For these Colombian soccer players, equality is the goal
Melissa Ortiz and Isabella Echeverri fight against discrimination on the Colombian women’s national team.
When soccer players Melissa Ortiz and Isabella Echeverri decided to speak out against the discrimination they experienced on the Colombian women’s national team, they knew their careers were on the line.
“Meli, we’re never going to step on a soccer field again,” Isabella recalls saying. After watching their teammate Daniela Montoya get cut from the 2016 Colombian Olympic team for going to the press about their poor treatment, Melissa and Isabella had stayed silent out of fear of similar retribution. But this February, the pair decided to finally go public with their allegations against the Colombian Football Federation. “We didn’t want girls in the future to suffer from the same issues that we suffered and to also have to keep their mouths shut,” Melissa shares.
In a video posted to social media, Melissa and Isabella described how the federation forced female players to pay for their own flights, stopped paying their stipends and made them use old jerseys. Their video went viral in Colombia, with supporters across the country rallying behind Melissa and Isabella. The men’s national soccer team expressed their support and Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez reached out to discuss how the government could aid their efforts. Melissa and Isabella credit FIFPro, the international union for soccer players, and ACOLFUTPRO, the Colombian players’ union, as a constant source of legal advice and strategy.
Their fight is part of a wider call for equality in the women’s soccer around the world. This year, the U.S. women’s national team sued the national federation for gender discrimination. Members of the Afghan women’s national team recently accused male coaches and officials of sexual abuse. And the Argentine women’s national team has criticised the soccer-loving country's lack of support for its female players.
Amidst this turning point in women’s soccer, I spoke with Melissa and Isabella about the discrimination they experienced on the team and how they’re working with the Colombian government to change the women’s national team for good.
Tess Thomas (TT): What was the most rewarding part of being on the Colombian women’s national team?
Melissa Ortiz (MO): My favorite part was definitely the camaraderie, the friends I was able to make, like with Isa [Isabella] and other best friends that we have. Not only that, but to be able to share amazing experiences with each other that last a lifetime. There’s moments, like in the locker room, that will always stay in your mind just because they were always so fun. The whole vibe and dancing — it was a full out awesome experience with a beautiful culture within a soccer team.
Isabella Echeverri (IE): I completely agree with Meli [Melissa]. The combination of friendships, experiences and things that people don’t see inside of the locker rooms, inside of the hotels, inside of the fields that really set a national team apart like Colombia. We were always dancing and we were always having fun. It didn’t matter the conditions, the uniforms, anything, we were just happy and proud to be there representing our country.
TT: Can you explain a bit about how you were treated as members of the women’s national team?
MO: I’d been on the national team since 2009. There was a lot of different situations that were very much disrespectful and a form of discrimination, but we never had the courage to speak up about it because we were always scared that we would be kicked off the team. Some of the issues were we had to pay for our own flights, although we were on the actual camp list. We were also given used uniforms, used socks that were probably handed down in cycle between the U17 men’s, U20 men’s, our women’s team, etcetera.
The pay was absolutely inadequate. When I first started, there was no pay. And then they started instilling a daily stipend. And with that stipend, at first it would only be $10 a day. And then we fought and then it was raised to $20 a day. And then before the Rio Olympics in 2016, they took away that pay without any type of formal communication or any reasoning behind it. It was just, “We’re not paying you and that’s that. That’s the end of the pay.”
The one time that our teammate Daniela Montoya did speak out about payment because the federation had owed us a bonus from the Women’s World Cup for reaching a certain stage, she spoke up to the press about it and was axed out from the team and unfortunately didn’t play in the 2016 Olympics. The federation will never admit that they axed her out for that reason, they’ll never admit it, but we all know that is exactly why. Unfortunately for that reason, we never spoke out or fought for that pay back or fought to defend her more because we were like, “They took her out of the Olympics, they’re going to take us out too.”
