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  • Writer's pictureAlan Feehely

Barcelona Femení Flying The Flag For Women's Football In Spain

Barcelona, having just won the league title at a canter, are preparing for a Champions League final this Sunday against fierce English opposition. Sounds good, doesn’t it? This isn’t the men’s team we’re talking about, however, but Barcelona Femení. Ronald Koeman’s men are some way off European domination by the evidence of recent weeks, but Lluís Cortés’ women are going into this weekend’s game with a real shot at the crown.

Barcelona have won 26 out of 26 games in the Primera Iberdrola, scoring 128 goals and conceding just five. Their nearest challengers, Levante, are a remarkable 16 points behind them, and that’s with three games played more. Barcelona have five games left to play in the league despite having already sealed the title, as well as the semi-final of the Copa de la Reina to look forward to against Madrid on May 26th.

Their opponents this weekend, Chelsea, are no mugs themselves, however. Coached by Emma Hayes, a seminal figure in the women’s game, they won the Women’s Super League at the weekend after a 5-0 rout of Reading. They’re still in the FA Cup, too, set to face Everton in the fifth round on May 20th. They’re a formidable opponent, but Barcelona won’t be going into the game with a drop of fear.

“There’s no secret to their success,” Jesús Burgos Ubeda, who covers the team closely on the ground in Barcelona, told La Liga Lowdown. “As the club has said many times, after the resounding defeat to Lyon in the 2019 Champions League final, the four captains and the coaching staff got together and decided to focus more on the physical side of the game, putting their faith in home-grown players and surrounding them with the best coaching. In addition, that core was complemented by differential signings like Carolina Graham Hansen and Jenni Hermoso. Since then, not only last season, the team has been flying. They’re unstoppable in Spain and already one of the great European clubs.”

“I would say there are several reasons for Femení’s success,” Barcelona fan Jelani Asante told La Liga Lowdown. “Xavi Llorens, manager of Femení between 2006 and 2017, dedicated that period to restructuring the team, making them more professional and really advancing women’s football in Spain. A lot of players credit him with laying the foundation for Cortés’ success now. Barcelona have also been able to count on fantastic players who have come through La Masia as well as the addition of outsiders like Lieke Martens, Asisat Oshoala and Graham Hansen.”

Asante agreed, as did everyone La Liga Lowdown spoke to for this piece, that the aforementioned defeat in the 2019 Champions League final was a firestarter moment for this team. “The 4-1 loss to Lyon in 2019 seems to have pushed the team to even greater heights,” he said. “Many players on the team have spoken about a meeting that took place afterwards where it was decided by the captains and Cortés that the team needed to be more competitive; train more, work harder and above all really live for the game. You can see it now; the team plays beautifully but they have an aggression and physical edge to them that was missing in previous seasons. They’re winners.”

As well as the somewhat rude awakening that defeat served as, a common theme hit upon by all who follow the team is that they subscribe to the beloved myth Barcelona devote themselves to; that of a homegrown core being complemented by foreign talent. Whether that’s László Kubala, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho or Lionel Messi, that’s the Barcelona ideal. “I think the key to their success has been having a good core of local players to which international stars have been added,” Barcelona fan Diana Kristinne told La Liga Lowdown. “They respect the club’s Cruyffian beliefs and play a 4-3-3 with wide wingers and a strong midfield presence. Graham Hansen is probably their best player. She’s absolutely unstoppable one-on-one, always creating chances and delivering assists.

“Other important players are Martens, who’s just returned to the starting XI after being out injured, Aitana Bonmatí, a fantastic young midfielder who drives the ball forward, Mapi León, a rock in defence, Sandra Paños, an outstanding goalkeeper, and Hermoso, a killer goalscorer. My favourite player is Alexia Putellas. She’s silky and highly intelligent and deserves way more international recognition than she gets.”

“As well as having excellent players like Hermoso and Graham, I think one of Barcelona’s key to success is Cortés,” Román de Arquer told La Liga Lowdown. “He’s implemented a 4-3-3 that works perfectly, with smart build-up play to open up defences and generate a lot of opportunities in attack. But most importantly, he’s installed a winning and ambitious mentality where the players can’t seem to get enough and believe in their ability to succeed at the highest level.”

“The style implemented is that of the club,” Ubeda said. “From the youth system to the first team, although the men’s team have been lacking in it these past two seasons, the same tactic is always carried out. It’s one with a focus on positioning and possession, always in a 4-3-3. In the United States these past two years, they’ve been warning that the Barcelona style will sooner or later surpass the style of the women’s game developed there.

“Cortés is undervalued; he’s completely changed the coaching dynamics since his arrival and both given confidence to and improved players in the squad. As for players, Putellas, Graham Hansen and León are the spine of the team, but there are also important players like Paños, Andrea Pereira and Hermoso, not to mention constantly developing figures like Bonmati and Patri Guijarro.”

