Viewing entries tagged

Marbella Ibarra: Trailblazer of women’s football in Mexico

The power of football to provide hope and an escape from desperate situations is well documented and ought to supersede gender. Marbella “Mar” Ibarra recognised this power and saw no reason for women to lose out on its benefits simply because of their gender. Thus she devoted herself to the development and promotion of women’s football in Mexico, in doing so she became a revered pioneer of the sport. Given the scale of the change that Mar instigated it’s only right to celebrate all that she has accomplished in her life.

Football is a male-dominated environment the world over, especially so in Mexico, and so someone extremely passionate and driven was needed to lead the fight for women’s football; Mar encompassed these traits and so much more. Until fairly recently Mexico did not have a professional women’s football league and this was exactly what Mar set out to change. Mar’s first step towards that goal came in 2013 when she founded Isamar FC, an amateur women’s team based in Tijuana, Baja California. Tijuana, where Mar came to call home, suffers from high levels of violence and, for many, football provides the opportunity to escape from this violence on a daily basis. A year later and after much campaigning, Mar approached a professional men’s club to convert her amateur team into a professional squad as part of the club and was successful. Las Xolas de Tijuana was founded in 2014 as the first professional women’s team in Mexico with Mar as founder and Technical Director. The stage was set for the evolution of women’s football but there was still a lot of work to be done.

“The ball has started to roll towards the women’s side and no one can stop it.” - Marbella Ibarra

“The ball has started to roll towards the women’s side and no one can stop it.” - Marbella Ibarra

Infrastructure for teams to play competitively at a high level was lacking, with Mar forced to turn to the US for her team to play in tournaments and leagues. Then, in what can be described as one of Mar’s greatest legacies, the Liga MX Femenil was created in 2017. This was a huge achievement and the league continues to get bigger and better with every year but Mar didn’t stop there. Even though there now existed an environment for women to play professionally a lot of women still needed help and support in getting there. Institutions to bridge the gap between amateur and professional football were few and far between leaving many aspiring, talented players struggling to make their way to the top. As was the nature of Mar, she saw a problem and set out to fix it. It isn’t due to a lack of talent that thousands of women and girls are unable to play professionally but due to a lack of monetary resources or logistical support. She founded the organisation FutFem Sin Fronteras earlier this year to provide women and girls with resources and support to be able to play professionally. With the creation of this organisation Mar’s legacy will continue on for many generations and will touch the lives of numerous girls and women. 

We may never know the reasons behind the killing of Marbella Ibarra but it’s safe to say that she lived to give hope and make the lives of other women better. Her fight was emblematic of global struggles for equality in sport and more widely for gender equality in Mexico. The mark she has made on women’s football is evident and the impact she will continue to have after her death will be felt for years to come. Women’s football owes a lot to Marbella Ibarra and the best way to honour her will be to never give up the fight and make sure she is never forgotten. 

Time to leave... by Head Coach Will Wilson

Tuesday 4th July 2017:

I'm done and I can write about my last few days and give some thoughts about the experience. I can finally, and freely, admit to blocking the shower. After a particularly muddy session, I washed my boots in the shower. The grass and mud went down the drain, and from that day on, it prevented the water from disappearing (sorry). Overall, my time in Bacalar was an incredibly positive experience.

Since finishing, and looking to keep busy while remaining involved in the development of the programme, I have designed curriculums, and come up with a document to help incoming coaches. The trip back to Distrito Federal was a strange one. My taxi arrived at four in the morning to drive me to the airport. The plane, again, was great, and I had three seats to myself. I managed to sleep a little too, having not slept much the night before, for fear I would miss my taxi.


On Friday night, I said goodbye to all the players. They truly are a lovely bunch. One brought me a gansito, which is like a chocolate and jam roll. Another had her aunt bake me a cake. That was shared with the whole group. Everyone loves cake, and it was good cake too. I wish nothing but the best for this lot, and I will remain interested and in touch for years to come.

