Blog: How FC Barcelona’s women’s team rose from crisis to a UEFA Champions League final18 May 2019

In a guest blog ahead of today’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final, Michele Taylor, the founder of @BarcaWomen Twitter takes a close look at the development of women’s football in Spain, and how the success of the current Barça Femení team rests partly on the sacrifice the women players before them had to make to change the game in Spain.

At the end of their disastrous 2015 Women’s World Cup campaign, in which Spain failed to make it out of the group stage, players were pushed to speak out about their conditions. As they waited at the airport to fly out of Canada, a letter was handed to the Spanish Football Federation personnel and to incumbent team coach Ignacio Quereda, who had been in charge of the team for an unprecedented 28 years. The players wanted change.

Stories came out about the lack of scouting and analysis of the teams that they faced at the World Cup, of Quereda’s sexist treatment of the players, and of the archaic training methods that had gone unchanged for years. No longer were the players prepared to sit silent in the fear that they would no longer be selected for the team if they spoke out – and it was a real fear because players who had raised issues in the past had not played for Spain again.

By the time the team landed in Madrid, the media was in a frenzy. More was written about women’s football in Spain over the next weeks than had been seen in the past two decades. Quereda fell on his sword before he was pushed off the precipice and Spanish women’s football took a turn for the better.

Sacrifice
There were indeed players who were never selected again, or marginalised into bit-part roles within the team before being dropped altogether. They were the older players – adjudged to be the ‘coup ringleaders’ – Natalia Pablos, Vero Boquete, Melanie Serrano, Ruth García, Sonia Bermúdez, Erika Vázquez, Elisabeth Ibarra, Priscila Borja, Leire Landa and Ainhoa Tirapu. It’s important to remember their sacrifices for the betterment of Spanish women’s football, to the detriment of their own international careers.

While 2015 was the turning point for Spanish women’s football on an international level, it was also the start of a new era for the women’s team at FC Barcelona. At the beginning of the 2015-2016 season, the club announced that Barça Femení would be the first fully professional team in Spain. No longer would its players have to juggle jobs, study, and training.

They would be paid enough to live on, train in the mornings and have their afternoons free to study. More resources were allocated – such as an increased budget, a larger support team, access to the top facilities within the club such as the medical and gym facilities, meals in the canteen, and better travelling conditions.

FC Barcelona also set in place a 5 year plan. By 2018 the aim was to reach the semi-finals of the Women’s Champions League. By 2020 the goal was to play in the Champions League Final. Both these targets were achieved earlier than planned. Barça Femení reached the semi-finals for the first time in 2017 and this year will play in the Final.

Revamp
It wasn’t just the Spanish & Barcelona teams that were benefiting from the changes being made. The Spanish Women’s First Division also got a revamp. In 2016, La Liga President Javier Tebas asked the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and its then President Angel Maria Villar if La Liga could take responsibility for the Spanish women’s liga competitions.

As Villar had no interest in women’s football, Tebas was given permission to go ahead with his plans. His first step was to bring in renewable energy company Iberdrola as an official sponsor and the league became known as Liga Iberdrola. Deals were made with media that meant at least three of eight weekly games were televised. Most online sports publications also now have dedicated women’s football sections filled with player interviews, game previews, and reviews.

All of these changes have brought about an increased awareness for Spanish women’s football. This season has seen record attendances at games that have been played in clubs’ main stadiums. In January, 48,121 fans attended the Copa de la Reina quarter-final match in San Mamés between Athletic Club de Bilbao and Atlético Madrid.

Two months later, a record 60,739 packed the Wanda Metropolitano to watch the Liga game between Atleti and Barça. Barcelona then set an attendance record for the team with 12,178 spectators filling their Miniestadi to watch the return UWCL match against Bayern Munich.

Hidden behind these success stories are more troubling issues. There is tension between various parties as a deal for a Collective Bargaining Agreement for Spanish women players is being negotiated. Still, given the importance of La Liga in global football and the opportunities it presents for players around the world, the women who have pushed for this change should be applauded.

Spanish women’s football has come a long way in four years, and it could culminate with a Champions League win for Barcelona’s women’s team today.