Marena Sanchez of San Lorenzo, who are the exception in Argentina as the only club to pay a wage to all their female playersMarena Sanchez of San Lorenzo, who are the exception in Argentina as the only club to pay a wage to all their female players (AFP Photo/JUAN MABROMATA)
Buenos Aires (AFP) - The women's game is turning professional in football-mad Argentina, but there's very little in that status to compare to the world in which the country's male superstar Lionel Messi operates and excels.
The Argentine Football Association (AFA) announced in March that the 16-team women's top division would become professional from June -- a welcome boon ahead of the World Cup that will kick off that same month in France.
Argentina have qualified for only the third time in their history.
But scratching below the surface, women's professionalism is a far cry from that enjoyed by Messi, the highest paid player in the world on $84 million a year added to $27 million in endorsements, according to the 2018 Forbes list of top-earning athletes.
AFA has created a fund worth $2,600 a month for each team to pay the salaries of eight players -- those players, not enough to make up a full team, will earn 15,000 pesos each, or $330.
"People see that the national team isn't doing so well but no-one sees that we can't live on this," said Camila Gomez Ares, 24, who plays for Boca Juniors.
Those eight salaries amount to the typical single wage of a men's fourth-division player.
"Clubs invest in the men but it's only the biggest clubs that do so with us, and even then it's a little," added Gomez Ares, whose team bans the women's players from using the men's pitch to keep it pristine for the likes of former Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus forward Carlos Tevez.
- Selling raffle tickets -
One women's team, San Lorenzo, has decided to pay all 16 of its female players, but is the exception.
Even at Boca and River Plate -- the two biggest and best supported men's teams in the country -- women are only paid expenses.
Top-flight women players have to pay for their own transport, boots, clothing and even medical insurance.
"Some pay membership fees (to their club) and if there's a shortage to pay the doctor, police or ambulance (who attend games), they have to sell raffle tickets or pay money to play," Florencia Quinones, a 32-year-old Boca midfielder who once played for Barcelona, told AFP.
"It's about economics," says Victoria Bedini, a 28-year-old cleaner who trains in the evenings with the modest Excursionistas club from the Belgrano neighbourhood in Buenos Aires.
There, "boots, clothing, everything is paid for by the players."
The club doesn't even pay expenses meaning players often fail to turn up for training.
"They don't have enough to pay for the transport," said Bedini.
One issue is that South American football's governing body, CONMEBOL, has launched a push to encourage teams to show more interest in the women's game.
"The problem is they look for 20 girls and keep them in horrible conditions, because they're obliged to," said Macarena Gomez, whose judicial claim against her club, UAI Urquiza, over the lack of a contract was the catalyst that led to professionalism.
She sees the major problem as one of culture.
"The spanner in the works is a backward and macho thinking that permeates football," added the 27-year-old.
- Slow progress -
Given their struggles, just qualifying for the World Cup was an achievement for Argentina, who overcame Panama in a play-off to reach the showcase in France.
They will be hoping to perform far better there than in their last World Cup appearance, in China 12 years ago.
Amongst chastening defeats to Germany (11-0) and England (6-1) they exited the competition with three defeats from three, a single goal scored and 18 conceded.
They will face 2011 champions Japan, 2015 semi-finalists England and debutants Scotland in a daunting group stage.
This team has come a long way since going without a head coach for two years until they went on strike in 2017 demanding "basic resources" such as travel expenses, a training pitch and accommodation when abroad.
They once had to sleep in their bus when playing a friendly in Uruguay because they didn't have any hotel reservations.
Things are improving though, as for the first time the team will play a succession of friendlies in the United States to prepare for the World Cup.
But given women's football began in Argentina in 1930 -- around the time the men's game was turning professional -- progress has been excruciatingly slow.
"To put it simply, we've been made invisible all this time -- we're 100 years behind," said Gomez.