Wednesday and Thursday of this past week, with just myself and the American, we split the older group by ability. I took the better group on both days. She was amazed at the lower ability of the weaker group and became visibly frustrated. All coaches have to start from the bottom (unless you are an ex pro with good connections). You have to work with the players who are completely clueless, and with little motivation to be there. As committed and passionate footballers, we can't understand why others don't know football, or don't want to know football, however we're not working for now, but for the future. It was frustrating for her, and we originally planned to both take a stab at each group, but she insisted, and persisted.

Genuinely, there's a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity about the game in Bacalar. No one is going to be pulling up trees any time soon, but who knows, in ten years, Bacalar could be a hotbed for girls football. The players were so interested to learn and it was a real pleasure to work in such an environment. I only wish I could have done more. If they had better foundations, I could have been far more effective with my coaching. Unfortunately the girls had no initial reference point for football knowledge and were not used to training. Simple games, such as 3v3, with each team defending a goal, took so long to explain and they almost seemed shocked that the exercise was so simple once they’d figured it out. Perhaps they’d been anticipating a minefield of cones, lines, and lots of shouting, like we see with the boys.


Football is a game of intelligence. I must have said that to the players every day. I kept reminding them that everything in football needs a decision. It became my catchphrase. The difference between a pass and a kick is the thought that precedes it. With the other coaches, my most used words were "decisions" and "repetitions." Over time, the players stopped just kicking it, and began looking for passes. I kept calling them out on it. "What was the decision you made then?" and they would look embarrassed as they admitted they didn't have a decision. I kept telling them that mistakes are fine, as we all do them, and it is part of the learning process, but there must always be a decision. Some of them even began to call the others out on it.

In the last few sessions, we could see a real difference. I want that improvement to continue. There were backwards and sideways passes. There were players running away from the ball and into space, instead of swarming like they did originally. Instead of being a fast paced, random, swarm, the games had become slower, with more deliberate actions, and more apparent thought processes. I love that. Please, please, please continue.

Lastly, before I sign out, I must speak of my love, respect, and admiration for the other volunteers. In a world where horrible acts are committed in the name of religion, where people say they will do things but don't (like how they care about veterans and will make a donation, or that they care about coal miners and will bring back non-existent jobs), or a world where people only do good so that they can share it on Facebook, it's rare to find truly good, honest and genuine people. I'm boring, miserable, and prefer my own company. The other volunteers realised that, but that doesn't mean I don't like them or think that what they’re doing is great. What Romina is doing is far greater than most religious people I have ever met, and there is not a hint of arrogance in her, nor does she give the impression it's all for show. This is genuine, altruistic, and giving something back motivates her. She wants to do the right thing.


Despite our different backgrounds and personalities, in four weeks, no one had any problems with anyone. We'll most likely admit to not being people we'd necessarily choose to hang out with in a more normal setting, yet due to the pure motivations and the absolute dedication of everyone at Girls United, we had no problems. Every volunteer in Bacalar, without a shadow of a doubt, wanted to do right by these girls. We gave them our best, and will continue to do so. We also worked as a team, there were times when we were busy, dehydrated, tired, or sick with stomach problems and we covered for each other without question. If I had to spend two hours with other coaches helping them plan their sessions, I didn't care, as it meant the players were getting a good service. If a coach was desperate for a rest and needed a drink, shade, sit down, or bathroom break, we didn't care. We were all pulling in the same direction. Work and credit are irrelevant when working with selfless people, and due to that, the quality of work is better, and the credit is rich.

If I had a heart, these volunteers and these girls would always have a place in it.

Nos vemos, bromigos.

More posts from Will's time in Bacalar can be found here: (or by clicking on the title of this blog post). 

Volunteer Q & A.

Our first academy has sadly come to an end and we have said our goodbyes – for the time being – to our very first volunteers. We felt a bit selfish keeping the volunteers and their characters to ourselves so we thought we would share with you some of their experiences and memories during their time with Girls United FA. We caught up with a few of the coaches to ask them some questions about their time with us, and here they are….

If you could describe Girls United FA in 3 words, what would they be?

Hannah - Bubbly, Smart, Determined.                                                                       

Checo - Commitment, Happiness and Dedication.


Can you tell us a funny story about your time in Bacalar as a volunteer?

