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Anita Carmona dressed in Sporting Malaga's kit. VELEZDARIO
The pioneering Malaga woman who dressed as a man to play football

The pioneering Malaga woman who dressed as a man to play football

Anita Carmona infiltrated the men's ranks of Sporting Malaga and Vélez CF in the 1920s and 1930s

Eugenio Cabezas

Friday, 25 August 2023, 17:09

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Football is the king of sports. It moves cash worth billions around. Astronomical signings, exorbitant salaries, everything to do with football, which the English invented at the end of the 19th century, involves excess. That said, until relatively recently only the men's version of this sport has triumphed. Feats like the one achieved last Sunday by Spain's La Roja team in the World Cup, have lifted women's football to new heights.

But it was not always like this. As in so many other areas, there is a considerable glass ceiling, an inequality that is exemplified in that the vast majority of people would find it almost impossible to name the key female stars within this sport.

However, there was a time when things were even worse. For example, back in the 1920s and '30s women were forbidden to practise football as doctors considered it "harmful to health." But there were pioneers who wanted to break with the established norms.

This was the case with Anita Carmona Ruiz, born in Malaga on 16th May 1908. She took to dressing as a man, cutting her hair and wrapping bandages around her chest to hide her curves, just to be able to play incognito in the men's teams in that era. 'Nita', as she was popularly known, defied the rules, thanks to the help of some men, who allowed her to play club matches with Sporting Malaga and Vélez CF.

Carmona was born in the Capuchinos district of Malaga, the youngest daughter of a stevedore at the port where, in those days, English sailors played a little-known sport called 'football'.

"There were no major disasters, but there were moral punishments and numerous criticisms for her when, still underage, she joined in the games played on the esplanade near the artillery barracks, a place that years later in 1925, would become the playing fields of the Salesian School run by Father Francisco Míguez Fernández, then later the well-known Segalerva football ground", wrote the local journalist, Jesús Hurtado, in his Vélez-related football blog, Velezedario.

A great fan of the history of local football, Hurtado has dedicated many years of his life to recovering more details about the different characters linked to the club, founded in 1922 in the Axarquía capital.

"It all started because I saw a Vélez team line-up in which there appeared the name of 'Veleta', and I was told that it was the nickname that Nita used so she wouldn't be found out," said Hurtado.

"If seeing a sweaty person running after a ball was already frowned upon in those days, imagine if that had been a woman," he added.

But Nita Carmona fulfilled her dream and managed to play a good number of matches, first with Sporting Malaga and then with the Vélez club, at which point her family cut all ties with her after finding out what she was doing. Some relatives lived in the Axarquía capital, which at that time had no more than 25,000 inhabitants, and so her parents decided, on the advice of a doctor friend, that the best thing was for her to move there "so as not to keep putting her life at risk."

The parish priest, Francisco Míguez Fernández, was her great supporter. This man from Galicia, beatified in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI along with 497 other martyrs on 28th October 2007, loved this sport. Under the auspices of the educational principles set by the Salesian order, he founded Sporting Malaga, a club that would eventually become one of the best known in the city. As Hurtado explained, Sporting Malaga adhered to the Salesian order's motto that "sport strengthens the body and the spirit is trained in the main arena of our Holy Mission."

To this end, they used all their funds to buy clothes, shoes and gifts for their most needy schoolchildren and for children from the neighbourhood. Every Sunday the children would enjoy playing the many matches on land then owned by the nearby sanatorium.

To gain entry to the club, Nita Carmona started off as an assistant to the masseur, Juanito Marteache. She was also in charge of washing the kit. To manage this, she relied on "her best co-conspirator", her grandmother, Ana, from whom she never had to conceal her passion for the game. Finally, this young woman managed to play a few games with her dream team.

"She played the matches outside her home district so as not to be recognised," said Hurtado.

Only a couple of photos have been saved of this pioneer of women's football, which Hurtado obtained after lots of asking around. "The one of her posing with the ball was taken at a carnival, the photos at that time were very expensive, and she, in order not to arouse suspicion, said that she was disguised as a soccer player," he said.

With the creation of the South Federation and the Local Board of Referees, the ban on a woman playing in a man's competition was extended, restricting Nita's presence on football pitches to the point that the matches played in the Segalerva district were patrolled by Guardia Civil, at the Federation's request. This was done in case she showed up and even stepped onto the pitch to play, thus preventing some spectators from throwing insults at her or, worse still, making an official complaint against the player.

"In some matches she wasn't spotted as a woman due to her strong build and hardened looks, in others, and as she became more of a woman, she had to withdraw from the field of play when called out by those who were more judging of her presence", said Hurtado.

The Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939) provided a boost for women's sport. The gender difference was eliminated across the sporting disciplines. Consequently, different women's sports associations arose. In addition, as confirmed by Hurtado, "importance was given to the technical content rather than frivolous commentary in the press and swimming, playing tennis in the Baños del Carmen, as well as hiking and athletics for women were promoted, even holding various championships in Malaga, which mostly coincided with Feria".

However, everything changed when Franco came to power. Unfortunately, our leading lady was hardly able to test those waters. She died in 1940 aged 32, the victim of typhus, commonly known at that time as 'el piojo verde' (the green louse) as the typhus virus is transmitted by lice, and which became an epidemic in Spain in the 1940s.

"She was buried wearing her Sporting Malaga shirt in San Rafael cemetery in the presence of many players and team-mates who shared clandestine matches and line-ups with her," said Hurtado. As to her biggest supporter, Father Míguez, nicknamed 'the father of the poor', we do know that he died four years earlier, in August 1936, "after being tortured, then shot, by militia troops in the well-known 'Camino Suárez' district".

A street named in her honour

At the beginning of this year the mayor of Malaga, Francisco de la Torre, signed off the decision to allow the naming of a street after this trailblazing sportswoman from Malaga. This became a reality this week with a road next to the San Miguel cemetery in the Olletas area of the city, close to where she was born in 1908, being chosen to be named Ana Carmona Ruiz in her honour. A plaque will be installed shortly.

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