Women’s soccer is changing. Gone are the days where there were no global superstars to play on a global stage, when the thought of professional leagues seemed like a pipe dream. Ana Caty Hernández has seen a lot of this change first hand, first as a player in the pre-Liga MX Femenil Chivas team in 2007, and later as a correspondent with Univision Deportes. “I think it has changed a lot,” she told SB Nation in a recent phone interview. She credits the United States Women’s National Team for providing an inspiration to an entire generation of women.
“I think my generation - I’m talking about 25 to 30 (year olds) - it changed their minds,” she said. “Because of the national team - the American national team, the United States National Team that was represented by Mia Hamm. They made us believe that if we wanted to play soccer, we could have a space to play. We could become professionals, and I think that was the most important change in our minds.”
Ms. Hernández has always been around soccer. “My father was a professional manager in Mexico” she says. She recalls “When I was eight, I started watching the World Cup of 1998, and I just fell in love with Ronaldo and I fell in love with the way of playing soccer. After all of that, I started to follow Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, and follow Real Madrid and be involved with Mexican soccer because I’ve always been involved with Mexican soccer because of my father.” While she initially idolized O Fenômeno and Zizou, her father would get her interested in the women’s game in a surprising way.
“He brought me once a Nintendo cassette, and it was the Mia Hamm game for Nintendo 64. There was a game called Mia Hamm Soccer 64, and then I said ‘Oh! Who is Mia Hamm?’ He told me that she’s the best player right now in the world, and she’s one of the most successful players in the United States, so I start to investigate and I met Mia Hamm. Also I got the DVD with the story of the (women’s) national team of the United States. And after all I just like idolized Mia because she was very different from what I was taught. I understood (men’s) soccer, but I started to understand (women’s) soccer.”
She would take that love and eventually wind up playing with Chivas Femenil in 2007 as a midfielder. While she idolized Ronaldo and Zidane, “I think my style was a little more like (Gennaro) Gattuso.” she says with a laugh. She wound up doing more than just playing with Chivas though. “I started with radio when I was playing with Chivas. I said to the website when I was playing with Chivas ‘Can I help doing the chronicles of the game and doing interviews and and be a voice of the girls for soccer team on our website?’ So they said ‘Yes,’ so I started to do that,” and her career went from there. After attending university, Ms. Hernández said “I got a call from Univision and I started as a reporter, and then the story is just that I said ‘ok I’m going to be very specific at Univision’ so I can keep growing (not only) in my career, but also together with soccer.”
Her career has allowed her to meet her heroes. “Once I started playing in Chivas particularly, I loved Carli Lloyd.” When the United States was set to play England in Orlando in the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, the Miami-based Hernández jumped at the opportunity. “I have a pretty good story that a year ago I went to Orlando to interview them, to interview the team and I told my cameraman ‘I’m absolutely nervous’ and after the interview finished, he told me ‘it’s the first time I saw you interviewing someone and you were nervous and you were anxious and you were very excited.’ I said ‘It’s because Carli Lloyd actually is one of the most important role models in soccer, in (women’s) soccer’ so for me when I was playing when I was seventeen, I used to watch her because she’s ten years older than me and I was saying ‘Oh I want to be like her one day!’ It was crazy because I was there and I’m seeing and I’m interviewing the girls that I wanted to be one day, you know? Like my role models as a soccer player were there. I also interviewed Julie Ertz and Alex Morgan. What I admire about Alex Morgan for example is the way that she has become not just a football player, she’s also marketing girls that have helped to understand that soccer can be both you know, in women I mean, so yeah that day I think was one of my most important days of my life.”
The women’s game has caught on all over the globe, even in Ms. Hernández’ native Mexico with Liga MX Femenil. “I think that soccer has been improved and has been more supported by people and by industries, and by older professional teams like Barcelona in Spain, like for example. Paris Saint-Germain in France, and now in Mexico with (Liga MX Femenil). I think that that generation changed the world because they made us understand (women’s) soccer as a professional way of living. And this change has been slow, because I think the United States has all the infrastructure, all the things around to make a successful national team.”
But Mexico has some challenges. “In Mexico,” she continues “it’s hard to play, you know? The girls, it’s hard to go out and to play soccer as a girl. Not in a man’s team. Not with boys. We started to play on teams. We started to believe we can make a soccer team, and I think that was the most important change because it helped us understand how it was going to be. After, I think the economic support has also been real important to us, because we’ve been growing up with this stuff.”