            The funniest thing to happen has to be a few of the pranks Sergio and I played on the girls (Naomi and Hannah, who were in the room next door). Things like… turning their air conditioning off and stealing the remote, or…waking them up late at night by playing loud music through a Bluetooth speaker. 

 What was it like coaching at the academies? How did the girls respond to your coaching?


            The players seemed keen to learn, yet at times it was difficult to get the point across, even with a perfect translation. All along I had been playing simple games that were relevant to football, as we were fighting on two fronts; the language barrier for one, as well as novice footballers. Games like 4v4 scoring into an end zone were difficult for the girls to understand – not because they were incompetent but because most of them were so new to football. However, once they got the hang of it they performed really well and there were definite EUREKA moments.

            You could tell that some of the girls weren’t used to seeing silliness from ‘adults’ and we enjoyed having fun with the kids. Many of the girls come from an environment where parents or teachers are strict, but soon enough they were giggling, telling jokes and playing childish games. The girls really started to come out of their shells and were interacting socially. 

How would you describe your experience with Girls United FA to a friend or family member?  

            I would describe the experience as worthwhile and uplifting. The location is truly an undiscovered paradise. If you want to give something back and do something meaningful, then GU is the place to go. At times it could be interesting, humbling and shocking. As a coach, I have a lot of new equipment and kit but one day when we were playing a game with the locals; some of them were playing without any shoes. I was in full Adidas kit with brand new boots… It’s a world away from what we become used to back home. 



How did it feel arriving in Bacalar? Can you tell us a bit what is it like.


When I first arrived in Bacalar I was surprised; first by the beauty of the place, it is an amazing little town, but also it was impressive how gentle and easy going the people are, they were friendly at all times and were always doing their best to help the academy. I also loved that everything is so near, you can just walk everywhere (that is if you can deal with the heat). It's such a great place to be, it was so great to get to work there.

            Cuando llegué a Bacalar, me sorprendí muchísimo por la belleza del lugar, es un pueblo increíble; sin embargo, me quedé impresionada con la amabilidad y sencillez de la gente, siempre fueron muy amigables con la organización, y además siempre hicieron lo posible por ayudar a la academia. También me encantó que todo está tan cerca que puedes caminar a todos lados (si aguantas el calor). Me encantó haber tenido la oportunidad de trabajar ahí, fue increíble.

What was the highlight of the trip for you? 

             The highlight of my trip was definitely being able to play with the girls, they are all such great people, and I don’t know about them, but I had tonnes of fun at every training.

            Lo que más me gusto del viaje, fue definitivamente el poder jugar con las niñas, todas estaban muy dispuestas a aprender cosas nuevas y seguir mejorando, además de que son súper divertidas, no sé ellas, pero yo me divertí en cada uno de los entrenamientos.

What was it that initially made you want to volunteer in Bacalar? 

           The thing that made me want to go to Bacalar was the fact that I was going to be able to teach at least the basics of soccer to the girls. It is unbelievable how difficult life can be for girls living in not very developed places and I thought that this was a great opportunity to show the girls how amazing they were, and how they also have the chance to achieve whatever they want.

          Una de las cosas que me convenció de ir a Bacalar fue el hecho de que iba a poder enseñar lo poco que sé del juego y que iba a ayudar a que las niñas empezaran a jugar. Es impresionante lo difícil que la vida puede llegar a ser para las niñas que viven en lugares poco desarrollados y por lo mismo pensé que esta iba a ser una gran oportunidad para enseñarles a las niñas lo increíbles que pueden ser y cómo pueden llegar a lograr lo que ellas se propongan.

What was your favourite food or meal during your trip?


          It’s hard to choose my favourite food, but the things I liked the most were the quesadillas next to the central park, the lady that cooks is amazing; and I also loved the panuchos, which is like a fried tortilla served with black beans, lettuce, red onion, tomato and a bit of avocado, it is delicious.

          Me es muy difícil decidir cuál fue mi comida preferida, pero entre las cosas que más me gustaron son las quesadillas que están al lado de parque en el centro, la señora que cocina es maravillosa; los panuchos también son de mis comidas favoritas, y es una clase de tortilla frita con frijoles, lechuga, cebolla morada, jitomate y un poco de aguacate, y es deliciosa.



