Changed The Game: Alicia 'La Pelé' Vargas grew women's soccer, but never got support from home country

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Liz Loza
·5 min read
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Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.
Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Fifty years before Megan Rapinoe would grace the cover of GQ or Abby Wambach would become a household name, Alicia Vargas led a championship-contending team in a World Cup effort. While her story remains largely unknown, Vargas’ talent and industry would become “una semilla” that helped to grow the undeniable popularity of women’s soccer.

Born in 1954, Vargas discovered the sport by playing ball with her brothers in the streets of Guadalajara. Eager to be involved, she flew all over the makeshift pitch. Whether she was chasing down dead balls, honing her reflexes as a goalkeeper or dribbling upfield as a forward, she was sharpening her physical and mental knowledge of the sport. The times when her mother — who did not approve of such unladylike behavior — would drag her (often by the ear) away from the game only heightened Alicia’s desire to play.

After spotting a blurb in the local paper about an all-women’s squad, a determined Vargas talked her way into a tryout. At 14 years old, she made her debut for Club Guadalajara.

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Stories of Vargas’ skill — from her deft dribbling to the “thwap” of her power shot — quickly spread throughout the 17 teams that made up La Liga América. She was swiftly recruited by coaches to join a Mexican delegation that would compete for a world championship in Italy, as part of the freshly conceived International Federation of Women's Soccer. It was 1970. And she was headed to the first-ever Women’s World Cup (despite not being endorsed or recognized by FIFA).

As a teenager having never left her home country, Vargas arrived in Bari. She brought a small suitcase containing only a few white blouses, a uniform gifted to the team by Enrique Borja and a pair of shoes. Obvious underdogs, the squad representing Mexico began training in secret. Aided by a priest who offered them the use of a seminary near their hotel, the team would practice before the other clubs would come down for breakfast. The reps proved worthwhile as Mexico clinched third place and Vargas finished as the tournament’s scoring leader.

The European press became enamored by the scrappy midfielder, whom they nicknamed La Pelé.

Despite being offered a contract to stay in Italy and play for Real Torino, La Pelé was eager to return home. Upon landing in Mexico City, she and her teammates were met by cheering fans and requests for autographs. Women’s soccer, it seemed, had captured the attention of the national audience. Even more exciting to Vargas was the fact that the next year’s World Cup was scheduled to take place on familiar ground.

In 1971, Mexico hosted the second Campeonato de Fútbol Femenil. Sponsored by spirits company Martini & Rossi, the tournament — which featured six teams (England, Italy, Denmark, France, Argentina and Mexico) — was widely promoted. While the cartoonish mascot and pink goalposts were interesting marketing choices, the effort resulted in massive ticket sales and jam-packed stadiums. The competing women could feel an impending sea change.

After playing without any compensation for practice or game time, the ladies of Equipo México asked to be paid. Unsurprisingly, they were denied ... and the press was aghast that female athletes would have the gall to require material reimbursement. After all, they should have been grateful por las migas.

With tickets already sold and the championship stage set to take place at the famed Estadio Azteca — the site of the FIFA-sanctioned 1970 Men’s World Cup — the women felt obligated to play. The final match on Sept. 5, 1971 had an estimated 110,000 fans. Unfortunately, the moment proved too big for the home team, as Mexico fell to Denmark 3-0. Vargas left the stadium in tears, refusing to speak to the press.

But her talents didn’t go unnoticed, as she was, once again, offered a paid contract from Real Torino. And, again, she refused. Instead, she wanted to be a champion for her home country. An optimistic teen, she believed, given the evident zeal for women’s soccer, the opportunity would soon materialize.

It didn’t.

Internal conflicts and political posturing prevented Mexican officials from properly capitalizing on the success of the 1970 and '71 women’s teams. The women, however, kept playing … for nothing but the passion.

In 1991, at 37 years old, Vargas accepted an invitation to play for the Mexican Soccer Federation in the FIFA-organized World Cup. Due to a continued lack of organization and proper funding, however, the team failed to qualify. Her career as an international footballer was over. She retired in 1992 and worked for 30 years as a P.E. teacher.

Nearly five decades after playing in her first World Cup, in 2019, Vargas was inducted into the International Soccer Hall of Fame. In her acceptance speech, she referred to herself as a fortunate woman who loves soccer. Sadly, soccer didn’t love her back soon enough.

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