The beautiful game, the world’s game, the game that brings people from every corner of the earth together to cheer and boo and celebrate and cry: the power possessed by the sport of soccer—or, as much of the rest of the world refers to it, football—is unmatched in the athletic sphere. You can be in a city or a country you’ve never been to before, but if you know soccer, you can likely make some kind of connection with the culture. I’ve made many friends because of soccer—both watching it in real life and just talking about it online—and even met my husband because of our mutual love of the sport.

Directed by Isabel Achaval and Chiara Bondi and produced by acclaimed filmmaker Nanni Moretti, the documentary Las Leonas depicts how a shared love of soccer has brought together a group of immigrant women living on the outskirts of Rome and given their lives a healthy dose of excitement, friendship, and hope. Over a brisk eighty minutes, the film profiles several of these women—everything from their reasons for coming to Italy to when they first discovered their love of the sport—and shows us that in its purest form, away from the multimillion-dollar pro contracts and teams owned by oligarchs looking to sportswash their reputations, soccer still has the capacity to inspire.

Dissolving Borders

The film uses broadcasts by a radio station for the Latin American community in Italy to introduce us to the world of the eight-a-side women’s soccer tournament known as the Las Leonas Trophy and the six teams competing for the title. Many of the teams are named after the countries that most of their players originally hail from—Paraguay, Colombia—but that doesn’t mean players from countries like Morocco and Cape Verde aren’t welcome to put on the kit and represent them on the pitch. The women are of a range of ages and athletic abilities, but they all share the same passion for the sport.

source: Icarus Films

Many of the women in Las Leonas fell in love with soccer at a very young age; “I knew my passion for soccer before I knew my name,” one claims. They compare their love of the sport to being addicted to a drug and describe it as a source of freedom and joy in childhoods that were often restricted and impoverished. Relatives encouraging them to quit soccer, because it didn’t fit their old-fashioned ideals of what made a proper woman, is a recurring theme, albeit one that none of these particular women paid any attention to. Whether because they simply did not want to or because deep down they knew they were incapable of it, these women refused to give up soccer, and their love of the sport endured even in the toughest of times; in fact, for many of them, it was their main reason to keep going in a world that seemed determined to crush them.

Hear Them Roar

The women in Las Leonas are all working-class immigrants; most of them make their livings as house cleaners, caregivers, or some combination of the two. Their lives outside of the sport are not easy, with many of them working very long hours only to just barely make ends meet—yet no matter how exhausted they are from a long day of work, they find the time and the energy to suit up for their teams. One of the women bicycles all over Rome from one cleaning job to the next, cheerfully chatting about her favorite Serie A team and their history of great South American players with her clients as she works. Another lives in one room with two other women and a baby girl that all three of them dote upon; coming from a difficult background that included teenage years living on the streets and being taken advantage of by men, she is determined that the baby will not suffer in the same way she did. A young woman from Cape Verde plays with the women on team Paraguay as well as the men in her neighborhood, all of whom have great respect for her on-field talents.

source: Icarus Films

Poverty, chronic pain, child abuse, bad marriages: you name it, the women of Las Leonas have experienced it. Perhaps if some of them had more resources available to them in their youth, they could have gone pro, or achieved stardom for their national teams; rather than dwell too long on what could have been, they embrace the opportunities of the present and the community they have found in their new homeland through the sport. One cannot help but be inspired by watching them listen to tactical notes over voicemail before starting a day of house cleaning or seeing them shed tears from the sheer exhilaration of a hard-fought win against a team that was considered the tournament favorite.

The filmmakers present all of this in a largely straightforward manner, relying on the power of the characters and their stories rather than any clever narrative trickery to keep you engaged. And for the most part, it works. Still, I couldn’t help but come away from Las Leonas wanting something more from the film. There is something about watching a movie that relies so heavily on depicting the hardships and suffering of others that makes one feel uncomfortable, though perhaps that’s the point; after all, we should feel uncomfortable when witnessing the ways immigrants are exploited, underpaid, and made to feel unwelcome.

We should feel uncomfortable hearing these women talk about the things they’ve experienced just because they were born female. Still, these women do not merely exist to inspire us onlookers and make us feel grateful for what we have; they aren’t characters conjured up by a script, but real people dealing with real problems that don’t disappear once the end credits roll. There’s a fine line between showcasing and exploiting, and while I don’t think Las Leonas actually crosses it, in some moments it does come pretty close. Regardless, I’m thrilled that such a tournament as the Las Leonas Championship exists, and hope that these women continue to thrive—both on the pitch and off.


Las Leonas depicts what happens when the power of sport meets the fortitude of women: not miracles, no, but still something beautiful and worth celebrating.

Las Leonas is available on DVD from Icarus Films on November 14, 2023.

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