Júlia Vergueiro, the President of Pelado Real Futebol Clube in São Paulo, is not like our usual interviewees. Júlia is not an expert in sports science, nor sports technology. Rather, she has inspired thousands of girls to play sport in Brazil, creating opportunities for them to engage and succeed where little inspiration is normally found.
The Early Years
“I don’t remember many girls playing football when I was young; I always felt like the only one that really cared about the game.” Júlia’s dedication to football was evident from an early age, wanting to join in with family sporting activities and playing religiously with her brothers and male cousins, and watching games with her mom and dad. Whilst her parents were keen to get her into sports – she practiced tennis, gymnastics, handball, swimming and volleyball – soccer only became a reality when she went to the US aged 16 on a high school exchange.
Finding Her Passion
The catalyst for starting the all female-club Pelado Real Futebol Clube came a few years ago when Júlia had a major career change. Whilst working as an analyst for the largest bank in Latin America, Júlia decided to quit, but “it was more than a choice, it was kind of like a duty.” Júlia found out about a group of women who gathered weekly to play soccer, joined them, and her dream of finding a place to play became a reality.
Although Pelado Real now runs its own girls soccer camps, soccer school for girls and women, and has more than 250 girls and women participating weekly, Júlia talks about how the first two years of starting the club were very hard. “I had no income at all, and lots of doubts if it would succeed – but later I could see it was a brave and necessary change… women’s soccer needed me.”
Júlia found the feeling of belonging at Pelado, and wants other girls and women to have the same opportunity to play – “to benefit from it as a sport, and also as a social engagement and empowerment tool.”
Facing Prejudice in Brazil
Júlia discusses how there is still a great deal of prejudice around women’s soccer in Brazil. “Much of that comes from a lack of knowledge about how soccer can be an important tool for our personal and professional development.” When comparing Brazil to other nations with thriving women’s clubs, such as the US, France and UK, Júlia highlights that “we are in childhood – we lack infrastructure, media coverage, leagues, clubs, sponsors…everything.”
Things have improved since the CBF obligated their clubs to develop women’s clubs, but Júlia shakes her head at how “most of them are still doing it poorly just to follow the rules.” However, a step forward was the recent hiring of a new head coach – showing locally and internationally that “we are really trying to learn with the best and seeking better results.”
Pelado Real has recently created a successful scholarship program for female Brazilian soccer players to study in the US. Athletic scholarships take away the barrier of cost to study at an American university, and Júlia highlights the opportunity for girls to be rewarded for their dedication to sports, and how soccer can be a trampoline for girls to have life changing experiences. “We’re very excited to help break the cultural barrier that still limits our girls’ development, and to see them shine overseas.”
This isn’t Júlia’s only career highlight though; she talks us through creating the first Juventus Girls Soccer camp in the world – with 80 girls. “The Juventus Academy local president said that they’d never had more than two or three girls joining their camps, but we managed to fundraise the participation of almost half the girls through a crowdfunding campaign.”
Future Plans and Inspirations
Talking about the future plans for Pelado makes Júlia light up. “I want soccer to become something parents want for their kids because they see the benefits of the game. We’re creating as many learning opportunities at all ages and skill levels.” Júlia hopes activities like international soccer tournaments, athletic scholarships and life skills activities become more real and affordable, and from a localised point of view, to have their own facility to expand the number of girls and women playing at Pelado.
Júlia cites Brazilian superstar Marta as being a role model. “I was lucky enough to play a little bit with her years ago, just for fun, and her speed and strength really impressed me. Off the pitch, Marta seemed so normal, and treated everyone so nicely – it’s not something you see regularly!”
Just as Marta is an inspiration to Júlia, it’s clear to see that Júlia becomes this figure for the thousands of girls and women playing at Pelado Real, empowering females to play soccer, and trying to change the preconceptions of a country still very much focussed on the men’s game.
Read our previous Women in Sport profiles: