Embrace Who You Are – An Exclusive Interview with Argentina’s Natalie Juncos

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Jimmy Lee

Argentine women’s football isn’t exactly easy to find on TV in Argentina. So you can imagine how much more difficult it was for me to watch living in the United States. Other than reading the names of the girls on the list of players who would be traveling to France for the World Cup, I didn’t know much about any of their backgrounds. As I started to learn more about the squad, one of the girls stood out above the rest – Natalie Juncos.

Natalie was born in the United States, to Argentine parents, both of whom represented their country as swimmers in the Olympics. I too was also born in the United States but lived in Argentina for a few years when I was younger. Having this in common with Natalie got me excited to learn more about her and her experiences living a split life between the two countries. On July 23, I got the chance to speak with her just hours before the team boarded the plane to Lima for the Pan American games.

Natalie was born in Michigan. Her father was beginning his career as a Physician, which moved their family to Minnesota when she was just five-years old. Natalie and her younger brother Nico lived the typical American childhood, with a few differences because her parents continued to carry on several Argentine traditions. The most memorable for Natalie were the Sunday asados and watching the Argentina national team on TV. She also traveled to Argentina each year to visit her relatives – the Juncos family in Córdoba and the Aracil family in Mar del Plata.

Her parents spoke both English and Spanish in the home, which allowed Natalie to be fluent in both languages from a young age.

“At night, one day my mom would read in Spanish to us and then the next night in English.”

But when Natalie was eight or nine years old, she was diagnosed with dyslexia. Her parents decided that if they wanted to help her overcome her challenges with reading, they would need to stop speaking Spanish in the home and devout 100% of their time to speaking English. As Natalie grew, she could always understand Spanish, but speaking it would become a challenge. In addition, in Spanish classes at school she stood out because she spoke Argentine Castellano and not the more traditional Spanish that was being taught.

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Even though Natalie struggled at times with Spanish, she still felt Argentine. She recalls once telling her mom on their way to school in the morning that she was indeed Argentine. Her mom told her, “No Natalie, you are very American.”

She persisted in telling her mom that she was Argentine. “So in the car, she was gonna drop me off at school and my mom said, ‘oh perfect Natalie, get off quickly before people start coming.’ I told her that I had to wait my turn to which she replied, ‘see, that’s why you’re not Argentine.’”

Natalie continued to play soccer for both her high school and club teams. This required her to drive nearly an hour and a half to Minneapolis / St. Paul four or five times a week.  But at a critical time in her life, with just two years left in school, her parents told her that they would be moving from Minnesota to Brandon, Mississippi, a suburb just outside of the capital city Jackson.

Natalie was not exactly thrilled – “My parents made me. Imagine a teenager at 16 not wanting to leave. I was not very happy about that.” But moving to a new city nearly 1,000 miles away (1,600 kilometers) didn’t stop her from continuing to shine in soccer. She finished high school in 2008 as the captain of her team and accepted an offer to play for the University of Florida.

Florida had a big program with enough girls to fill three squads. Unfortunately for Natalie, she struggled to find her spot on the team and a year and a half later, decided to transfer to the University of Houston. “I learned a lot in Florida, I don’t regret the decision, but I decided I needed a change.”

As her playing time ramped up, so did her dream of representing Argentina’s national team. In 2010, with the help of her parents, she wrote a letter to manager Carlos Borrello, and asked him for a tryout with the squad. It took four years, but she finally completed the steps to qualify as a nationalized Argentine. After finishing her degree at Houston, she moved to Argentina to begin playing soccer in the country of her parents’ birth.

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Even though she had traveled to Argentina every year of her life, living there full-time was a whole new adventure.

“I speak fluent [Spanish] but to this day I still struggle with the verbs and the articles, the masculine and feminine.” Because she is by blood Argentine, she can blend in as she travels around, but sometimes if she gets deeper into a conversation with someone, “they notice I’m from somewhere else and then I have to go and tell them my whole story. It’s a pretty constant thing.”

