Barcelona's success transforms the city into the capital of women's football

Just over an hour before kick-off, the gates outside the Johan Cruyff Stadium open and a thousand fans rush in. Some rush to the turnstiles. Others wait patiently at merchandise stalls, eager to buy a shirt, a scarf, a commemorative trinket.

The longest and most crowded line, however, forms outside a booth that offers fans the chance to take a photo with their heroes. Within a couple of minutes, it winds its way to the entrance, populated by doting parents and enthralled preteens hoping to get there in time.

They came to see the most dominant women's soccer team on the planet. Barcelona Femení have been champions of Spain every year since 2019. They have not lost a league match since last May, a run in which eight of their players also lifted the Women's World Cup. On Saturday the team will be able to win its third Women's Champions League title, which crowns the best professional team in Europe, in four seasons.

That success turned the team's best into global stars and the club into what often seems like a juggernaut. It has also transformed Barcelona, ​​and the wider Catalonia region, into the global heartbeat of women's football, a case study in what happens when women's football gets the same prominence as men's.

On the streets of the city, shirts bearing the name of Alexia Putellas or Aitana Bonmatí, the biggest stars of Barça Femení, are as common as those with the names of an icon of the men's team. And a boom is taking place on the region's football pitches, with what was once a male-dominated space now inundated with women and girls.

The number of registered female footballers in Catalonia has doubled in the last six years and is expected to grow exponentially in the decade to come. There are more coaches, more clubs, more teams, more matches, more championships.

The young fans lining up for a photo weren't hoping for a photo with a distant hero. Instead, they hoped to be close enough to touch the women who helped make it all real.

From age 11 until age 14, Marta Torrejón said, she never played soccer against another girl. She had done it when she was young, when she represented the neighborhood teams. But from the moment she joined Espanyol – the smaller of Barcelona's two professional football clubs – her teammates and her opponents have all been boys.

Sometimes, being the only girl among the talent who would grow up to play in Spain's top flight made her feel “out of place”, she admitted, but for the most part she was simply grateful.

Torrejón's first steps in football were typical and otherwise. Typical because she started playing in the late 1990s, when opportunities for girls to do so—in Barcelona, ​​in Spain, in Europe—were scarce and when those who joined men's teams were not always welcome.

“My mother told me that some parents asked her if she knew that in some villages there were girls' teams,” Torrejón said. “My mother would say, 'That's great, but she's here.'”

And that's not typical because Torrejón was not only brave enough to resist, but also talented enough to pull it off. She only rejoined a women's team at the age of 14, when Spanish law required it. A few months later, she was in Espanyol's first team. She won a Spanish title there and then added six more with Barcelona Femení.

Now, however, his experience seems anachronistic. Although Spain's World Cup victory last year was overshadowed by the sight of Luis Rubiales, then president of the country's football federation, forcibly kissing Jennifer Hermoso, one of its most celebrated players, in the stands – an accident which ultimately led to an accusation of sexual assault: The exponential growth of women's football in Barcelona is uncontrolled.

Over the past three years, the Barcelona women's team has tripled the money it earns through sponsorships, merchandising and ticketing. He now earns $8.5 million per season from his sponsors alone. His stadium is packed. In 2023, the year that led Spain to the World Cup title, the club's online sales of women's clothing increased by around 275%.

For the club, the success of the women's team has been more than an economic stimulus: at a time when allegations of corruption, financial mismanagement and declining performance have swirled around the men's team, executives privately admit that the women's team it proved a welcome tonic for the club's self-esteem.

Much more significant, however, are the opportunities it has created. Two decades since Torrejón blazed a lonely path, girls hoping to follow in his footsteps are spoiled for choice.

An illustrative example: in 2019, Sant Pere de Ribes, a club on the edge of the city where Bonmatí began her career, had only one women's team and had just nine players. There are now 10 women's teams, as well as a senior women's team.

“We have a lot of girls who join because it's the team Aitana played for,” said Tino Herrera, the club's president.

This growth has been mirrored elsewhere, forcing the body that oversees football in Catalonia – the Catalan Football Federation – to modernize, and quickly, to make sure all the girls who want to play have a place to do so.

For Torrejón, with the memory of when she was told that football was not a place for girls, this is a source of immense “pride and satisfaction”.

“What you do creates an impact on other people and a change that wasn't there before,” he said. “The girls who arrive now have references that we didn't have. They see something in the future of this profession.”

Laura Cuenca has tried everything. She took her daughter dancing. I tried ice skating. Cross-country running offer. But Sonia was adamant: she wanted to play football.

His hesitation was purely logistical. He knew that football would involve a demanding schedule of training during the week and weekends devoured by matches. “You can never go to the beach, for example,” Ms. Cuenca said, only a little ruefully.

But Sonia insisted. She loves football and her mother loves it, so giving up was inevitable, really. And so now, Ms. Cuenca finds herself spending another Saturday night at the Sabadell Sports Center, watching Sonia take the field. There will be another match tomorrow, about an hour away, in Barcelona. Next week there will be three more training sessions.

It's a lot for Mrs. Cuenca, but even more for her daughter. “She's 16, so there's homework, obviously,” her mother said of her. “Then there are her friends, her work, her love life. It's a lot for her to balance.

Like everywhere else, Sabadell has seen a wave of girls wanting to play: 206 players this year, compared to 84 in 2020, according to Bruno Batlle, the center's president.

Logistically, this is a challenge – there are only four pitches and many more teams asking to use them – and it leads to certain inequities that, for parents like Ms Cuenca, are a reminder that football remains a more challenging place for girls than for girls. girls. For boys.

In Sabadell, for example, it is the women's teams who often have to settle for the worst training times. “Sometimes they don't finish until 11 p.m.,” Ms. Cuenca said. “So Sonia goes to bed very late, which means she's tired from school.”

And while talented players on the boys' teams may have their entry fees or travel expenses subsidized, the girls must pay all their own way. The revolution, Ms. Cuenca noted, is not yet complete.

The fact that there are still battles to be fought, however, does not mean that the war has not been won. Ms. Cuenca is not sure what percentage can be attributed to Barça Femení: there has been, she said, a broader social change that has all but extinguished “the idea that football is not for girls.”

He has no doubt, though, that his daughter was inspired by seeing what was possible, realizing it just an hour later.

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