Chile will not be content qualifying for its first Women's World Cup
In April, the Chile women's national team qualified for the first time for the Women's World Cup by thrashing Argentina 4-0 in its final match of the Copa America. Afterward, the players shed tears as years of sacrifice and unwavering commitment were finally rewarded.
Fernanda Pinilla, the team's 24-year-old fullback, was right in the middle of the celebrations.
"We made history," she said. "In that moment, I thought about everything we had fought through to reach that point, everything we had lost along the way."
Chile's preparations for its World Cup debut now begin in earnest when the team travels to the United States to take on the American women in a pair of friendlies, first in Carson, California, on Friday (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET), and then in San Jose next Tuesday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET). The matches will act as a barometer less than a year out from France 2019.
"The United States are a power in women's football," Pinilla explains. "They have great players and they are a great team. It will be a big test for us and an opportunity to see how we stack up against one of the best teams in the world. It will be a chance for us to see if the work we've done in training can be effective against a team that strong."
Chile is unlikely to be a pushover. Las Chicas de Rojo have lost only once, to Brazil, this calendar year, and have a number of talented players. Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Christiane Endler is an important presence in the net, and Pinilla says teammates Karen Araya, Francisca Lara and experienced defender Carla Guerrero are other players to watch.
Forward Yanara Aedo is especially motivated. She was a key player in the Washington Spirit's reserve team that won the USL W-League championship in 2015, but didn't receive any playing time for the first team after returning from a season at Valencia last summer. She has now rejoined the Spanish club after being waived by the Spirit -- and she has a point to prove.
"Yanara played in the United States and it is clear that she is a very good player with the potential to get even better," Pinilla says. "She is a very technical player, intelligent and incisive."
Pinilla will join Aedo in Spain for the 2018-19 season after signing with second division side Córdoba. They are two of 10 members of the national team squad who will compete for Spanish sides next season. Pinilla describes her move to Europe as "a dream come true," but one that will also have practical benefits with the World Cup on the horizon.
"I have the opportunity to go to a team and dedicate myself fully to football, which is impossible here in Chile," she explained. "For the national team, it is a big plus to be able to train and prepare ourselves at professional clubs in the build-up to the World Cup. We will be competing against the best, and we need to be training at a high level."
That opportunity doesn't exist in Chile. The league is run on an amateur basis, and players have to balance soccer with their study or work commitments. Although the national team's success in qualifying for the World Cup has opened some doors, provided role models for young girls and begun to change attitudes, the reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done to create the right conditions for a professional league.
Since last year, Pinilla has acted as president of the female players' union, the Asociación Nacional Jugadoras de Fútbol Femenino. It played an important role in petitioning the country's governing body for soccer, the Asociación Nacional de Fútbol Profesional, to submit a bid to host the Copa America, and is embroiled in an ongoing battle to increase the visibility of the sport and improve conditions for female soccer players.
"Football here is a sport for men," Pinilla said. "We live almost as rebels due to this mentality in Chile that there are certain things that men do and certain things that women do. I've never been on the end of verbal or physical abuse for playing football, but the institutions here have certainly discriminated against us.
"I don't have the same training conditions as a male player, which for me amounts to discrimination. The worst equipment and most inconvenient training times are reserved for women. A lot of women's teams don't have a medical team working with them, looking after them. These are all forms of discrimination against female players in Chile."
And yet, the high point in the history of women's soccer in the country coincided with the failure of the men's team to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. In this cycle, only the women's team will represent Chile on the world stage, and Pinilla and her teammates are keen to impress in France next summer.
"We go to the World Cup as rookies but we don't want to limit ourselves," she said. "We hope to qualify for the second phase, which we think is very achievable, especially if we show well against the likes of the United States and Australia, whom we face at the end of the year. Results are never certain, anything can happen in the knockout rounds, so we will go there with big hopes. We won't content ourselves with simply having qualified."