Maria Elena Valverde might just be my new favorite legend. Actually, not might – she’s definitely my new favorite legend.
Not only is the 87-year-old “trailblazing Tica” a tremendous ambassador for the women’s game (she received the 2014 FIFA Order of Merit for her contributions to the development of fútbol), she’s one of the founding members of the first women’s team in the CONCACAF region, Deportivo Femenino Costa Rica. Wow.
Let’s take it back to February 27, 1949, the day it all began. It was on this day that Valverde and six other women began the process of rounding up a squad of 30 – students, workers, moms – to form the region’s first-ever women’s team. Training began three weeks later on March 19, 1949, at a farm known as Las Delicias. For an entire year, the group showed up every Sunday to train at the farm – some telling family members they were off to play basketball, most hiding the clandestine operation at all costs.
On March 27, 1950, Deportivo Femenino Costa Rica finally got its chance. Not without its fair share of naysayers, to be sure; in an interview with Revista Perfil, Valverde noted that in the days leading up to the game, a doctor attempted to persuade the women not to play, arguing that the ball was too hard and would hurt on contact, that the running would prove to be too much, that the field and goals were too big, and that they should only play for 30 minutes. “Estaba loquito ese hombre, ¿verdad?” she laughed.
Regardless of the doctor’s qualms, the game went on, and local men’s fixtures were suspended on March 27, 1950 in order to give the women a chance to strut their stuff. And hell yes, they impressed. So much so that the intrasquad scrimmage that took place that day at the Estadio Nacional de San José resulted in a plethora of invitations to compete internationally. Valverde and the squad headed out on a tour of Panama, Curaçao, Honduras, Guatemala, and Colombia. In Colombia, they were met by the Grupo de la Decencia, who barred them from competing in Bogotá because their shorts were simply too short (?).
When asked about her efforts to develop the women’s game in an interview for FIFA.com, Valverde powerfully stated that when she wants something, she achieves it. “You can’t be weak in mind and get left behind. Everything hinges on how determined you are to fight.” Damn. Go out there and get it, fam.
Valverde received a saint’s goodbye to end her playing career, as it should have been. On August 15, 1961, after over a decade of competitive fútbol, her squad was asked to play an opener vs. another women’s team ahead of Real Madrid’s match against Deportivo Saprissa. Yes, the Real Madrid of Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano. Oh yes. Legends on legends on legends.