- Boca Juniors and River Plate are set to clash in a milestone women's final
- Lorena Benitez and Lucia Martelli set to feature on opposite sides
- They both have fascinating stories
Lorenzo. That was the name Lorena Benitez was called by her team-mates when competing in neighbourhood tournaments as a young girl. Indeed, just to take part, she had to remove her earrings and present fake ID claiming she was a boy.
For her part, Lucia Martelli was positively discouraged from playing football by her parents, who felt it was not a suitable environment for her, let alone something you might make a career of. Instead, she was constantly told just to focus on her studies.
Now 22, Benitez has already competed at a FIFA Women's World Cup? and is considered one of the best women players in Argentina. In addition, she is the mother of twins and works in Buenos Aires’ Mercado Central (the enormous central market for fruit and vegetables).
Martelli, meanwhile, is 31 and has been causing headaches for rival defenders for a couple of seasons now. But she also has more strings to her bow, juggling her passion for the beautiful game with her veterinary work after qualifying in the midst of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, both these players will feature prominently in the final of Argentina's first women's professional football championship, representing Boca Juniors and River Plate respectively. A superclásico that will mark a huge milestone for the women’s game in the country.
Life’s incredible journeys
"I wasn't aware of what was going on – I just cared about playing and I enjoyed it," Benitez told FIFA.com. "Today it’s very different and there are many women's football academies. That [change] helped me grow as a player and a person."
It was not until the age of 11 that Benitez was able to join a girls’ team, which brought her to San Lorenzo de Almagro. She made her first division debut with them aged just 14 before joining Boca (originally playing for the youth teams) in 2016.
In 2017 she also showed herself to be an excellent futsal player, representing Kimberley. That was where she met her partner Veronica, with whom she had twins Renata and Ezekiel, born only days after she went to France 2019. "I don't know what would have become of me had things been different," she said. "I'm happy today."
Martelli's story is different. "Football chose me, not the other way around," the striker told FIFA.com. "I didn't set my mind on it or plan to do it.
"Indeed, as a girl, I was discouraged from playing it, and I could have done with more coaching. It was only about three years ago that I decided I wanted to become a footballer."
"While I was studying veterinary science, I began playing for the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) team with my friends, training twice a week and competing once a year. But life kept giving me opportunities."
The first came in 2018 when she was no longer representing UBA, after Fabiana Vallejos, who currently plays for Boca, suggested she move to Colombia to join Deportivo Huila. "I thought it was crazy, but I accepted and signed my first contract before I became a professional here," Martelli said.
She would help the club win that year’s Copa Libertadores, contributing one goal. "I not only realised that I liked it but also that coaches were paying a lot of attention to me, and that I could achieve something with my talent," she said. "It was quite a revelation to realise at 28 that I could do this."
After returning to Argentina without a club, she was able to train with River, who offered her a contract a few months later: "I started making decisions to dedicate myself to football, which has been my main profession ever since. Yes, I'm a practicing vet, but that’s secondary."
Despite maintaining their other jobs, both players recognize the historical significance of professionalisation for Argentinian women's football. And it’s something they’re very happy about.
"It’s been coming on in leaps and bounds, especially after the World Cup. It’s just a pity that the pandemic put the brakes on that," said Benitez, after COVID forced the first edition of the tournament to be cut short.
"The AFA and the clubs understood what was lacking, but now we have to keep working. We need to get the same conditions as the men, as happened with the national team, where we have our own dressing rooms and training camps. We even get to use the same beds as Messi."
Martelli added: "I didn't think I’d get to experience all that here, but it's beautiful to be a part of it. Now it’s time to develop football in the interior and attend to the lower divisions so that all club players have a contract."
In the match that marked the start of the professional era last September, Boca beat River 5-0 at their famous Bombonera ground, although both Benitez and Martelli envisage a much closer game this time around. But beyond sporting roles, both are comfortable with the being role models for others. In this context, they see this high-profile final as being extremely positive for the women’s game.
"We wanted to face River because of the impact the game could have on the footballing revolution we’re in the midst of. Were it not for the pandemic, the backdrop [to the final] would have been awesome. There’d have been no need to urge people to attend," said Benitez, who completed the most passes in both the quarter- and semi-finals.
Martelli said: "The fact that this is a derby will greatly enhance its appeal. On top of that, both teams play good football and like to keep the ball. We’re the two best teams. Now we all have a part to play in the struggle to establish women’s football – and not because it’s something exotic or new, but rather because it has to be part of the general football culture."
Martelli on Benitez: "She's like our Messi, the best or one of the best. What she does with her feet is wonderful, as is her footballing brain. She makes the game look simple. On top of that, she holds down another job while supporting and raising two kids. She's a super woman and a hero in Argentinian women's football."
Benitez on Martelli: "From a personal standpoint, her compliments are beautiful and moving, because our paths have only crossed on the pitch. I know what she achieved at UBA and Huila, and what a quality striker she is. She can score, move very well and hurt us. We cannot let her out of our sights."
Did you know...?
- In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) presented FIFA with its comprehensive strategy for 2021-25, a plan focused on clubs, their youth categories, expanding player numbers and growing the game throughout the country.
- Through its Forward Programme, FIFA is working with the AFA in organising and guaranteeing the first three editions of the Copa Federal del Futbol Femenino, a tournament consisting of 32 teams from all over the country.
- Thanks to another FIFA Forward project, world football’s governing body is assisting the AFA in the construction of the Centre for Development of Refereeing Technology, which will help the implementation of VAR in the country and improve the abilities of its male and female referees.