10 women football stars whose talent and activism are changing the game

Collage courtesy of Violeta Camarasa.

From the United Arab Emirates to Thailand, Chile or Nigeria, football is the most popular sport on our planet among men and women. 

Nearly 30 years after the first Women's World Cup took place in China in 1991, prejudice towards women playing football is “continuous across many regions of the world,” according to a recent report by world players’ union Fifpro. Women are challenged by adverse labor conditions, discrimination, sexual harassment, and unequal pay.

Despite these challenges, women's football began to be taken seriously in recent years, and not only because of the talent on the field. Women have been speaking up about sexism in their profession, news media stories on women's football have multiplied and corporate sponsors have started to pay attention. Luxury magazine Business Destinations wrote:

Women’s football has been taken to another level, with the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup signalling a new era of professionalisation.

Here is a short list of female footballers from around the globe who are changing the rules of the game through their talent and activism:

1. Paula Dapena

Last November, while the world devoted tributes to the late football legend Diego Maradona, a young Spanish footballer raised some eyebrows. Twenty-four-year-old Paula Dapena refused to pay homage to the adored Argentinian player before a match in Pontevedra, Spain, arguing that his skills as a footballer were not enough to wipe away multiple allegations of abuse and violence against women. Her gesture was rewarded in Spain with the award of Cidade de Pontevedra 2020, and she became a new symbol of feminism, but it came at a cost: she became a target of harsh online harassment, which included death threats.

Around the world, women who stand out in any sports often suffer from online harassment and trolling.


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A post shared by Paula Dapena (@paulads14)

2. Khalida Popal

Unfortunately, online harassment is not the only form of abuse women football players face. Sexual harassment has also been well documented. As a player of the Afghan Women National Team, Khalida Popal raised her voice in 2019 to add to the anonymous sexual abuse allegations made against the president of the Afghan football federation, Keramuddin Karim. FIFA barred Karim from the sport for life, yet the team had to stop training because of the scandal.

After a career-ending injury, Popal founded the Girl Power organization, which uses sport to help motivate and empower minorities in Europe. She is also event director of the Afghanistan Women's National Football Team as well as an ambassador of Street Child World Cup.


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A post shared by Khalida Popal (@khalidagirlpower)

3. Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe, winner of the Ballon d’Or Féminin and Best FIFA Women’s Player in 2019, has gained worldwide recognition both for her career on the football field with the US women’s national soccer team and for her anti-racist, feminist and LGBTQ+ activism in sports. She was included in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020. 

Together with the US squad, Rapinoe joined the calls in 2019 for equal pay, which led to an ongoing lawsuit against their federation. In an interview with the BBC, the player shared her message to other women: 

“Don't settle for anything less, go for equal, go for more.” 

Disparities of pay between women and men football players has been studied in Chile, Colombia, United States and Argentina, where many women footballers are not paid at all, as they play as amateurs. In places such as Australia and the US, working conditions, which are arguably better than in other regions, are the result of the players joining unions that represent their professional interests. In September 2020, Brazil announced that it will become one of the few countries to give equal pay to their women's and men's football teams. 

4. Yuki Nagasato

In September 2020, Yuki Nagasato, a 33-year-old Japanese 2011 World Cup winner and a prominent forward for Chicago Red Stars at the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), caused a sensation in Japanese society by announcing her temporary transfer to men’s amateur team Hayabusa Eleven.

In an interview for FIFA, Nagasato said she could compensate for physical differences with her fast decision-making skills. “I want women to be respected and seen for their talents first, not their gender,” she added. 

Japan Football Association is set to launch the first-ever women’s professional league in Japan in autumn 2021, the Women Empowerment League, which aims not only to develop women's football in Japan and encourage female participation but also to enhance diversity in general in Japanese society.


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A post shared by YuKi Nagasato (@yuki_nagasato)

5. Katayoun Khosrowyar

Iranian-American Katayoun “Kat” Khosrowyar is the first female coach in the Iranian National Women’s League. The 33-year-old moved to Iran from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was born, to join the national football team at the age of 17. She went on to become a coach for 14, then eventually 19 teams.

In a country where women face barriers to move, dress and train freely, Khosrowyar scouted girls from rural areas and pushed to put the team in international competitions.

In 2011, her team was disqualified from a second-round Olympic qualifying match because of the competition's ban on wearing the hijab, the headscarf which is required wear for women in Iran. FIFA had previously accepted headgear, but the hijab covers the neck as well, which was deemed unsafe, although there was no evidence for this health hazard. After three years of campaigning, women were allowed by FIFA to wear a “head covering for religious reasons,” and so “Kat” and her team finally got permission to compete internationally again.