That said, Ms. Hernández sees a lot of promise with women’s soccer in Mexico. Mexico’s women’s national team has only made the World Cup three times and has yet to win it’s first game. They will be watching the World Cup play out this year in France, but when asked if the Mexican Women’s National Team could make the quinto partido - the elusive fifth game that has been the goal of the men’s national team since their last appearance in 1986, she said “ I think that we have a good generation coming. We have a team that it’s been working by a method that is going to be very successful, and I have a lot of people that I know in the selecciones menores - in the Mexican National Team that work with the men and with the women, and I saw the way they are training and the way they are developing this new era of the women’s soccer.”
“I think we’re going to find these two generations - these sub-17 and these sub-20 together with obviously the girls that are going to be like showing in the league successful in the next World Cup (in 2023). It’s going to be very different, the future of the Mexican soccer, of (women’s) Mexican soccer because I’m seeing the way they’re practicing, the way they are becoming professionals and that makes me have the hope and the motivation to see that this new generation is going to change the way that we perceive the female soccer in Mexico and they are going to be such a good example and such good role (models) for the next girls that are going to become soccer players.”
Liga MX Femenil is a key component of that success. “The way that most of the professional teams have helped and have been involved with their female teams by giving them the fields to practice, the uniforms, and the money - or the support, to go out and to be playing” these games has really revolutionized soccer in Mexico from when she was playing.
“When I used to play with Chivas,” she says most weeks they had “five times a week practice, and we had uniforms, we had every single thing we needed to complete our practices and to complete our performance. Also we used to go for play sometimes away, sometimes like far away from Guadalajara, and they gave us everything. But that was Chivas,” she says, implying that other clubs weren’t living up to the same high standards as El Rebaño Sagrado. “I think that the difference has become that now it’s not just Chivas. It’s most of the teams are helping to improve the benefits of the girls that play soccer.”
I asked her about her position on the rule in Liga MX Femenil that specifies that only players born in Mexico can play for their teams. Ms. Hernández says she agrees with the rule - at least for now. “I think that to start, that’s important and I agree with it” she says, pointing out the differences that currently exist between play in Mexico and play in the United States. “Here in the United States you have all the infrastructure to develop talent. I’m not just talking about soccer, I’m talking about everything. In Mexico, there’s not a lot of places or academies where you can find soccer teams.”
“So I think if you want to develop the national team in Mexico, and if you were going to do like a league, you have to first of all set up the girls to play, to understand the training, to understand the game, to understand the way of living if you want to be a professional soccer player, and in that way I think that it has, it had to start like that with just Mexican-born players because it’s the only way to develop maybe the girls the youngest, not just the older (ones) because they always are going to have their teams and are going to be playing, but the youngest have to be there.”
And while there’s a gulf in talent between National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the United States and Liga MX Femenil, much like the gulf in talent between Liga MX and Major League Soccer, that gulf is continually shrinking. “I think the league here in the United States is a good example,” she says. “So if we take that example and we understand that the teams and (how they support) their female teams, they give all the tools to develop their players, we are going to be close on that level. Not tomorrow, but maybe one day.”
“It’s kind of the same that has happened with the MLS and Liga MX,” she continues. “They have the infrastructure in MLS and they understand how the competitive league is the Liga MX, and they are taking those examples and obviously taking on their own side and developing, and I think MLS is growing in a huge way, and I think it’s going to happen the same. We’re going to make our own way of league, but I think if we take the good examples the Liga MX Femenil is going to be huge because we have seen that the fans are in the games. That the fans are taking care of the girls and the players and we saw for example the final between Monterrey and Tigres and there were both times, both finals (both legs) were full.”
The night I spoke with Ms. Hernández was the night of the latest Clásico Regio between Tigres Femenil and Rayadas at El Volcán, and I was talking with my friend who said his own two young daughters were watching the match here in the United States on the very network Ms. Hernández works for. His daughters were amazed that these women were playing soccer on television in a full stadium, and may have found their Mia Hamm like Ms. Hernández did all those years ago. Every generation has their heroes that can transcend language and borders. “They wanted to know who scored (the Tigres goal), what her name was,” he told me. “I said ‘Martínez’ and they kept practicing saying ‘Martínez’ (for Tigres forward Katty Martínez).”