Marbella Ibarra: Equality in Football At What Cost

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This is still a man’s world. And how the story of Marbella Ibarra impacted it.

The power of football is woven into moments of joy that happen on and off the field. Scoring a goal, threading a pass, making a tackle, and starting a counter attack. The trips to games on the team bus. Singing your national anthem. Motivational talks at half-time. Even still, it’s so much more than that – football is also an opportunity. All around the world, young men have the chance – albeit a small one – to escape from difficult situations and move far away to pursue life at a professional club. Every day, football provides a new beginning to a hopeful player. But despite those aforementioned moments of joy, its worldwide reach, and ability to change one’s life, football still has a glaring fault.

It’s the most popular sport in the world, and yet, just like life in broader terms, football is heavily dominated by men. From Brazil to the United States, Spain to South Africa, women who love and adore the game have even fewer opportunities than men to use football to grow and evolve their own lives and the odds are already small for men to begin with. In the United States, for example, less than 2% of male collegiate soccer players eventually play professionally. At the time of this article’s publication, no data on the percentage of women has been made readily available. But based on the findings of a 2016 Fox Sports article that strips away the glamour of women’s professional soccer, we have to imagine the percentage is less than that of the men. In Mexico, the struggle for women to play professional soccer is even worse.

Which makes Marbella Ibarra’s tragic murder all the more heartbreaking and evocative. In 2014 in Tijuana, Mexico, Marbella Ibarra, known better as Mar, was a beauty salon owner when she decided she was tired of witnessing young women grow up playing football without anything to work towards. Mexico, at that time, largely believed that women should not play professional sports. Despite the cultural opposition and discrimination, Ibarra used profits from her salon to help fund a local team to give opportunities to young women players. With the help of the well-established men’s club Xolos de Tijuana (otherwise known as Club Tijuana), Ibarra’s team became known as Las Xolas de Tijuana, or more formally — Club Tijuana Femenil. Las Xolas was at this point the first professional women’s soccer club in Mexico.

More than the monetary investment, her value lied in her passion for organizing. I have experience coaching in the United States, Brazil, South Africa, and, currently, Spain. This I can say for certain — football, even on the men’s side, lacks proper organization all the way up the top of the totem pole. Keep in mind, Mexico at this time had no established women’s league for professional soccer. Overcoming this enormous organizational hurdle, Ibarra registered Las Xolas to play in the American women’s pro league, the WPSL, while she set off trying to establish a female Mexican league. Unbelievably, within three years, Ibarra’s vision became a reality with the formation of Liga MX Femenil. And it didn’t stop there. She created a foundation, FutFem Sin Fronteras (Women’s Football Without Borders) and pushed the initiative Ellas Juegan (The Girls Play) while offering playing scholarships to girls from areas of poverty. Ibarra wasn’t just trying to build a legacy for women in Mexico; she was trying to grow the game around the world and promote positive options for girls in need. And she was succeeding.

Then, tragedy struck. Ibarra’s family reported her missing in September of this year, believing she had been kidnapped. On October 15th, she was found dead in the beach town of Rosarito, south of Tijuana. Her body was wrapped in plastic sheeting. Her hands and feet bound. And her face had been beaten.

The exact motive is still unknown but Mexican authorities are treating the murder as a hate crime. While they believe it’s unrelated to her role as a coach and pioneer, her murder forces us to reexamine much of what she perhaps changed, and much of what perhaps still exists. In Mexico, femicide continues to rise, and women are victims of violent crimes all around the world at an alarming rate. Just like in football, life is not dealt out equally. If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to not play professional sports. If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. Can one help but think that this murder was motivated by gender? Is it really crazy to consider that Ibarra, someone who was empowering women and a powerful woman herself, was murdered for those exact reasons? With a motive still unknown, and such a legacy left behind, we’re forced to wrestle with musings like these while also reevaluating the state of women’s professional soccer not just in Mexico but elsewhere.

Women have long gotten the short of the stick, in life and in football. I’ll stick to footballing terms for now: in the United States, where the women’s national team has won two World Cups and is objectively more successful than their male counterpart, a professional women’s league wasn’t formed until 2000. In Brazil, a country that birthed and boasts six-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta, there is no professional league for women whatsoever. Nor is there one in Spain.

And then Ibarra came along in her native Mexico and tried to do something about that inequality. She tried to offer an out to young Mexican women — a positive and healthy way for women to express themselves and maybe make something out of their love of the game drive to play. And what did she get in return? Resistance. Despite all of this, her legacy lives on. Mar Ibarra, once the pioneer of women’s football in Mexico, is now its martyr. The lives she touched will always remember her, and every woman who steps foot onto the playing field of a professional league game can look to the stars and thank her for allowing them that opportunity.

In this modern society, we coexist in, there are still major gains to be made, intensive changes and societal shifts that we as a whole must push for and endure through in order to achieve what we as humans feel is necessary. Her death and legacy echo the importance of this not just for women in soccer but for women in society in general. Efforts for equality continue, but not in harmony. Some countries at best treat these efforts as necessary and long overdue. Others — a luxury. At worst — a utopic ideal. Is martyrdom the price society has to pay for a seismic shift to happen, like a chasm splitting a plain? Let us hope not in order to reach these ends. But thanks to people like Ibarra, we are reminded of where we started, how far we’ve come, and that we continue marching toward those ends.

Que descanse en paz, Mar.

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