What has been the highlight of your volunteering experience?

            The highlight of my volunteering experience was the sensation and the motivating the girls to learn and play football. The commitment of the whole team to transmit their learning to the young girls. Also, the joy that Girls United created in every person who participated in this project was super exciting.

What have you learned from volunteering with Girls United?

          What I’ve learned from Girls United was that whenever you want to help someone or make a change in this world, you don’t really need to make huge things. If you are dedicated and want to help others, simple things such as football are enough to make that change.

What was the biggest challenge during your time as a volunteer?

          My biggest challenge during my time as a volunteer was to transmit the young girls authority and respect without being tough, you always had to be gentle and show respect to the girls, but at the same time play with them and they the training sessions.



What have you learned from volunteering with Girls United?


          I think I’ve discovered football as a language. I was telling my mom recently about one of the local volunteers, Beto. He’s from Chetumal – which is a city about 30 minutes from Bacalar. At first he was pretty quiet and I was shy with my Spanish, so we didn’t talk much. Recently though we’ve had some time to kick around a ball on the pitch before practice. I don’t know what it was exactly but it felt like we were communicating as we were passing around. Like our movements were in sync. This was the first time I’d experienced this and it finally felt like we were having a conversation – but like an experiential conversation. That was pretty cool.

What was the hardest adjustment that you had to make when living in Bacalar?

          I think the hardest adjustment that I had to make was with language. It seemed to be a thread throguht my experience here. At the beginning especially, and at period through my time in Bacalar I felt so isolated because of my language skills. It’s funny though because I’ve been back in the states for a few days now and my first instinct is to speak to people in Spanish! There was a little girls in a playground watching my cousin and I. I turned to her to ask if she wanted to join us, but it almost came out at “quieres jugar?”… Something that I often asked the players who came to practice in Bacalar.

Director's Notes: June 11th


By the evening of the 5th, everyone had arrived at the bungalow. My week of hectic preparation had been almost successful. Everything was in place - except for the mattresses.  To my embarrassment, those came a day late. Luckily, the volunteers that arrived were an understanding and adaptable bunch. It didn’t take long to get a feel for the personalities in the group. I was so excited to see we had a great mix of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, but all with the disposition to immerse themselves in the project.

That first week was spent taking the coaching course and getting to know one another, from the classroom to the pitch.  Our team consisted of four volunteers from aboard, five local university students studying to be physical education teachers, our Spanish teacher, the coach, and myself. The first day, like any, was a little quiet as people familiarised themselves with the atmosphere and with each other. But as the week went on the language barrier began fading as volunteers began joking around and getting to know each other and even got past the language barrier – with, of course, the exchange of swear words the first to break through when I wasn’t looking. I was thrilled to see all nine volunteers slowly getting a sense for the vision of the project. The week was an opportunity to focus on understanding the greater impact we could all make through teaching football.

It is not always obvious that practicing football can go beyond 4-4-2 and nutmegs. Sports education, much like the wider realm of education, has long been a field with a tradition of static coaching methods where kids are not so much taught but told. The football industry, with its signature humbleness, does little to help. Consequently, there aren’t many kids around the world that are being taught positive values through football. Nonetheless the experience of committing to training sessions, applying yourself at practice to see results at matches - not just for yourself but for your teammates - and continuing forward whether you win or lose, are all actions that eventually develop into values and attributes. Though I might not have been aware of it at the time, my experience in football, admittedly a privileged one, helped me develop as a person. I am by no means on expert on the subject but I have come to firmly believe in the power of football – the physical health it encourages, the teamwork it necessitates, the conviction it requires, the analysis it instigates - all through a game that kids and adults alike around the world love. Thus my focus for the week was to share and explore techniques for GU coaches to teach in a manner that would be conducive to wider learning. It seems that education is moving away from staid, traditional methods and more towards dynamic mental processes that encourage understanding of the game and correct technique. However, there is still a long way to go; and addressing that is my priority for myself as a coach and for all coaches that work within Girls United.

