Fembolers Fútbol Club of Havana proudly brings feminism to Cuba's largely male dominated sport of soccer - err, futbol.
Fembolers futbol club
Photo: Karell Arzola

“Who are we?” “Fembolers!”And what do we drink?!” “Cerveza!!”

The chant has become the team’s signature cheer at the end of any game, win or lose. The team crest is a pair of panties with a soccer ball’s traditional black and white hexagon pattern. These details are a testament to the spirit of the team: while they love soccer, it’s more about having a good time and holding a space where women can connect and show up for one another.

Soccer in Cuba has reached its fever pitch in the last decade, especially after internet access expanded across the island. But soccer, as most sports in Cuba, is heavily male-dominated. Public fields, parks, and courts are packed with men playing basketball, soccer, baseball and more, while women have few opportunities to play organized sports.

In 2017, a group of four foreign women living in Cuba craved a feminist space that wasn’t academic or intellectual where both Cuban and foreign women could interact. They settled on soccer, even though they were all terrible at it. One of the founders laughs in an interview that they lost their first official match 11-1 only because they stopped counting the goals scored against them. The team’s official description reads “a global community of terrible soccer players with a few incredible exceptions.”

Fembolers
Photo: Karell Arzola

But this mentality creates an inclusive space where anyone is encouraged to join—the only requisite, of course, is identifying as a woman. The team started with about 10 players and has grown to over 70 members scattered around the world. There are between 20-30 active members in Havana today.

Five years after its creation, the team has participated in and won several tournaments, including the first ever independent futsal street league organized by women for women in Cuba, called La Liga Amazona (The Amazonian League). They competed against three other teams—Fénix, Titanicas, and Fajardo, the latter one the women’s team from the national sports university.

What makes the Fembolers unique as a team revolves, most importantly, around its membership. University sports are the main avenue for women to play sports in Havana. While the other teams are mostly made up of younger, Cuban women—many current students or recent graduates—the Fembolers are a mix of women from all different backgrounds, professions, nationalities, and ages.

“A global community of terrible soccer players with a few incredible exceptions.”

Fembolers official team description

The Fembolers are majority Cuban, but have players from Europe, the U.S., and other parts of Latin America. Some foreigners join a few practices while visiting Cuba; the ones who live or spend more time on the island become consistent participants. There are lawyers, designers, artists, business women, engineers, computer scientists—you name it—on the team. Among their ranks are two of the only three FIFA futsal referees from the Caribbean. And ages range from 18 to the mid-40s.

The “Pepto-Bismol team,” as they jokingly refer to themselves due to their jersey color, has a group chat for organizing practices and games, but it also serves as a place to share current events in the city, funny memes, and has evolved into a network of women motivated in helping one another. Whether someone needs a reliable plumber, or help finding scarce medicine, or simply needs to go out drinking to drown their relationship sorrows, the Fembolers have each others’ backs.

havana sunset
Photo: Karell Arzola

Looking forward, the team is in the process of consolidating itself by becoming a Local Development Project (PDL). The National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation of Cuba (INDER) does not allow independent clubs or associations on the island. But a PDL allows the team to have legal jurisdiction, a bank account, cooperate on projects with other entities, and more.

They see becoming a PDL as a way to help the team grow. This will allow them to officially link the team to a state-run soccer field, generate employment for girls on the team, and overall help develop women’s soccer in Havana. They also hope to create a place where young girls can join and have a space to not only train and have fun, but also where they can learn the values that come with playing a team sport.

I joined the Fembolers in late 2020. The first practice I showed up to was on a Friday afternoon at the José Martí field in Vedado, located next to Avenida de los Presidentes and the Malecón. There we play sandwiched between two groups of guys, demarking our territory with orange and yellow cones. The goal posts are two long, wooden stakes hammered into the ground with heavy rocks, a thin rope held taut between them.

It’s that kind of energy that has forged such a strong bond between everyone, and it’s what I know everyone cherishes the most. Two Femboler friends that I visit anytime I’m in Miami say they miss those moments most of all.

The ground is more dirt and untamed weeds than grass. The girls already have their own internal rivalry going between the blue and yellow penny teams, and I throw myself into the fray. We play until the sun sets over the Malecón and we can’t see the ball anymore in the dark. Afterwards we ride our bikes to the park outside of the Riviera hotel and down some Bucanero beers. Having a couple of beers together after we play is an integral part of our practices and games—we call it “tercer tiempo” (the “third half”).

One of the girls brought a speaker and started playing music. A few get up to dance, others sing along. I laughed. I knew maybe two or three girls on the team at the time, but the comaraderie made it feel like I had been part of the Fembolers for years.

Fembolers clandestina
Photo: Gaby Alemán

It’s that kind of energy that has forged such a strong bond between everyone, and it’s what I know everyone cherishes the most. Two Femboler friends that I visit anytime I’m in Miami say they miss those moments most of all. Recent arrivals to the U.S., they actually crossed the border wearing their pink Fembolers jerseys. They said that, despite the trials of living in Cuba, Fembolers’ practice was always like therapy to them.

Related Post: Meet Matria: The Online Platform Taking on Cuban Patriarchy One Post at a Time

So sure, we play soccer, and to everyone’s bewilderment, we’re actually pretty good these days. But the team has evolved into a sisterhood—what keeps us coming back is each other (and the beer doesn’t hurt either).

You can follow the Fembolers on Instagram @fembolers, and if you’re ever in Havana, make sure to reach out!

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Gaby Alemán Vassallo is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill where she studied public policy, Latin American studies, and creative writing. Her family is a mix of Cuban, Argentinean, and Puerto Rican descent; she first visited Cuba in 2017 on a study abroad program and became the first person in her family to return to the island since 1964. In 2019 she worked for a travel agency that brings US-Americans to Cuba on educational and cultural trips. During the pandemic, she started working as a translator. Today, she travels back and forth between Miami and Havana, spending most of her time in Havana with friends, writing, and playing dominoes.

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