But here in Akureyri, they said, they feel welcome. Here they are the stars of an unbeaten team in Iceland’s top women’s league. Local residents greet them in the street, and the coach of their club, Thor-KA, is appreciative of their talent.
“From the very beginning,” Sierra said, “we felt that they valued our work here — they valued us as soccer players, without prejudice.”
Mayor and Sierra are telling their story for the first time just as the Mexican federation is struggling with multiple fines from FIFA for ignoring the homophobic chants of its fans. The federation has racked up more than $100,000 in penalties already, and last month FIFA warned that match officials would be empowered to stop games if the practice continued.
That helps illuminate why, in a series of interviews, Sierra and Mayor said they decided that they had to leave Mexico to find fulfillment in their personal and professional lives.
Sierra, a Mexican-American whose parents ran a chain of Mexican restaurants in the Bay Area in California, grew up playing soccer. When she was still a teenager and a star on her high school team in Mountain View, Calif., she caught the eye of Leonardo Cuéllar, the longtime coach of Mexico’s women’s national team. Cuéllar recruited Sierra to play on Mexico’s under-20 team in 2010.
Mayor, is from Azcapotzalco, a working-class neighborhood in the northern part of Mexico City. As a teenager, she honed her game playing with men in local amateur leagues. She drew the attention of the Mexican federation at an open tryout, and, like Sierra, Mayor was soon playing for Mexico’s youth national teams.
That is where she and Sierra first met, while rooming together at the Women’s Under-20 World Cup Germany in 2010. They struck up a close friendship but did not yet become a couple. Sierra soon returned to the United States, where she had accepted a scholarship at Auburn University, and Mayor went home to Mexico.
It was not until 2013, when they were called back to Mexico’s senior national team to play in a tournament in China, that their romance blossomed. Mayor said being with Sierra, who had grown up in the United States, where gay relationships on women’s sports teams were more commonplace, had helped her to be more accepting of herself.
“There are a lot of taboos about sexuality in Mexico,” Mayor said. “There are things that are not spoken. It is cultural; you cannot be open about your relationship. It was easier to open up with her because she has very clear ideas about what she wants. That helped me a lot.”
They kept up a long-distance relationship after Sierra was drafted by the Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League, but would see each other only when Sierra joined Mexico for training camps or tournaments.
The women said they were open with their teammates and families about their relationship, and on the road they shared rooms and rarely left each other’s side. Soon, however, their affection drew the attention of Cuéllar.
For decades, Cuéllar had been the dominant figure in women’s soccer in Mexico. A former player in the North American Soccer League, he began his coaching career in the 1980s at California State, Los Angeles. In 1998, as women’s soccer began to thrive in the United States, he returned to Mexico to build a women’s program. He led the women’s national team for 18 years, from its infancy through qualification for three World Cups.
But during a pre-World Cup tournament in Cyprus in 2015, Cuéllar called his players together for a meeting about team rules. While instructing everyone to abstain from alcohol and to use discretion on social media, he also made a comment that the players interpreted as more targeted.
“He said, ‘I don’t care if you are girlfriends or not, but I don’t want to see you holding hands or pulling any stunts,’” Mayor recalled. Since she and Sierra were the only couple on the team, she said, everyone knew Cuéllar’s order was directed at them.
“It hard to imagine something like that happening in the United States,” Sierra said. “Just think, when the U.S. team won the World Cup, Abby Wambach kissed her wife on the field. It is something normal.”