A Love With No Price

Nuria "Nana" Ligero in a game against CD Hispalis. / DAVID LIGERO

Nuria Ligero is one of the stars of the women’s soccer team Real Betis Balompié. Having reached her maximum level as a female athlete, she knows that her options to become professional are limited.

Green. Green Everywhere. The perfectly manicured turf fields, the tall trees surrounding the perimeter, and the bright practice jerseys of the Real Betis Balompié women soccer players scattered across the field. Its almost overwhelming, and takes a minute for your eyes to adjust. As students from Pablo de Olavide University walk by the field, they slow down to watch them practice, some even stop. The shouts from the players are heard from the Metro stop 100 meters away; their contagious energy difficult to ignore.

All the players of Real Betis Balompié’s Senior Women’s soccer team have dedicated
a portion of their lives to the game. They are here for enjoyment, for their love of it. Not for money and not because they see a future playing professional soccer. For Nuria “Nana” Ligero, these practices are her escape.

“It’s my time to get away from the rest of the world. It’s my time to clear my head, to enjoy myself, and do something that is fulfilling to me,” she says.

Nana, who plays center defender, acquired her nickname while playing on a team with three other girls also named Nuria. To distinguish herself from the others, she was given this nickname due to her petite 4 feet 11 inch stature.

However, when she plays, her size means nothing. With every movement comes a burst of new energy. Every pivot is intentional, every sprint made to count. Her voice echoes words of support to her teammates. “Genial, buenísima,” she shouts after a beautiful cross is made to her. She’s confident on the field, yet humble. She is small in size, but has a big presence.

Nana’s entire life has revolved around soccer. She began playing when she was just learning to walk and run.

“I’ve always played, as far back as I can remember, since I was three or so,” she explains. “I don’t know my life without soccer.”

Nana, however, did not play for an official team until she was 13, her first experience playing with only girls. At 16, despite her young age, she signed with the Sevilla FC women’s senior team, where she spent eight seasons growing into her own and playing the sport she loves. Nana played at every level as they bounced up and down from Division I, Division II, and even Division III at one point.

In fall 2014, Nana made the difficult decision to trade in her red jersey for green and sign with the rival team, Real Betis Balompié. Not only was Nana offered a spot on the Senior Women’s team, but also a job as the physical trainer for the youngest of the three female teams, infantile.

“Although it was a lower division, on Sevilla I was playing Division I, I came to Betis, who played in the second division, because it improved my professional situation and allowed me to work with what I had studied, which was sport physical activity,” explains Nana.

photo: Nuria “Nana” Ligero in one of her official photographs wearing Real Betis Balompié jersey. / PACO PUENTES

Now, at 24, she has reached nearly the highest level of play that a woman can, with the exception of becoming a “professional,” as women’s soccer has its limitations in Spain. When she was 17, Nana was invited to a training camp with the Spanish National under-19 team, very close to the next and highest level, which would be to play for the top Spanish National team.

“To receive news from the Spanish National Team is like achieving the maximum that you can in Spain, but for me it was just a three-day training,” says Nana. “The truth is that being called either by the Spanish, the Andalusian or the Sevillian teams is the only small reward that you get from soccer. You don’t get the financial compensation, but when you work hard and a National team calls you, living that experience is a very, very beautiful thing.”

It’s no secret that women’s sports are far behind those of their counterpart. The Real Betis women’s teams were just created in August 2011, despite the club being established over a hundred years before, in 1907. The gap between genders is increasingly evident in salaries. One of the most promising national players at the moment, Division I 19-year old, Dani Ceballos, who like Nana plays for Real Betis, has recently signed a contract close to a net $1 million per season. Meanwhile, women playing for the club who reach their highest level of play, do not receive economic compensation. Despite the growing successes of women athletes in Spain [in the London 2012 Summer Olympic games, women athletes won 11 of Spain’s 17 Olympic metals], their efforts seem to go unrecognized and unrewarded.

“Although some women are achieving a lot of success in sports, there is still little support to help them become professional. I know that I am going to reach my limit, because they don’t allow me to achieve more. At least not here. You have to go to England, Germany or the United States, where women’s soccer is much more respected,” says Nana without hiding her enthusiasm. “It’s sad that you have to leave your country because they don’t value what you’re doing as they do in other places.”

As an aspiring teacher, Nana believes that in order for women’s soccer to reach new levels in the future, teaching the proper mentality of respect to the youth is essential. She has been lucky to avoid sexism in her most immediate environment, but has witnessed offensive behavior towards young girls playing soccer.

“Two years ago, the kids team competed with both boys and girls because at that age there still isn’t a big physical difference yet. During some of the games, you would hear some ugly comments from the fathers in the stands,” explains Nana. “To me it seems like a lack of respect. If you hear your father saying those things to a young girl, who could be 13, what’s that boy going to think? Yes, things are changing little by little, but very slowly.”

Nana has never let gender slow her down. As one of the few girls in her neighborhood, she grew up kicking the soccer ball around with the boys, who were almost always older and much bigger than her. Nana was encouraged to play soccer by both her older brother, David, and older male cousins who also played.

“In fact, I used to get angry with my brother because he would always call me to play soccer. But then, when he and his friends would go to the movies or somewhere, he never invited me,” says Nana laughing.

Over a decade has passed and Nana is still playing with the boys. Apart from soccer, she works as a personal trainer and every other week is scheduled to work during the evening. This causes her to miss evening practices with her own team. In October this year, the club decided that when Nana could not attend the women’s practices, she would work with the Junior “A” men’s team in the mornings.

Along with the expected physical differences, Nana has also noticed some psychological differences when playing with men who, despite their young age, are already considered professional athletes and have professional contracts.

“They know that one day they can make a living from this,” explains Nana. “A lot is demanded from them, and they have to respond.”

According to Nana, women work with a completely different mentality. “You know that you won’t make it to the professional level, at least not at my age. Because of that, it’s harder to ask more from a player who isn’t paid. We come because we like to.”

Despite confidence in her abilities, Nana was nervous as to how the players, the coaches and the trainers would react. She was pleasantly surprised by the response. “They have welcomed me incredibly well,” she explains. “I do everything they do, but maybe with less workload in the gym.”

Due to limited time spent together and an age difference that ranges up to eight years, the borders into friendship are still slowly being crossed. However they quickly accepted Nana as a teammate once they witnessed her abilities. “At first, they were a little scared thinking ‘she’s a girl, we’re going to be careful.’ But from the moment that you give it your all and stick your leg in there with strength and have success, they see that you do know how to play soccer. They realize that girls also can play soccer and they consider you part of the team.”

This unique practice opportunity has allowed Nana to keep growing as an athlete. “The coaches say that I’m a tiny bit ahead, that my physical level is higher. But I don’t notice it, I just run as usual and try to give everything I can.”

The role soccer will play in Nana’s future is unclear, but one thing is certain, “The moment I stop enjoying this sport and stop giving everything I can, I’ll leave it for sure.” •

Nana and her coach, María del Mar Fernández, during a recent game. / DAVID LIGERO