GSMP mentee Paola Kuri advocates for a soccer without gender

Jaron Johns

There was no clock in the old Catholic church, but Paola Kuri was so focused on the time she could hear the ticktock, ticktock ringing in her ears. It was a First Holy Communion like many she had attended as a little girl in Mexico City, and as usual, she was in another flower-printed dress that she couldn't wait to take off.

As soon as the ceremony was over, Kuri bolted for the car. The boys might pick teams and leave her out if she didn't get to the soccer field fast enough. So, she slid on her jeans, next to her soccer jersey and tennis shoes in the backseat, and told her dad to step on the gas.

"It was like changing into my superhero outfit," Kuri says. "When I got onto the soccer field, that was my world."

The founder of Fut sin Género (Soccer without Gender), an initiative to promote women's soccer in Mexico, Kuri's obsession with the sport began as a three year old, kicking a ball in her parents' backyard until the sun went down. A skinny girl with a thicket of blondish-brown hair that she stuffed into a baseball cap to look tough enough for the boys to let her play, she was a natural. Before the age of 10, she had earned a place as one of the best players in the neighborhood -- the only girl on the field.

Kuri's passion for soccer developed alongside a commitment to art. Before completing a communications degree from Ibero-American University, where she played soccer on an all-female team, she moved abroad to Italy to earn an MFA at Florence University of the Arts. In 2013, she and her brother Rubén co-founded Ethos Arte, an art fair that annually showcases more than 500 pieces from 60 emerging Mexican artists at the Expo Santa Fe.

Around that time, Kuri also began contributing articles to a blog dedicated to women's soccer, Ellas Tambíen Saben (They Also Know). Hoping to marry her love of art and sport, she interviewed 50 different people about what soccer means to them and posted the answers up alongside pictures of her body painted while wearing her soccer gear. Within hours, the post, #YoSoyFutbol (#IAmSoccer), was shared by notable figures in Mexico, including former national team soccer player Luis García and former first lady Margarita Zavala.

"I chose not to reveal the gender of any of the people," Kuri says. "It was an important way of saying: It doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman, soccer belongs to all of us, and we all love it for the same reasons."

Kuri's social media presence ballooned overnight. After receiving calls from newspapers and messages from people interested in discussing her project, she registered Fut sin Género and began work on campaigns promoting the sport.

"What we've done with Fut sin Género is hit the red button to start the conversation about women's soccer," Kuri says. "We have a big task ahead of us -- we need to make a statement that will touch the whole country."

For the past year, that statement was clear: Play a role in launching the first professional women's soccer league in Mexico's history.

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Before Kuri arrived in the United States as a participant in the 2016 U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, the potential for a professional women's soccer league seemed likelier than ever.

In May 2015, the Mexican Football Federation launched La Liga Nacional Femenil, the country's first national women's amateur league. The inaugural season began with 158 teams from 19 states in two age categories: under-13 and under-16.

"There were 3,000 girls every week playing football," says Lucia Mijares Martinez, technical director of development for the federation.

The second season would create an even wider impact, according to Martinez, with three age categories (under-13, under-15, under-17), at least five more states and a 25 percent growth in teams.

"Our objective (at the federation) is to motivate, engage and inspire girls in Mexico through football," Martinez says, "We want to build a competitive league, train coaches and generate a platform for future women's football heroes."

As Kuri returned from Los Angeles, where she spent three weeks in October and November being mentored by Joan Coraggio, group director for sponsorship and experiential marketing at Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, the pieces for a professional league to follow the amateur league began falling into place.

Jaron Johns

Then, the official announcement came on Dec. 5. The federation would launch Liga MX Femenil, a professional women's league consisting of 18 teams, for the spring of 2017.

The announcement was the culmination of years of hard work by women like Kuri, Mijares Martinez and many others, including fellow GSMP alumna Cecilia Vales, who founded a nongovernmental organization, She Wins Mexico. From grassroots programs to reach girls in underserved areas of Mexico (Vales), to advocating for women's soccer from within the federation (Martinez), to rallying supporters and pushing the message of gender equality to thousands through social media (Kuri), women came together to claim a space on the field for themselves and many more to come after them.

But the fact that one of her life's greatest ambitions was fulfilled earlier this month has not slowed Kuri down.

"This is just the first step," Kuri says. "We still face challenges: the mindset of machismo and making women's soccer popular across Mexico. But we've opened a path to get there."

With the same hardworking mindset, Kuri continues striving to get girls playing soccer. In recent months, she has partnered with prominent professional European soccer clubs to support the development of girls' soccer academies throughout Mexico City. Kuri and her Ethos team are also at work recovering spaces in marginalized communities, painting the fields, restoring the grass, and partnering with shoe company Puma to provide balls and cleats for girls to play.

Her brother, Rubén, has had the benefit of seeing Kuri's passion from the time they were kids to now as co-founders of Ethos. He remembers when the cousins would get together to play soccer and Paola was the automatic choice for team captain. He also remembers the frustration he felt when his sister would leave the house dressed like a boy, thinking it wasn't fair that she had to become someone else just so she could play.

"I would try to make it better by telling her to at least wear some dresses and heels when she wasn't going to play," he says. "And she'd tell me, 'No, let's go to Puma or Adidas!' To this day, we may have an important meeting, and we'll pass by a sports store, and I'll tell her, 'Don't even think about it!' It's our little joke."

As with his older sister, the success of Fut sin Género also caught Rubén by surprise. With messages of support and invitations to lead girls clinics coming in for Kuri from Monterey, Guadalajara, Tijuana and Queretaro, she has had to step back from some of her responsibilities in the art world. But, Rubén is happy to support his sister in her other life as an advocate.

"I believe you are born with a gift, and this is definitely Paola's gift," he says.

The gift extends from the soccer field to the internet, where Kuri manages Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts with tens of thousands of followers. In every post, she seems to share the same message that she did in the #IAmSoccer blog post more than a year ago: Soccer belongs to everyone.

The future of women's soccer in Mexico is not cemented despite the establishment of the women's league. Knowing that, Kuri was led through a mental exercise by her mentor, Coraggio, before leaving Los Angeles last month. In it, Coraggio challenged her motivations for wanting a professional league for women. It was an important part of the younger woman realizing the fire that drives her comes from somewhere deeper than just making history.

"We are challenging ideologies that soccer is only for men," Kuri says. "We are making a statement for gender equality. For me, that matters more than anything."

Brian Canever is the digital content manager for the Center for Sport, Peace, & Society at the University of Tennessee and works closely with the GSMP participants.

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