Another thing was training camps. You look at other national teams around the world that have been in the Olympics, that have been in World Cups like ourselves and they have more continuous training dates and more continuous call ups [when players are invited to play with the national team]. And an actual contracted coach. On our end with the Colombian Federation, in 2012 we went over 700 days without one single training day. After 2016 Rio Olympics, we went over 400 days without a single training camp and not knowing who our actual coach was going to be.
IE: We never had a gym either. We would train on the field, but outside of it, you need a gym to get stronger. But no. We had two medicine balls and two boxes — old boxes — that we would jump in. Like before the World Cup, before the Olympics, that would be our gym.
TT: From what you observed of the Colombian men’s national team, are they dealing with a similar situation or do they have more resources?
MO: The total opposite end of the spectrum. They get paid for every day that they are in national team duty.
As far as what we were just talking about with the gym, the federation has an actual federation site where we sleep. It’s like a mini hotel — they have their own cafeteria, what is supposed to be the gym and then outside, the fields. In that gym, when we would have camps, it would be like ghost. It would be like nothing. We would have like Isa said, two medicine balls, the boxes and maybe one barbell. But other than that, nothing. Our physical trainer had to try to invent exercises with body weight and these medicine balls to try to get us to have a strength and conditioning session.
Around that exact same time, the men’s team went into camp. And all of a sudden we see photos of their camp and that gym was fully stocked with the best machines possible. And I mean, everything — the latest and greatest machines. So what they did is they rented, I guess from a gym, to put all that equipment inside the federation’s gym just for the men’s like one week camp.
TT: How did you feel when you finally spoke out about the discrimination you’ve experienced?
IE: At first it was super scary when we launched the video and we knew we had to go to Colombia. We were scared that something was going to happen to us, just because we live in a very unsafe country. We were dealing with people who had been in soccer and in the industry for many, many years so they knew how to deal with these kinds of things.
Also we felt threatened about our soccer careers. As soon as we launched the video, I was like, “Meli, we’re never going to step on a soccer field again.” That’s how scared we were, especially in Colombia or with our national team.
TT: Colombian Football Federation responded to your claims saying that players hadn’t reported concerns about discrimination to them formally and that “women's football is a priority for the executive committee.” How does it make you feel hearing statements like that, considering you have letters dating back from 2012 showing you’ve been bringing these complaints to officials?
IE: When they started making those statements, for me, it was frustrating but the same time it was so funny, because they had no idea what they were talking about. They lived in a lie for many years thinking we were just going to be shut and we were not going to speak up. And that was not the only one [statement], we heard so many crazy things from their mouths being like, “Yes, we have the best gym in South America and you guys had it all the way.” And I was like, “I’ve been on the national team for eight years and I’ve never had a gym.” They were just trying to make everything go away and making it seem like we were just speaking out because we were going to be cut out from the national team, that was their reasoning for the entire thing.
MO: To piggyback on what Isa said, actually that BBC article was about two weeks post our video. Their actual first reaction to our video literally word by word, was that it was a rumor, that it was lies and that it was just like news that’s in style to talk about right now.
TT: What steps would you like to see the Colombian Football Federation take today to better support its female players?
MO: What we want and what we would expect is a formal agreement. So everything from the federation standpoint and how “business” is done is verbally. And we need to avoid that at all costs. Things need to be written down on paper and signed so that there is an agreement and also contractual, labor backing for all players in terms of payment, in terms of tickets, hospitality, medical insurance, etcetera. And that’s one of the goals we’re working on, to make this happen so that there is a formal agreement.
IE: We’re trying to make that formal agreement with the help of our vice president and labor minister. Just because if we approached the federation directly, things were never going to get done. We’re trying to put some pressure on them to make things better for generations to come, not just for us.
TT: Has the Colombian government been supportive of you so far?
IE: Yes. I mean the video went so viral, it really mattered to the people in Colombia and to the women in Colombia. So the government had to jump in because it was such a big deal that they had to step in and help. And the good thing is our vice president, our labor minister, they’re both women so they felt the cause and it’s important for them to help us because the people are pressuring them to do it.