The inauguration event arrived in a heartbeat. As we pulled up to the pitch, I was anxious to see how many girls, if any, would show up. Just outside, I saw a girl sitting at the bus stop with her mom and a bottle of water. ‘At least we’ll have one!’ I stammered to the volunteers. After those initial nerves disappeared, I completely forgot to worry any more. More girls started to arrive slowly, the coaches got them involved straight away, the parents patiently listened to me talk about the project and the only six songs on my USB played on repeat for the following 3 hours (if the parents didn’t gain anything else from the meeting, they at least learned the lyrics to “procura”).  We had about 40 girls sign-up, and it was more than enough to warrant celebrate. The team headed to the edge of the lagoon to present the new coaches with their certificates, as the Girls United Football Association officially kicked off for the summer!


Director's Notes: June 4th


It has been a few weeks since I’ve returned to Bacalar. Not much has changed since I was last here - except the heat, that has definitely gotten fiercer. I have quite a bit of preparation to do before the programme starts. It’s been a hectic time between making sure things are in place for the volunteers and setting up the academy, from hanging curtains to visiting schools.

Amongst it all, I got to visit the schools again. The first time I visited the schools, I was very excited to see the girls that I might one day coach, but it felt like a bit of a surreal prospect at the time. This didn’t make me hesitate to invite them to participate in our football academy for any girl that is interested in playing! But more than that, I didn’t fixate over the commitment it represented to promise a space just for them to play and grow - an experience that they have never been offered before. Looking back, it is probably best that I didn’t linger over the weight of this responsibility because that might have scared me enough to stop me.

A few months later, here we are, a week away from the inauguration. This time round, going to schools was not only an opportunity to give the girls an actual date and place where they would be able to sign-up, it was also a chance for me to grasp the essence of the project.

I have spent the last few months, promoting the project to volunteers, potential sponsors, other organisations, friends and family. I familiarised myself with the ins and outs of the football industry, the volunteer industry, entrepreneurship and memorised my spiel as to where Girls United could fit amongst it all. But whilst I was going around spreading the word to anyone who would listen, there was plenty of room for worrying. There are so many potholes to avoid on the road for a not-for-profit, start-up – almost as many as there are on road leading up to the pitch in Bacalar! The hardest thing to define was where Girls United would sit within volunteer-led projects aimed at low-income areas.

It is a scary subject: from angry academics deeming it voluntourism and neo-colonialism to local politicians that are keen to jump on the non-stop wagon to the people’s hearts. I don’t blame either. There is more than enough proof to show the negative effects of entering a foreign country under the pretence of making a difference and aiding communities without the right skills or knowledge. And well, why would any politician dismiss the opportunity of joining a cause that required minimal work and please his electorate along the way? Two birds, one stone.

I was very worried by the prospect of doing more harm than good, when ultimately my sole intention was to improve, if only slightly, the range of opportunities for girls of these communities. The burden of knowing that we might do the contrary of our intended goal is frustrating as a leader on this project. Nevertheless, it is important to consider these dangers and go about the project in the right way in order to avoid these potholes. What is the long-term plan? How will this be sustainable for the community? How will the project incite a true sense of equality and inclusion between foreigners and locals? These are the questions I set out to answer. Yet it wasn’t until I was there in the classrooms, experiencing the girls’ excitement and understanding their daily life that I started to feel more at ease with the subject.

This project isn’t about aid or giving, it is about distributing. Distributing the opportunity to be part of a team from those who have had it, to those that don’t. As a distribution, it goes beyond providing aid or a fun summer distraction, it becomes about creating the structure for a project that can be adopted and sustained locally. Likewise, the people that involve themselves in this particular project must go beyond being foreigners abroad, taking token photos, they are people that have the desire to share and contribute to the distribution so that these opportunities reach more corners of the world. The commitment of Girls United is to support the community of Bacalar on their journey towards an established, well-rounded academy and to keep recruiting individuals to help along the way.

That said, I have already been lucky enough to be surrounded and supported by those genuine people. They are the reason on June 11th we will be at the pitch greeting anywhere between 5 and 50 girls that want to play football. The volunteers have started to arrive and the project is taking shape. Next week volunteers will have a coaching course and it will be the first official week of the Girls United programme, how very exciting.