There is no question about it, Natalie stands out. She feels both 100% Argentine and 100% American – which can be confusing for any person who is trying to figure out where they fit in this world. But just as good mothers always seem to do, Natalie’s mom gave her the perfect advice – “Embrace who you are.”

Living a life split between two countries has been hard for her at times, but her mom always reminds her, “Don’t change who you are, adapt to situations of course, but accept who you are.” When Natalie first arrived, she was much more self-conscious of her Spanish, but carrying the advice of her mom in her back pocket, her confidence has grown and she has been able to accept that, “no matter where I go, there will be something that I am different in.”

Part of gaining that confidence was learning how to laugh at the mistakes she made. “The first year I lived in Argentina in 2014 I wanted to buy a hat, but I can’t roll my R’s and the guy I was buying it from was overweight, so when I asked for a hat ‘gorra’ it came out as ‘gordo’. I’ve definitely had a lot of those moments.”

But it wasn’t just the language that she had to learn to adapt to, even though she visited Argentina her whole life, living in the country presented new challenges. “When I’m here in Argentina, I miss my husband, my brother, my parents. I miss the little things of just being able to get in my car and go and not having to wait on a colectivo [bus] or a taxi. But that’s also a positive thing about being in Argentina, that every day is a different day – at the end of the day it’s always entertaining.”

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As the 2018 Copa America rolled around, Natalie was beginning to find her place with the team. She started all but one of the matches in Chile. Argentina finished third – good enough for a home and home playoff against Panama. Argentina would go on to beat Panama 5-1 on aggregate and earn their first birth in 12 years to the World Cup. But before those matches, Natalie’s career hit a significant speed bump.

Her first day back training with the national team in August, while trying to send in a cross, she stepped onto the ball and hyperextended her knee and tore her ACL. With just 10 months to go before the World Cup she knew it would be a tight window to recover in time. But having already conquered two different countries, Natalie was never going to let an injury slow her down. Day after day she worked with a singular focus – France 2019. After just seven months, her doctors in the United States gave her the thumbs up to start playing again.

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But of course, whenever things appear to be going well, life always finds a way to throw something else into your path. And so it was with Natalie. First, she had some shin issues that made it hard for her to jog. Then the doctors in Argentina refused to clear her until she was nine months out from her injury. Knowing that Carlos Borello would be announcing the squad one month before the start of the World Cup, the timeline was extremely tight. “In the AFA, we have four or five doctors and physical therapists, so it got really complicated when I would see a physician one day and another the next day and they all had different opinions.” But finally, the AFA doctors all agreed that she could resume playing.

As the day came to announce the 23 girls who would travel to France, Natalie knew there was a chance she might not make the cut. “I knew it was going to be tight making the list, but on the other hand, I was confident and calm because I knew I had done everything I could within my powers.” Borello brought the group together to announce who would not be making the trip – he did not say Natalie’s name – she was going to France. She had just achieved one of her lifelong goals. She would have the chance to wear the Albiceleste jersey in a World Cup. Time to celebrate, right?

No. That’s not the kind of person Natalie is. “When I didn’t hear my name I was like, ok, great I did it, I got this far, now the next step is trying to play. I think if I only tried to get to the list, I don’t know if I would have made it. You have to try and reach above something more than you think you can get. Maybe you get there, maybe you don’t, but at least you know you tried.”

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Let’s travel back to September 10, 2007. The World Cup was being played in China and Argentina’s first match was against Germany. The Albiceleste lost 11-0. The worst defeat in World Cup history to that point. They went on to lose their next two games and finished last in their group with a goal difference of negative 18. After two successive qualifications to the World Cup, Argentina had played six matches and lost all six.

Fast forward to June 10, 2019 and Argentina is back in the World Cup for the first time in 12 years. Already a huge accomplishment for a team that ceased to exist just a few years prior. Gambling odds gave Argentina the second to worst chances of winning the tournament. Their first match was against Japan, the side that eight years prior won the World Cup and four years ago finished runners up. Argentina fought for a 0-0 draw, their first ever point in a World Cup. Next, they faced England, another of the tournament favorites, and lost a respectable 1-0. The final match against Scotland saw Argentina come back from a three-goal deficit with only 15 minutes to play to earn their second draw in the group.

