How far would you travel to make your dreams come true?
2,000 kilometers? 5,000? 10,000 or more (6,300 miles)?
What would you be willing to sacrifice?
Your family? Friends? The comfort of your home? Your culture? Your language? Your favorite cheeseburger?
At one point or another in each of our lives we are faced with decisions. What do we want and what are we willing give up for it? Most of these transactions require that we pay an established price. But every once in a while, opportunities arise that require much more of ourselves and we have to ask, “How much do I want this?”
Vanessa Penuna always knew she wanted to become a professional soccer player. Her dream has now taken the 24-year old to Argentina to play for River Plate. She is in a new country with a new culture, new food, new language, but that was all part of the price for her to get paid to play the sport she loves.
Vanessa was born in Fresno, California, USA. Her father Ernie, a civil engineer and a pastor along with her mother Maria, a rehab assistant at a children’s hospital raised Vanessa and her older sister Jasmine. “Not a lot of the people in my family played soccer and my parents weren’t really athletes either. Growing up my parents were always super supportive. My mom was actually my first coach when I was three years old. I was the smallest one out there playing but I loved it. Later my dad was my coach too.”
Early on, Vanessa caught the competitive bug. She began to play all the sports she could – basketball, volleyball, track, cross country, softball, and even wrestling. As she grew up and became a teenager, she knew she would need to focus on just one. She chose soccer. “I just loved it. I loved being on the field. I connected with a lot more girls and I was good at it.” Vanessa quickly began to move up the ranks playing for different club teams in Fresno. As she finished High School, her best option was to stay close to home and play for Fresno City College.
Fresno City is two-year college. Among the ranks of where girls and boys who have professional aspirations want to attend, a two-year community college would fall near the bottom of the barrel. Vanessa’s goal of playing professionally took a big hit when none of the major universities, including the one in her hometown, gave her an offer to play. But her first year with Fresno City College saw the team reach the national semi-finals and the dream was back on.
“I told my parents that I wanted to play professionally. They were super supportive, I mean, they gave me the talk of course, about the reality and that it might not work out and I still needed to do the whole school thing too, but it was something that I knew I really wanted to achieve.”
After two years at Fresno City College, Vanessa received a scholarship to play for San Francisco State University. After a solid first season, going into the second year Vanessa tore her ACL. She had to sit out an entire season. After working her knee back to health, she finished out her college career receiving several honors and awards for her work on the pitch. Now it was time to see if she could turn that into a professional career.
Vanessa continued to train and look for a place to play. She first joined a semi-professional summer league but almost immediately hit another roadblock – she tore the same ACL again. “I was super devastated. I didn’t really have that same motivation of coming back to play for my university like I did the first time. But in my mind, I still had that desire to play professionally.”
Vanessa had surgery again and started physical therapy. After months of rehab, she was able to start playing again and an opportunity came almost immediately to play professionally – well, kind of. Vanessa got to play for a club in Puerto Rico. She went out there for a month and a half to train with the other girls and got to play in one game. She returned to Fresno in May 2019 and started to work at a chiropractor office. All the while she continued to message different coaches and send them her videos, holding on to the hope that someone would give her a chance to play.
It would just so happen that her representative in Fresno, Santiago Aguilera, used to play soccer with an agent down in Argentina, Jorge Rios. The two of them got in contact and Santiago told Vanessa of an opportunity to play for a club called River Plate.
“River Plate? I feel like I’ve heard of that.” Her representative’s response, “Yeah, you should go look it up.” She did her research and learned that it was the first year that the women’s league in Argentina was going to be professional. While still hesitant, she decided it was worth a shot. It was her chance to be part of something historic.
Vanessa boarded a plane for Buenos Aires with no idea how long she would be there. She would go down to Argentina, try out for River and if they liked her, she would join the squad. She had to pack for the expectation that she might not return to the United States for up to six months.
After the first week, River’s coach, Daniel Reyes decided to extend her trial and invited Vanessa to their preseason camp in Catamarca. For Vanessa, it was an opportunity to get to know her potential teammates both on and off the pitch. But there was one problem, Vanessa doesn’t speak Spanish.
Ok, that is not totally true. Let’s take a step back. Vanessa’s grandparents immigrated from Cuba to the United States. Her grandfather passed away when she was young, but her grandma lived with them until she was 12. This required Vanessa to at least know some Spanish. She also studied it in school – “But in school you just learn enough for that day to pass the test and then you forget it.”
Vanessa always felt like she could understand most of what was being said, but speaking it was a different challenge. So yes, Vanessa does know some Spanish, not enough to be considered fluent, but enough to get by. But she knows Cuban Spanish and Vanessa would be the first to tell you, Argentine Spanish is a completely different language. To communicate with her teammates, she has to use a lot of “Span-glish” and hand movements.
Being in Catamarca, Vanessa had no cell phone signal and it forced her to focus on soccer and building relationships with the other girls on and off the field. The girls on the team “were really good. I was surprised they hadn’t been professional before. They’re quick, they’re aggressive, their touch is really good. I’ve always said it’s because everyone plays futsal here. Their first touch is gonna keep the ball right in front of them. I was nervous at first but coming here and being with the girls has helped me become more comfortable.”
Preseason in Catamarca was a great experience and she was given the privilege of signing with the team. A professional contract – with River Plate – one of the biggest clubs in Argentina and the world. But the River Plate most of us watch on TV, you know, the one with Marcello Gallardo as the manager, the one that plays in the Monumental in front of more than 60,000 fans, the one that has won every trophy imaginable, that is a far cry from the River Plate Vanessa signed for.
“I honestly had higher expectations. I was told that we were going to be playing in the stadium and our games would be streamed online or on TV. Of the nine games I’ve played in, only two have been on TV and we are yet to play in the stadium. It’s not like I hate it here, but it’s little things like that were I think ‘that sucks’ and I’m hoping in the future things change. I realize that it’s the first year here and that’s a huge step. We are just going to have to continue to fight and prove why we deserve to be treated like the men.”
Not only does the River women’s team not get to play at the Monumental, they also are only given half a field to train on and don’t have access to the club’s gym unless accompanied by a coach. They also receive all the hand-me-downs from the men’s team; “our training gear is at least five years old.” The players do not have their individually assigned numbers, whichever position they play that week will determine which number shirt they wear – no matter what size the shirt is. Vanessa who is only 5’3” (160 cm) plays as an attacking midfielder and so if she’s a starter, she wears the #8 jersey, which is a men’s size medium shirt – “I’m drowning in it.”
Vanessa also was looking to get some River jerseys that she could take home as gifts to her family in California. Not only does she not get to keep her own jersey, she does not even get a discount at the team store. She is a professional player for the club and she too has to pay full price.
But soccer was only part of Vanessa’s experience. It was also her first time living outside of the United States (yes, she played in Puerto Rico, but that is technically a US territory). Argentina was at times a bit of a culture shock. From big things like the language to small things like not being able to do her own laundry or not eating her favorite cheeseburger from In-N-Out. Vanessa is trying to absorb as much of the culture as possible, including drinking mate. She also got to attend her first River match at the Monumental when El Millionario was defeated by San Lorenzo (again, she is part of the club but has only been able to attend one match).
Vanessa has made significant progress with understanding and speaking Spanish, but still makes the occasional embarrassing mistake. “Once I got my dinner to go and I ordered a ‘Tarta’ and one of the girls asked me ‘What is that?’ and I was like ‘Oh it’s a Torta’ and the girls just started dying laughing because down here that is slang for being a Lesbian. I got really red. I was just completely embarrassed.”