By Jimmy Lee
“How was the dentist?” I asked Vanesa Santana on August 22 after she returned home from another checkup. The 28-year-old still has another six months left with her braces on. When living in Colombia, she finally had the opportunity to fix her teeth. Growing up in a poor neighborhood in Argentina, it was an expense her family could never afford.
On the football field, Vanesa is often described as a warrior and gladiator. Her style of play has been compared to Javier Mascherano. She lays her body on the line to fight for every ball. For Vane, it is a case of football imitating life. She grew up with nothing and since birth has had to fight for everything she has, nothing has been handed to her.
Vane was raised in Villa Celina, a poor and humble town just outside of Buenos Aires, in the Jose Hernandez neighborhood that still to this day has all dirt roads. “It is a neighborhood that has completely been ignored by the government.” Vanesa is the youngest of five siblings. She grew up without a father and her maternal grandparents passed away when she was young. The responsibility of providing for the children fell completely on to the shoulders of her mother.
This required her mom to work two jobs. “In the morning she would work at a restaurant and at night she worked in another family’s home. She was almost never around because she always had to work. The five of us took care of each other and did everything together. But we knew our mom had to work so that we could have food to eat.”
At the age of four she started playing football. She began playing with the neighborhood boys’ team – because well, in Argentina, football was a boy’s game. As the lone girl on the pitch, “People said millions of things to me, but I never paid any attention to it. All I cared about was my goal of playing professional football and I stayed focused on that goal. It serves no purpose to get angry. We all make mistakes and it’s my job to forgive.”
It wasn’t until Vanesa was 12 that she finally played football with other girls. When she was 14, she tried out for Boca Juniors and was invited to join their squad. For a family of Boca fanatics, it was the dream of a lifetime. “Ever since I can remember, when I was five or six years old, I already began saying that my goal was to play for Boca’s first division team. But I never got to play professionally for Boca and I never got to play in the Bombonera.”