Estefania Banini’s parents took her from club to club in Mendoza, Argentina, searching for a place for their 5-year-old daughter to play soccer.
No, came the answer. No, again and again. At least 10 times.
It was 1995, and in Argentina, as in much of Latin America defined by machismo culture, girls did not play soccer. Girls played field hockey. Soccer was a man’s game, the union between fathers and sons, male bonding bridging generations.
“It’s a very manly sport and, at that time, women faced discrimination about playing soccer,” Banini, a 26-year-old attacker for the Washington Spirit, said this week. “I’ve been blessed my parents have been supportive since day one. They were always behind me.”
And they didn’t give up. They found a club, Cementista, that accepted her. Initially, she did not play outdoor soccer, but futsal, an indoor version of the sport with South American roots emphasizing technique, creativity and improvisation. There weren’t enough girls involved, so for 10 years, she played on boys’ teams.
Banini didn’t join a women’s outdoor team, Las Pumas, until she was 15.
Her aspirations: the national team and a U.S. pro career. The latter dream has blossomed. Banini signed with the Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League last year and this season has earned a share of the team’s scoring lead. Her contributions have helped Washington (8-3-2) earn a share of first place in the 10-team league with the Portland Thorns (7-2-5) heading into the last game before the Olympic break, Saturday night against New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC (6-4-4) at Maryland SoccerPlex.
Banini’s NWSL tenure has reminded her of the challenges women face in soccer. The league features U.S. national team stars seeking greater equality with the men’s program, an effort that led to legal action against the U.S. Soccer Federation.
At least, the Americans have a functioning program. In Argentina, the women’s squad has been inactive for most of the past two years and, consequently, ineligible for consideration in the FIFA rankings. Last year, Argentina was No. 35. The team has not qualified for the Olympics since 2008 and the World Cup since ’07.
“The federation doesn’t see a future for the women,” Banini said in an interview in which she alternated between Spanish and English. “They are not against it, but they are not helping. We do the best we can, but doors keep getting shut in front of us.”
Long before signing with the Spirit, Banini set out on a pro track. Her role model was Marta, the five-time world player of the year from Brazil, who played in the second failed U.S. league, Women’s Professional Soccer.
Although Argentina launched a first division for women in 1991, a 10-team circuit dominated by illustrious men’s clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate, Banini chose to join Colo-Colo, Chile’s most successful club. “A steppingstone,” she said. Three years brought nothing but championships.
NWSL coaches knew of her work with the Argentine national team. Jim Gabarra, the current Spirit coach, said he liked her game but thought she was too inexperienced to join his team at the time, Sky Blue.
Mark Parsons, the Spirit’s coach in 2014-15, pursued her before last season. She started the first four matches before suffering a knee injury that ended her season.
Banini was not a certain starter this year, but in anticipation of losing several players to periodic national team call-ups and the Olympics, Gabarra would need her. All of her four goals have come in the past six matches, including a pair two weeks ago at Kansas City.
“She was frustrated by not playing as much, but she waited for the chance,” Gabarra said. “We always expected her to be starting caliber.”
Banini is a natural playmaker, but under Gabarra’s direction, she has had to expand her horizons by playing on the front line and taking more responsibility in applying high pressure and grasping defensive tasks.
While lack of support has stunted the growth of Argentina’s national team, the country’s sports culture has left the women’s program in the long shadows of the ultra-popular men’s team, a two-time World Cup champion. But even Lionel Messi and the men’s squad are unhappy with the federation. During this summer’s Copa America Centenario, Messi voiced his disgust about the federation’s dysfunction and, after defeat to Chile in the final, said he was quitting the national team.
Beyond the federation issues, the women face an indifferent public.
“In America, people care about the women’s national team,” Banini said. “We see what they are fighting for. We fight alongside of them. We share the anger for not getting what they deserve. People here listen. It’s in the news.
“In Argentina, they are not taking notice, and that is the hard part. It comes down to the mentality of the country and how the U.S. people responded during the World Cup [last year]. The United States wants good things for the team. In Argentina, we don’t have that mentality for our national team.”
She draws inspiration from the U.S. team’s excellence on the field and pursuit of fairness off it but acknowledges the enormous differences between the programs.
“We want the same things for ourselves, but the Americans have the support of the public and we don’t have that support at home,” she said. “As a country, the people aren’t pushing for more respect. It’s hard, but we are trying to keep the dream alive.”
Washington Spirit vs. Sky Blue FC
Where: Maryland SoccerPlex.
When: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Records: Spirit 8-3-2, 26 points; Sky Blue 6-4-4, 22 points.
Live stream: NWSL YouTube Channel.