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Women's Soccer in Mexico Gets a Cross-Border Kick

Four players who live in the U.S. are helping the national team give female athletes a leg up.

June 27, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

ALBUQUERQUE — Three years ago, Jennifer Molina was studying environmental biology at Colgate University, playing soccer for fun on the side.

Around that time, her father made a trip to Texas, where he ran into the Mexico women's national soccer team at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. As a native of Cordoba, Mexico, with a Mexican-born, soccer-playing daughter, he stopped to chat.

"It was just a chance meeting," Molina recalled. "He noticed the girls with their uniforms."

As a result of the conversation, the team's coach, Leonardo "Leo" Cuellar, later called and offered Molina a tryout -- if she paid her own way to Mexico.

She did, and now Molina, who has lived in Massachusetts since she was 3, is Mexico's starting goalkeeper and headed for Athens in August and an Olympic experience she never had imagined.

Molina is one of four Mexican American starters on Cuellar's team, a group that includes Notre Dame graduate Monica Gonzalez of Corpus Christi, Texas; University of Miami graduate Lisa Gomez of Miami, and Cal State Fullerton junior Marlene Sandoval of Placentia, each of them defenders.

All have dual citizenship, making them eligible to compete for either nation.

The four have not only helped make Mexico a force on the field but are helping their teammates open the eyes of a hesitant Mexican public to the potential for women's sports, Cuellar said.

At the same time, they are discovering their roots.

Sometimes, their discoveries have been surprising.

When Sandoval was invited to join the team a couple of years ago, she quickly learned that women's soccer was not as readily accepted in Mexico as it was in the United States, where players such as Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain were sporting icons.

"People were saying, 'How can it be possible that the Mexican soccer federation supports a bunch of women who have nothing else to do? It would be better if they were cleaning house,' " she said in an interview before a recent match here.

"They were serious," Sandoval added.

But Cuellar, who coached at Cal State Los Angeles for 11 years, and his players have undermined that notion with notable success in the last year.

Last July, 95,000 fans turned out at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City to see Mexico tie Japan, 2-2, in a playoff game for a place in the 2003 Women's World Cup.In March, thousands turned out at the Mexico City airport to welcome the team home from Costa Rica, where it had defeated Canada and qualified for the Olympics.

Both accomplishments delighted Cuellar.

"It's been an example for little girls who now can dream about wearing a green jersey at Azteca Stadium in the future," he said.

"I would like to know how many soccer balls have been bought for little girls in Mexico since we qualified for the Olympics."Dolores Rojas Rubio, an official at the Women's Institute of Mexico City, a government agency that promotes gender equality, said the team's influence had been significant.

"The women on the Olympic team are trailblazers and pioneers," she said. "They have fought an uphill battle to play a traditionally masculine sport....We have to keep working until the day that a woman playing soccer is not news and it's just part of the everyday routine."

Mexican Americans, who have been part of the team since it was founded in 1997, are helping in that process.

Of the current players, Molina and Gomez had never seriously considered playing internationally, but Gonzalez and Sandoval had played for the U.S. at the under-age-19 level.

When the latter pair saw their chances of advancing to the two-time world champion U.S. national team diminish, they opted to play for Mexico instead.

"I went [to Mexico City] and tried out and I just loved the people," said Sandoval, whose parents came from Zacatecas, Mexico. "I felt more at home there than I had on the U.S. team."

Under international soccer rules, players are eligible to represent a country as long as at least one parent or grandparent was born in that country.

The arrangement has posed some confusion for the U.S. players as they explore their heritage.

"I guess now I'm Mexican," Molina replied when asked what nationality she considered herself.

"It's hard because I grew up in the States. It's an identity thing, not a crisis, but it's hard."

Especially when Mexico's national anthem is played before games.

"I know the words and I have the pride," she said.

"When I'm on the field with Mexico and when I'm in Mexico, I'm entirely dedicated to it, but when I go home I do go home to the States and my family. That's the difference. I get a flight to Boston."

Gonzalez, the Notre Dame graduate from Texas, has played for Mexico for seven years and is its captain. She said integration of Mexican Americans into the team took time.

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