To an outsider with no background, it could appear that Argentina went to France, did very little, and returned home. But that could not be further from the reality of what took place. The 23 women went to France and kick-started the beginning of a revolution. This may be the first of many steps on their way to achieving relevance in a country where they were previously ignored. Things are starting to change and you can feel it.

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Argentina may have failed to qualify for the knockout stage, but when they arrived home to the Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires, they returned to a heroes welcome.

“Prior to the World Cup we had a little bit of exposure, but when we came back, it just ballooned, it was huge the type of exposure we had. There were people that would recognize me in the street and ask for pictures. That was unheard of prior to the World Cup.”

There is no need for me to get into a long discussion about the history women’s football in Argentina. But to sum it all up – football has never been considered a women’s sport, just like doing the asado, it was something left to the men to do. And women who did play football were looked at in a very negative light. But immediately after the World Cup, things started to change.

“My biggest surprise has been the men. To be frank, it was always just the feminist movement that was aware of the women’s soccer team. But then we saw pictures of men stopping in downtown to watch the game against Scotland. That was totally unexpected. It kinda hit us in the face almost. It’s still sinking in.”

So, what comes next for Natalie? First the Pan American games in Lima, Peru. “Our goal is to win it.” Then once that tournament ends, Natalie is looking forward to spending some time with her husband at their home in Houston – but that will only last for a week. After receiving offers to play in other countries she has decided to stay in Argentina and continue to be a part of history. “Women’s soccer is growing, and I want to help encourage that growth.”

Earlier in 2019, AFA President Claudio Tapia announced that for the first time in Argentina’s history, they would start taking steps towards professionalizing the women’s game. When Natalie signs her contract with her new club in Argentina, she will once again be making history as one of the first ever professional women’s players for that club.

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From the day she received her first Argentina jersey at the age of seven, Natalie knew she wanted to represent the Albiceleste. When she was 17, she told her parents that one day she would play against her hero, Marta. Ten years later she was given the assignment to defend Marta at the Copa America. Every goal she has set to this point she has been able to accomplish. She has had to overcome a lot, language / cultural differences, injuries, and gender inequality, but so far, none of those have been able to stop her.

Less than 12 hours after I hung up the phone with Natalie, my second daughter was born. She was not born into a perfect idealistic world, no one is, but she was born into a world where there are women like Natalie who have paved the path to show her that no matter what the obstacle, and no matter how improbable it may appear to be, you can live your dreams. The key for my daughter will be the same that it was for Natalie – “Embrace who you are.”

Get to know Natalie:

What would be your last meal on Earth?

Sushi. Any salmon sushi.

What’s your favorite junk food?

Candy. I love Twizzlers, the ones that twirl, and I love Mentos. I like facturas con crema too.

What was the last great movie or show that you watched?

I’m really mad at [Game of] Thrones so I can’t say that one. I like Lucifer to be honest.

If you won the lottery, what’s the first thing that you would buy?

I would get a car definitely. Like an Audi. I’d like a five-speed or a six-speed car.

What’s the place in the world that you haven’t yet visited that you want to?

London. Or Ushuaia [Argentina]. I need to see penguins.

What’s your favorite Argentine word?

Boluda. Because it’s a friendly term.

What’s your favorite brand of yerba?

Amanda or Taragui.

Who is your soccer hero?

As a midfielder, I like Xavi. For females, obviously Marta.

Who was the coolest person you got to meet leading up to or after the World Cup?

Messi and Zanetti. When I was younger I watched Zanetti play during his prime. One of my coaches has also told me that I move like him. Messi surprised me. He went above and beyond for us. He gave a group talk to us and then stuck around for 30 minutes taking pictures. He was great.

You can follow Natalie on Social Media: Twitter / Instagram

Jimmy lived in Córdoba, Argentina as a teenager and is still an active Socio for his beloved club, Belgrano. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and runs the Belgrano – English twitter account.

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