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BARCELONA — For three years, Joana Flaviano held two jobs. At night, she coached physical fitness to elderly or disabled people, squeezing in as many hours as she could to save up money to purchase a car or a flat.

During the day, she was a top-tier soccer player in Spain’s professional women’s league.

In 2017, after more than a decade of training to be a professional soccer player, Flaviano quit playing because she wasn’t making enough money to plan for the future.

“I could live,” said the former Athletic Bilbao player, who’s now a police officer.

“But I lived month to month. Week to week. Day to day.”

In Spain, women’s soccer is more popular than ever. In 2017, the number of women playing soccer grew by 36 percent, and last month, a match between two women’s teams in Madrid drew a record 60,739 spectators. For the first time in the professional league’s 30-year history, companies are investing millions of dollars to sponsor teams.

Fans cheer at a March 17, 2019, match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona that drew record-breaking crowds.
Fans cheer at a March 17, 2019, match between Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona that drew record-breaking crowds.

But in this country where fútbolistas are akin to heroes, few women can earn a living from their sport.

Because the women’s professional league has no minimum salary, some players say they earn only 200 euros (around $225) a month and work second — and even third — jobs after practice.

Some teams’ contracts contain so-called “anti-pregnancy” clauses, which allow teams to terminate the contracts of pregnant women without providing compensation. As a result, many players retire before having children, fearing they will lose their contracts otherwise.

“A lot remains for this to be 100 percent professional, for the league to be a lot stronger than it is now,” said María Pry, coach of the Seville team Real Betis Féminas.

But change could be coming. This year, for the first time ever, a union representing women’s soccer players is negotiating a collective bargaining agreement for better working conditions and pay.

The Association of Spanish Soccer Players has presented a list of demands to the association of women’s clubs, which controls players’ contracts. Demands include a minimum wage of 14,000 euros a year, prevention and protection against sexual harassment, a protocol addressing maternity leave and full-time contracts of 35 hours per week. (Many women work on a part-time basis, leaving them vulnerable to overwork and under-compensation.)

“In the 21st century, these are requirements that can be fulfilled,” said María José López, a lawyer for the Association of Spanish Soccer Players, which began representing women in 2016. “If we are talking about women’s soccer at the highest level, these are requirements that must be fulfilled.”

On Wednesday, the Association of Spanish Soccer Players announced that the women’s clubs had not accepted some demands, including additional days of leave at Christmas. The association will return to the bargaining table in the coming weeks to try to hash out a new contract.

The negotiations coincide with the U.S. women’s team’s efforts to win equal pay for their work. Last month, the national team filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging men are paid more than their female counterparts — who, as the reigning world champions, are far more successful than the men’s team.

This — a marked push for equality in women’s soccer — is coming just months before the U.S. and Spain will compete in the Women’s World Cup this summer in France.

Decades ago, few people here considered women’s soccer an elite sport.

When she was 6, Laura del Río started playing soccer in the street with her older brother. As she got older, she knew she wanted to continue playing, but her city didn’t have a girls’ club. Instead, del Río and her sister created one for themselves.

Eventually, the midfielder landed a spot on the professional team Madrid CFF.

Back then, when del Río was just starting out, friends and colleagues would gape when she told them about her job. “Women play soccer?” they’d ask.

Now, no one is surprised to hear del Río, 37, plays professionally.

“It’s changed radically,” del Río said of her sport.

The change is thanks in large part to recent financial investment in women’s soccer.

In 2016, energy company Iberdrola became the women professional league's first sponsor. Around the same time, other companies, including Herbalife and Stanley Black & Decker, began sponsoring individual clubs.

With sponsorship came more money for player salaries, staff hires and broadcasting opportunities.

Now, the best-paid women on the league’s top teams can earn up to 2,000 euros ($2,250) a month playing soccer — enough to live on in Spain.

But their salaries pale in comparison to their male counterparts, the wealthiest of whom earn tens of millions of dollars a year and play on some of the richest sports franchises in the world. Lionel Messi, who plays for FC Barcelona, earns 8.3 million euros a month.