TT: Unfortunately, this issue of gender discrimination in soccer isn’t a problem just in Colombia. As you know, female soccer players around the world are speaking out against the issues in their own countries. Do you think this is going to be a turning point for women’s soccer internationally?
MO: I’m definitely hopeful. As we’ve seen, there’s been several different movements around the world. Ours is one piece of the puzzle. I think the U.S. women’s national team is a huge player in the game ever since the era of the ‘99’s when they really broke out with players like Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm. They fought for the things that currently many countries are fighting for today, just 20 years later.
Now we see many big companies jumping on board, like Nike with the launch of the women’s soccer kits, the whole campaign they did with Serena Williams and sports in general. You see Adidas recently said they’re going to pay the same prize money for the Women’s World Cup. I think that this movement is finally a turning point, where we can say, “OK, not only are we all fighting together in this fight, but we’re also getting major corporations involved.” And also, the timeline of having more female business leaders and female CEOs who want to work in conjunction with what we’re doing and know how important sports are for both men and women.
And so, I do think it’s a turning point, but there is still a lot to be done, a whole lot to be done. But we’ve made so much progress, especially in this four months alone, with the case of the U.S. women’s national team. In Argentina and the pro leagues that have started. Also Juventus just sold out their stadium in their latest game with over 30,000. And then Barcelona-Atlético Madrid, that one was a sold out stadium with over 60,000 spectators. I do think it’s a tipping point and it’s going to progress and get better.
IE: It’s also a domino effect because when one company invests, another company is going to do it too. And when one player speaks out, someone in another country is going to do it too. This year has been huge and I think this year will continue to be huge for soccer and for women’s sports in general.
TT: What is next for both of you in terms of your soccer careers and your activism?
MO: For me personally, in terms of my soccer career, I have it a little bit on a standstill at the moment. Because when everything happened with our national team, I had also decided that I wanted to focus on my career off the field, which is why I recently moved to New York City. I’m getting more involved in soccer media, in soccer broadcasting and in social media as well. That’s right now what is on my short-term goals. Right now with everything up in the air a bit, I’m not sure if I can return to the national team, if I can with my new work and job. But I’d love to, just have to see if I can with my commitments at the moment.
And I want to continue to push for this change in Colombia. Isa and I, as well as a few other players, have been brainstorming and meeting about what exactly we can do. Whether it’s to build some form of a foundation or a form of a company where we can really push for change, get sponsors on board, to help whether it’s in terms of marketing women’s soccer in the country, help to donate scholarships so that soccer players can play soccer and also receive their undergraduate degree. For now, that’s my form of activism.
IE: For me, I think we are on the same page on the activism. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life right now. I think I’m going to stay here in Colombia for a while trying to help out the development of the professional league. There is a commission with the vice president and the minister and the federation and some other professional teams with me. And we’re going to help and develop the best way to develop the league. I am also going back to the national team on Monday. So I’m going to keep playing, which was not in my plans four weeks ago, because I thought, “I’m launching this video and my career’s going to end.” I’m going back on Monday and I just want to be in there and keep pushing for what’s right. Don’t just go back and shut up and not say anything about what’s going on. I want to keep talking and if that means my career, I’m perfectly good with it.
TT: What advice would you give to any young woman who is experiencing gender discrimination whether it’s on the pitch, in the classroom or in her place of work?
MO: Don’t let any negativity affect who you are and who you want to become. That’s key because in our youthhood, if we would have ever let any of the negativity or any of the messages that we received, any of the names that we were called growing up affect us, we would never have been to an Olympics or a World Cup. So, it’s to take that energy and convert it into something positive for your own self to really motivate you, to light your fire and to drive you to accomplish your dreams.
IE: It’s just being proud of who you are and what you like and be honest with yourself and with others. For me, it was the fear of doing what I knew I had to do. So don’t let that fear hold you back. Be true with what you know you have to do and do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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about the author
Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.