CHABAS, ARGENTINA - At age 7, Candelaria Cabrera goes after the soccer ball with determination. She drives toward her rivals without caring much about getting hurt and deftly manages the bumps on the dirt field.
She wears a loose white jersey from Huracan de Chabas, her hometown, located 230 miles (370 kilometers) north of the capital, Buenos Aires. Printed on the back and on her red shorts is a number 4. She uses white boots and shin guards. Her long, copper-colored hair tied in a ponytail distinguishes her from the rest of the players.
"Cande,'' as she is known by friends and family, is the only girl playing in a children's soccer league in the southern part of Santa Fe province, birthplace of stars including Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta and Jorge Valdano. Former Argentine coaches Marcelo Bielsa, Gerardo Martino and Jorge Sampaoli were also born there.
But a regional regulation that prohibits mixed-gender teams in children's categories threatens to take her off the field — a ruling that has helped dramatize the inequality in opportunities for men and women in this soccer-crazed country.
"I had to sit down with her and tell her that there are some people who have to make rules in soccer and that these rules do not agree with what she wants,'' said Rosana Noriega, Candelaria's mother. "And, well, we both cried, and she said: 'The people who make the laws are bad people.' ''
She was 3 years old when her parents gave her her first ball. They understood that it didn't make sense to insist she play with dolls, even if there were "comments from other moms that they should not give her male toys because it would encourage her to be a lesbian,'' Noriega recalled.
Two months ago, the regional soccer authorities notified Huracan that the team could no longer include Candelaria. She could play only on a girls' team — and there isn't one where Candelaria lives.
Noriega took to social media to speak out about her daughter's case and was surprised to find that she was not the only one. Girls wrote to her saying they were facing the same problem in nearby towns and more distant provinces.
Of the 230 regional leagues recognized by the Argentine Football Association, only 68 have women's teams. This is just one of the many disparities with men's soccer. The most notable is financial: The best-paid contract in men's first division is around $3 million a year. In contrast, women who play in their top category receive a travel voucher of $44.
Argentina's female players, who will play in a November runoff game for the 2019 World Cup, have struggled financially when their payments were delayed. They also expressed discomfort when Adidas, the brand that sponsors a few members of the national teams of both genders, unveiled the new shirt for the Female America Cup this year with models rather than players.
"The biggest lack is that they don't have younger players. They start playing at age 16, 17, and by then they've missed out on a bunch of issues that have to do with understanding the game,'' said Ricardo Pinela, president of the Football Association's Women's Football Commission.
"The important thing is that every club in every corner of the country gives a girl the possibility of joining a female soccer team, to play with other girls, even if it's just for fun, and from there generate the necessary structure that ... sets them on equal standing as the male players," he argued.
After Candelaria's case became widely publicized, her regional league committed to reviewing the rule in an assembly at the end of the year — leaving her case in limbo until then.
While she's officially now banned, the team has let her keep playing — at least until an opponent objects.
Candelaria's most recent match ended with her team beating rival Alumni de Casilda 7-0.
"No one should say that a girl can't play soccer,'' she said.