“Even more so than the men, Barcelona play the traditional Cruyff way, as in a 4-3-3 or juego de posición,” Asante said. “They want to have the ball, to dominate and take the game to their opponent. This is always their mentality. They build up extremely well from the back as their goalkeeper, Paños, and two centre-backs, León and Pereira, are extremely comfortable on the ball. They play with their full-backs pretty high and their wingers wide, while they look to build triangles in midfield. Not to say they’re rigid. Within the 4-3-3 there’s a lot of movement and interchanging of positions.

“It’s difficult to pick out key players because there’s so many, but I’ll go with three. León, a left-footed centre-back who reads the game so well, is very aggressive and above all fantastic with the ball. A lot of responsibility falls on her to initiate Barcelona’s play and she’s skilled at short one-twos as well as breaking the lines. In midfield there’s Putellas, captain of the team. She’s the complete midfielder, capable of operating deeper and playing as an organiser or pushing up to play the final pass or shoot on goal. She has this aura; she’s super strong so you won’t bully her and her technique is amazing so she can dribble past you and spin you in circles. Finally, I’d highlight Graham Hansen, the right winger. She’s simply devastating. When she faces up with a full-back, everyone, including the defender herself, knows she’s going to beat them. She’s a walking assist, a selfless player that you know will create multiple chances a game at least.”

As you’d expect, everyone spoken to greatly valued the position of Barça Femení at the club, deeming it to be an essential pillar of Barcelona as a cultural identity. In a moment where its reputation as an institution is low following years of financial mismanagement and the European Super League fiasco, this is invaluable, and contributes to a real affection toward the team. “The growth of the women’s team has made me very proud of the club,” Kristinne said. “They invested in it, they made the team professional when that wasn’t common in Spain, brought in great international players and have developed the team excellently over the last half-decade. It’s important to have that belief and investment put into the women’s game, because they deserve to be treated as well as they can be. A great club should aspire to have strong teams in both the men’s game and the women’s game.”

“I think there’s much reason for optimism for the future of women’s football in Spain,” Asante said. “Aside from Barcelona, the league has been competitive this season and teams are improving all the time. Slowly clubs are realising that even a little investment and attention goes a long way in the women’s game. In past seasons, the television rights have been a disaster, but even that’s improving and you’re able to watch more matches, something that helps inspire girls and encourages them to enter the game. There are some great players and teams in the league and I think next season will be even better.”

As well as understandable optimism, Ubeda, a seasoned observer of the women’s game, was keen to stress a note of caution and healthy doubt regarding its future. “It’s difficult to be optimistic given who’s in charge, in terms of the institutions involved in football that have the final decision and the power to professionalise the women’s game in Spain,” he said. “A few months ago they promised to professionalise the competition but today they’re late and there’s still no meeting scheduled. So yes, it would be great news for women’s football in Spain, but any journalist or fan will tell you the same thing; we’re skeptical and distrustful of the current management and will be until we see the final signature for ourselves. Until then, we won’t believe it.”

But one thing everyone’s in unison regarding is excitement for the Champions League final itself. Barcelona beat Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-final as well as Manchester City in the quarter-final, while Chelsea knocked out Bayern Munich in the semi-final and Wolfsburg in the quarter-final. It’s a tight one to call, with two evenly-matched teams going head-to-head. “I’m optimistic,” de Arquer said.

“I think they learnt a lot from their previous eliminations against Lyon and Wolfsburg. Since then, they’ve become an even more dominant side with that winning mentality I mentioned before, and I’m convinced their main objective for this season has always been the Champions League; they want to redeem themselves. I share the same optimism with women’s football in Spain, which is definitely going to keep growing thanks to Real Madrid’s recent involvement. The more important clubs, the more attention it will get and the brighter future it will have.”

“I'm always worried ahead of Champions League games, even more so a final,” Kristinne said. “Chelsea are a fantastic team with amazing players and I’m sure it will be a great game. Barcelona have been growing into one of Europe’s best teams and I think this is the year they finally take that last step. I think their future is bright as long as the club keeps investing in their development and making smart decisions. The women’s game is getting increasingly more attention and investment in Spain and hopefully more teams use this opportunity to evolve and make the league a stronger and bigger presence in Europe.”

“I’m pretty optimistic about the final,” Asante said. “City and especially PSG were extremely difficult teams and I think it’s been a tremendous boost to the team’s confidence to have beaten them. Chelsea are a great team full of some of the best forwards in the game and one of the best managers in Emma Hayes. Chelsea will be dangerous on the counter and probably have the best striker in the world in Sam Kerr, but I think Barcelona will dominate the ball and create enough chances to win the game. If they can keep the ball well, they’ll minimise opportunities for a counter-attack and control Chelsea.” Barcelona fans, Chelsea fans and everyone who genuinely loves football would be advised to tune in just before kick-off to find out whether they can.

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