In 2017, members of the Atletico Madrid women’s team received 54 euros ($60) as a prize for winning the league that year. In comparison, each member of the men’s Real Madrid team received 300,000 euros ($337,000) for winning the men’s league.

Tickets to most women’s matches range between zero and six euros, while tickets to men’s matches can cost up to 2,000 euros for VIP seating.

Atletico Madrid fans cheer before the match against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on March 17, 2019.
Atletico Madrid fans cheer before the match against FC Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on March 17, 2019.

And, players argue, a player-to-coach pipeline does not exist in women’s soccer. In a league of 16 teams, only two coaches are women.

Susanna Soler, a professor at the National Physical Education Institute of Catalonia in Barcelona, attributed the deep discrepancies to the way Spain — and other European countries — view soccer.

“In the south of Europe, soccer has always been very masculine,” Soler said. “It’s associated with men.”

Pedro Malabia, the director of women’s soccer for La Liga — Spain’s professional soccer league — said it is unfair to compare women’s soccer to men’s.

“Women’s soccer is an activity, a product and industry that is starting to generate itself,” he said. “What is clear is growth depends on its revenue. And the revenues of the men are what they are because they have attracted millions of spectators.”

Women’s soccer has a fitful history in Spain. During the Spanish Second Republic, which lasted from 1931 to the end of the country’s civil war in 1939, women’s sports experienced a brief period of expansion, with the development of semi-professional teams.

But when right-wing general Francisco Franco became the country’s dictator in 1939, he established a national women’s physical-education policy designed to steer women away from playing sports that were not “feminine,” soccer included. In his Catholic, traditionalist view of society, a woman’s role was to care for her family.

Deviations from that role were considered immoral.

Women’s soccer slowly began to recuperate in the 1970s, around the time of Franco’s death. In 1980, the sport’s first professional league, called La Liga Femenina, was formed.

But the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the sport’s governing body, did not embrace the idea of professionalizing women’s soccer.

“I am not against women’s soccer, but I don’t like it either,” José Luis Pérez-Payá, the federation’s president, said in 1971. “I don’t see it as very feminine, from my aesthetic point of view. The woman in a shirt and pants is not favorable. Any regional outfit would be better.”

Today’s collective bargaining negotiations come as Spain is experiencing an unprecedented rise in women’s rights activism. On International Women’s Day in 2018, hundreds of thousands of Spanish women walked out of work to call for equal pay. The movement also calls for an end to violence against women and for the elevation of women to positions of power in politics and other fields.

While women’s soccer players in Spain still have a long way to go until they can make a living from their sport, one thing is clear: People here are finally paying attention.

One evening last month, a crowd gathered at the Mini Estadi in Barcelona to watch the women’s team play LSK Kvinner, a team from Norway, in the UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final.

FC Barcelona team members.
FC Barcelona team members.

Aina de Paladella, 19, huddled in the stands with her friend, David Torner. “How cool,” she muttered under her breath whenever a player made a key pass or charged up the field with the ball.

It was their first time attending a women’s match.

“We are fans now,” she said.

Oscar Casanas and Nico Palombini, both 35, compared ticket prices for the women’s game and a game at Camp Nou, the stadium across the street where the men play. (Tickets to the women’s match were free.)

Both shook their heads in disgust.

“This is more sport,” Casanas said of women’s soccer. “Men’s soccer is just a business.”

The two men fixed their attention on the pitch, where FC Barcelona, wearing blue and red uniforms, glided up field. The players combined short, quick passes with hard crosses, keeping the ball on their opponents’ side for the majority of the first half.

FC Barcelona’s Toni Duggan and Kheira Hamraoui celebrate after scoring against LSK Kvinner.
FC Barcelona’s Toni Duggan and Kheira Hamraoui celebrate after scoring against LSK Kvinner.

Suddenly, midfielder Lieke Martens broke away and sprinted up the left wing. She drove a cross to forward Toni Duggan, who neatly slotted the ball in the back of the net.

The stadium erupted into cheers.

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