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A post shared by Kat Khosrowyar (@kat.khosro)

 6. Sabitra “Samba” Bhandari 

“I never had proper gear or boots or even a ball. I grew up playing football with a ball made out of socks,” said Sabitra Bhandari, the highest-scoring woman footballer in Nepal, in an interview with The Kathmandu Post. “But it is because of the lessons that the sock ball taught me that I’m where I am today,” she said. “My father and mother tried to discourage me from playing with the boys, but I managed to convince them.” Today, Bhandari is the highest-scoring footballer in the Indian Women’s League. She and Anita Basnet were the first Nepali women to play in the Indian Women’s League.   

7. Nadiya Nighat

Nadiya Nighat, 24, is the first female football coach from Jammu and Kashmir. Choosing to play football was not easy for Nighat, who grew up in a middle-class Muslim family in a conservative neighborhood. In spite of her determination, the lack of a state women’s football team in Jammu and Kashmir meant that she had to give up her dream of representing India in a major tournament. Instead, at the age of 19, she chose to start her own football academy so that she could coach young girls who would eventually have a chance to represent their country. She has earned her AFC D & C coaching licenses and is set to apply for her B-license next time around. An A-license will qualify her to be a coach of the national women’s football team. At present, Nighat is coaching Kashmir’s first all-women’s football team Real Kashmir FC.


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A post shared by Nadiya Nighat (@nadiyanighat)

8. Mara Gómez

In December 2020, Mara Gómez debuted as the first trans player in a women’s national football tournament in Argentina. She is not a global first, as there are other trans footballers in American Samoa, Spain, Canada, and England. Gómez set this precedent in a country where football is entwined with national identity.

Gómez joined the club Villa San Carlos (VSC) in January 2020 but because of the pandemic lockdown she had to wait months for the Argentine Football Association's authorization as a professional player. On November 28, when she finally signed her contract with VSC, she shared on her Instagram account:

It’s been a long journey, too many obstacles, too many fears and sorrows.
What once made me think that I would never be someone, that I would never have a chance, today is reversed, today I’m fulfilling one of my biggest goals in life, the one I thought essential and that would never happen.
Today I am officially a player in the top division of female football in Argentina.

9. Asisat Oshoala

On her FC Barcelona profile, Asisat Oshoala is introduced as one of Africa’s best players, and with good reason: Among other accolades, the captain of Nigeria’s national team, the Super Falcons, was named Africa’s best woman footballer of the year in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019. Growing up in Ikorodu, a neighborhood of Lagos, Oshoala started her career locally with FC Robo, before joining Rivers Angels sports club, a prominent Nigerian football team.

In 2015, she signed with Liverpool where her international career took off. She’s also played for Arsenal and Dalian Quanjian FC before joining FC Barcelona Femeni in 2019, becoming one of the top goal scorers on the team.

Things haven’t always been smooth-sailing for Oshoala. In several interviews, she opened up about her struggle to convince her family that football was a suitable career choice:

“No, my parents never supported me at the initial stage because I was exceptionally good in my academics. I had to drop out of school to the chagrin of my parents. It was not an easy decision but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it was the right one.”

Today, through the Asisat Oshoala Foundation, she supports young girls in Lagos who aspire to follow in her footsteps. The foundation's goal is to encourage their self-confidence in the face of great obstacles and to give them a leg up in finding a club.

10. Delphine Cascarino

Delphine Cascarino is a 24-year-old right winger playing for Olympique Lyonnais in France’s Division 1 Féminine. According to Foot d'Elles, a project dedicated to promoting football played by women, she blends organization and instinct with technique and athleticism.

Cascarino tasted World Cup glory at the U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2012. At the age of 22, Cascarino already had 10 major trophies to her name with Lyon; 3 Champions League, 3 Coupes De France and 4 French League titles.

She was nominated Player of the Match after Lyon's 3-1 triumph over Wolfsburg in the Union of European Football Associations Women's Champions League final in 2020.

À la prochaine Cascarino.
Ne joue pas juste pour montrer au monde ce que tu peux faire. Joue pour montrer aux filles qui t’entourent ce qu’elles peuvent faire.
Ce maillot est pour toi.

See you next time, Cascarino.
Don't play just to show the world what you can do. Play to show the girls around you what they can do.
This jersey is for you.

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