Can sports cause social change? Barbara Sostaita thinks so.

Political and cultural movements are often manifested in athletic arenas. In many instances, a passion for sport becomes a method of political expression and identity. This is especially visible in the game of soccer. As an Argentine woman, I have been taught to view soccer not simply as a game, but as a powerful tool for reform and social change. Soccer impacts lives on a local and global scale, enthusing revolutions and demanding civil liberties as well as having the potential to create peace and mobilize oppressed populations. In the wake of the 2012 London Olympics, this issue becomes more pertinent than ever.

This Olympic season marks the first time the United States will be represented by a majority of women and that all participating nations will have female athletes competing. Despite the previous lack of female participation in international sports, women have found ways to supersede laws barring them from the athletic arena. Under conditions where women are excluded from the public sphere, they have utilized soccer as a method for challenging authority and demanding equality under the law. As players, spectators, and fans of the sport, women have used soccer to contest male domination, unjust governments, and rights violations. From their passion for soccer, women draw voice and confidence. By infiltrating a predominantly male realm, women are active agents of social change, change that is played out in the sporting arena and beyond.

For example, in 1978, Argentina’s dictators used the FIFA World Cup held in Buenos Aires as an effort to try and show the rest of the world that there was peace under the dictatorship. To accomplish this mirage of stability, the Videla junta led massive efforts to eliminate all signs of opposition. In this effort to exterminate dissension, the junta faced resistance from a group of radical mothers called The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who provided a public face to the carnage of the junta. These brave women would gather everyday at three o’clock, displaying enlarged pictures of their disappeared family members and demanding justice once and for all. On June 1, at the opening of the World Cup, the mothers staged a large-scale protest at the country’s largest soccer stadium.  This demonstration drew hundreds of international journalists to cover the emotional display. Although the junta may have wanted to present a vision of harmony and order, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo used the platform of the World Cup to inform the world of the violence of Videla’s government.

Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo protesting at the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires

Another case of women demanding reform is found in Iran, where women have been banned from attending sporting events since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After Iran qualified for the World Cup in 1997, the government held a celebration for the national team in the Azadi stadium in Tehran. State-sponsored messages appealed to the women of the country, imploring them to stay home during the secular festivities. Instead, thousands of women disobeyed the state’s pleas, breaching the police barriers and entering the stadium determined to participate in their country’s cultural celebration. By waging war against the brutality of the police state, this event marks a key moment when the people, especially women, became conscious of their ability to defy their tyrannical rulers. The soccer revolution provides a hopeful glimpse into the future of a world where liberty flourishes and sports serve as a vehicle for competition, peace, and global kinship. Revolt is inevitable and women are at the forefront of the revolution.

The Olympic Games seek to bring unity to a world divided by political boundaries. Every four years, countries gather to display their athleticism, skill, and nationalistic pride. However, every single day, non-profit organizations work actively to promote women’s involvement in sports around the world. Groups, such as the Batey Libertad Coalition, the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, the Africa Leadership Initiative, Grassroot Soccer, the Homeless World Cup, and Girls Kick It, are opening the doors for women to adopt good lifestyle habits, learn the game, and promote a strong female work ethic.

Of women soccer players in China, Gay Talese says, “I imagine their grandmothers having bound feet, and here are the granddaughters running around in cleated sneakers in front of the world kicking the ball.” Capitalism has enabled women to advance quickly in a relatively short period of time. Soccer is a powerful tool to further this progress and serve as a vehicle for the political, social, and economic advancement of women throughout the world. When a woman is exposed to the world of soccer, she is empowered to pursue her passions, talents, and expertise, and thus, create a better life for herself. Can a ball change the world? Undoubtedly.