl. I remember (Chilean international forwards) Héctor Tapia, Sebastián González.
“The truth is, though, that I have never idolised a male or female player.”
Fernanda said the players’ association had meetings with the national federation (FFCh) in 2016, and FFCh, with a new board coming in, thought it was important to improve its women’s football. Domestic club football was pinpointed, with some teams having to travel 13 hours on a bus, arrive and then play the same day, increasing injury risk and stress for players who also have to work and/or study.
The national team’s revival led to that golden ticket of a runners-up spot in a Copa América Femenina that they hosted last April. Wins over Uruguay and Peru in the first stage helped them progress behind Colombia – major tournament regulars who will not be in France this summer – to the final stage.
Despite a 3-1 defeat to Brazil, there was a goalless draw with Colombia before Fernanda was part of a backline that kept out fellow World Cup qualifiers Argentina in a convincing 4-0 win. It saw Chile seal the deal in La Serena, with Colombia crucially beaten by Brazil. Spectators packed the stands at the 18,500-capacity Estadio La Portada and they were able to witness history.
Yanara Aedo stole possession in the dying minutes, with light footwork around Argentina’s defenders before her rolled pass to the edge of the box was whipped home devastatingly by the left foot of Francisca Lara. There were tears amongst players and staff after the final whistle in the kind of exhausted and elated celebratory scenes that will bring goosebumps for all who were involved whenever they look back.
There was an impassioned team huddle, while Player of the Match, Carla Guerrero, managed to somehow find the words to complete her TV interview on the pitch as the tears streamed again. Fernanda, who won the corner kick from which Chile opened the scoring through Camila Sáez before delivering the cross for Agustina Barroso’s own goal at 3-0, describes the music that unites the national team in the changing room, as well as which players typically step up to control it.
“The DJs are usually Claudia Soto, Daniela Pardo and me. We listen to a lot of Chilean music; above all, cumbias!
“We do not have a song but we also like to listen to reggaetón.”
After the Copa América, Fernanda appeared as a guest on the national TVN show No Culpes a La Noche (Don’t Blame the Night). They had her perform the customary dance to the show’s ‘Blame It on the Boogie’-inspired theme with host Kathy Salosny.
Fernanda, who also played for Universidad Católica and Santiago Morning back home, says she has never had to sing when joining a new team in her career. Taking in some performances from the professionals, however, is something she enjoys frequently.
“I’ve been to see several Chilean rappers. I was also at some Chilean music festivals.
“I would love to see Pearl Jam, or to have seen Pink Floyd. They are groups that I like very much.
“I understand English, and several songs, but I still need to find out what the lyrics are. Although, I really enjoy music whether I understand what they say or not.”
Chile’s national anthem (Himno Nacional de Chile) will be heard in France in three months’ time. The closing line to the chorus is repeated with vigour: ‘O el asilo contra la opresión’ (‘or a refuge from oppression’).
Perhaps not re-writing the national anthem, but if Fernanda added recording a song to her CV, which player(s) from her career would she want to join her in the studio?
“I would record with Su Helen Galaz, Francisca Moroso, or with Kerlly Real!”
Close friend Su Helen Galaz is a defender for Chile and Zaragoza CFF, and forward Francisca Moroso is another Chilean international who plays in Spain (with CFF Cáceres). Moroso played with Fernanda at Universidad de Chile, using the words ‘sister of a thousand battles’ when wishing her happy birthday once.
Kerlly Real, meanwhile, is an attacking Córdoba teammate who played at the 2015 World Cup for Ecuador as a 16-year-old. She joined Córdoba last September along with Fernanda, and the club has outlined intentions to reach the top level, as it competes in Group 4 of the Segunda División.
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Antonio Serrano’s team are in 3rd place, with a promotion meaning they would go up to Primera División B, which is to come in next season and fit between the current top two tiers. How has Fernanda been taking to life with the Andalusian club?
“Honestly, with great enthusiasm. It was the best option to start living football and to dedicate myself just to my sporting performance.
“It is also the best way to prepare for the World Cup in France.”
Just as importantly, she has a part to play in getting the atmosphere bubbling before a game.
“At Córdoba, right now we like ‘Amanece’ by Anuel (AA Haze), but the team DJs are Encarni Jiménez, Carmen Gordillo and me.
“We listen to a lot of reggaetón, too, and some musicians from Spain.”
Who needs reggaetón stars, though, when you have La Roja Femenina? This summer, they go up on a platform they have never had before, and the stage is rightfully theirs.
After those encounters with Sweden and the United States, Chile conclude their group against Thailand, with their second game of three that will be played at the near-30,000-capacity Roazhon Park in Rennes. While the World Cup will surely bring much increased interest in the team, Fernanda explains that a hike in support was something they began feeling last year.
“We already are seeing it. We saw it in the Copa América games we played in La Serena.
“Many girls see us as references, and above all, they have started to play much more.”
No matter how often such a point is stated, that is where the legacy lies. Interestingly enough, their aforementioned removal from FIFA’s rankings was not covered in the national media back then.
It goes without saying that heart will go with all they do in the World Cup, though some more of the clinical flair that was on show in the 5-0 win over Peru to conclude the first stage of last year’s Copa América would go down a treat. Yanara Aedo’s wonderful flicked finish over the keeper, on the bounce, and Yesenia López’ left-footer from distance that flew into the corner that night would grace any tournament.
We return to the simple, frenetic paradise of the pichanga in the last question here. If Fernanda was to pick four examples from the teammates she has had in football so far, to be on her team in a small-sided game, who are some of those more than worthy of inclusion?
“(Goalkeeper) Natalia Campos (Chile and Universidad Católica). (Defender) Su Helen Galaz (Chile and Zaragoza CFF).
“Ámbar Soruco (a right-back for Chile and EDF Logroño), and Valeria Lucca (Chilean international and Audax Italiano captain).”
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