Finding Fútbol Femení and my Community in Barcelona, Spain

Wow, I missed this. The feeling of slipping my foot into my cleats and lacing them tight. The feeling of receiving and sending a crisp pass across the field. The sweaty half-time high fives and group hug goal celebrations. Feeling physically exhausted but accomplished.

Since I was five years old, I have been playing soccer. I continued to play throughout high school, and when considering where to go to college, soccer played a large role in my decision. Eventually, I decided on MIT, a place where I could complete a course of rigorous academics while continuing to play a sport I love at an intense and competitive level on MIT’s Women’s Varsity Soccer team.

Last semester, when deciding what to do for the summer, I decided to do MISTI Spain in Barcelona because I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone living in a foreign country that speaks a different language, is close to the beach, and has a well-known passion for the sport I love: soccer. What more could I ask for from a city for the summer?

On Sunday, my alarm went off at 7:45 AM, an early wake-up call (especially in Spain). However, I sat up right away. I was playing soccer today, and I was excited. I grabbed my backpack and stuffed in my cleats, socks, swimsuit, and sunscreen and headed to the train station, nervous about meeting the other girls on my team.

The soccer field before the games (note the rainbow).

For background, I had been running and training all summer alone for the fall season but had honestly struggled to find others to play soccer with in a city that was supposed to have a culture ingrained with the sport. It took me nearly three weeks to find a grass field open to the public where I could practice at for free, and the one pick-up game I saw in this field was all middle-aged men. But then I decided to sign up for Celebreak, an app that connects people who want to play pick-up soccer by organizing games once a week. Participants are required to sign up for games by paying a small fee. It was here I met a girl that invited me to play with her team the following weekend in a tournament.

As I approached the entrance to the train station, I was able to recognize the girls on my team immediately because they looked like me. They were wearing athletic clothes, had cleats dangling from their backpacks, and had muscular quads — obviously soccer players. We boarded the train and started talking. Most of the girls were in their 20s, and were all living in Spain but were originally from all over the world: Spain, Jordan, Romania, Canada, Brazil, Uruguay, and the U.S. I even met a girl from California (which is where I’m from). They all spoke Spanish and decent English and were laughing and telling a story from the bar they went the night before together. I sat down next to a girl from Romania and a girl from Uruguay, and we all began chatting. The girl from Romania studied medical device engineering, and we discussed what it is like studying engineering curriculum in another country. The girl from Uruguay worked at a bank.

As we began to get to know each other better, the girl from Uruguay asked where I was from, and I responded, “California.” She then asked, “No, I know, but where is your family from?”. I get this question a lot, even in the U.S., so I realized she was asking what my ethnic background is. I responded that my mom is Chinese and my dad Polish. They both said, “Oh, that’s interesting” I think to the fact that my background is not very common in Spain. The girl from Romania then asked when my parents immigrated to the U.S., and I explained that it was my grandmother who moved from China, and I didn’t even know when the last person in my father’s family moved from Poland to the United States. I could tell from the confusion on their faces that the concept of being half-white and half-Asian wasn’t completely normal to them, nor was being Chinese AND American and Polish AND American.

The ‘Wonder Women’ team after the first game.

We then started to discuss why each of them had decided to come to Spain. The girl from Uruguay said her parents had moved when she was a baby, and the girl from Romania moved with her twin sister after college because finding a job was difficult with the political climate in Romania. Each had expressed that they both loved living in Barcelona but definitely missed their families back in each of their respective home countries. The girl from Uruguay had no trouble with the language, but the girl from Romania taught herself Spanish this past year by watching movies in Spanish. This conversation made me wonder how my grandmother felt moving from China at a similar age and for a similar reason as the girl from Romania and had to teach herself English, and how other immigrants feel all over the world, being so far away from family and living in a new language.

We continued chatting until we finally reached the soccer complex about 45 minutes outside the city. From there, we headed into a dingy locker room where we strapped on shin guards and laced our cleats while listening and dancing to a little pre-game reggaeton. We stepped out onto the pitch and started to warm up and pass the ball, and soon it was time to begin the tournament. The whistle signaling the start of the game blew, and I felt grateful to be alongside six other girls that all came from completely different backgrounds but shared the same passion for the game as me.

Maya Nielan is a member of the class of 2021 studying Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science. This summer, she is working at a start-up that focuses on off-shore wind farms in Barcelona, Spain.