Marbella Ibarra murder - the legacy of Mexican women's football pioneer

Marbella Ibarra
Marbella Ibarra fought for gender equality and promoted women's football in Mexico

Nothing had been known about her since 19 September. But after nearly a month in captivity, her lifeless body was found on 15 October.

There were marks that showed she had been beaten on her face, legs and neck.

It was a tragic - and horrific - end for Marbella Ibarra, the woman who dedicated her life to promoting women's football in Mexico.

The news about her death, announced on Wednesday by the State Attorney of Baja California, has left Mexican football in shock.

Especially affected have been the large number of players who have been able to forge professional football careers thanks to her support.

Ibarra's body was found in the town of Rosario, near Tijuana, in the north of the country - the place from which her revolution in women's football began.

Legacy

Mar, as she was known, was passionate about football and knew its importance as an escape route for women in one of the most violent areas of the country.

She was never a professional herself, but she found a way to combine her work in the offices of the Public Prosecutor of Tijuana - and then her cosmetics business - to give life to her dream of founding a women's football team.

For years she dedicated herself to recruiting girls and young women - often troubled, who she encountered in court, or on the street - and offered them the chance to develop through football.

She sought to find a way to offer the women of Tijuana a chance to train as footballers, develop their skills, and ultimately make a living by playing.

After taking that first step, in 2014 Ibarra presented a project to develop women's football to the most important club in the region, Xolos de Tijuana of Mexico's first division.

Ibarra was convinced of the importance of having the support of institutions already recognised in the football world.

So persuasive was she, her proposal received approval that same year. Los Xolos' women's team was officially born.

But Ibarra then hit a wall - there simply was not the proper infrastructure in Mexico to continue evolving her project, so she looked over the border to the example set by women's football in the United States.

There, the women's league has been the most important football championship in the country for decades.

The Mexico women's national team frequently plays the US, and these games only persuaded Ibarra further that Mexico needed to find a way to replicate the semi-professional leagues in America.

And so, three years after she set up the first women's team, she had pushed for and created the Liga MX Femenil, which launched in 2017.

By the time its second season began, it had grown to 18 teams. It is her greatest legacy.

Mexico's women's team celebrate a goal
The modernisation of women's football in Mexico is attributed by many to Ibarra

Back to the beginning

With her dream fulfilled, Ibarra returned to what she liked most and gave life to her latest initiative Ellas Juegan, or 'They Play'.

She continued to look for young people with football talent but without the resources to give them the chance to try their luck in one of the new league clubs.

Thousands of messages of pain and mourning that have been published on social networks by players, clubs and organisations, both in Mexico and in other parts of the world, show Ibarra's footprint in football.

Her niece Fabiola Ibarra, who plays for Guadalajara-based football club Atlas Femenil and for Mexico, wrote that she would "hang on to all the beautiful moments I had with you and all that you did for me. You are the best friend, the best aunt and the best coach!"

The state of Baja California is suffering one of the worst years of its history because of the sheer numbers of murders taking place. July 2018 was the most violent month in Tijuana's recorded history, with 251 homicides. Many of the murders are linked to the drugs trade but kidnappings and extortion are also common.

Nevertheless, the killing of Ibarra - which investigators believe was unrelated to her football work - has still shocked the people of the state, and the country.

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