‘Different to other clubs’: how Barcelona Women left rivals behind | Barcelona Women


For a little while it looked as if the impossible might happen. It was half-time in the Champions League quarter-final at Valdebebas and Barcelona were losing. Not just the first leg, but for the first time: defeat would be their first against Real Madrid, the team built to be their rivals, and the first against anyone all season. It was March and they hadn’t even drawn yet – played 34, won 34 – but Olga Carmona’s early goal had them trailing.

Struggling too. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, Madrid more dynamic and deserving of the lead. “We weren’t happy,” Fridolina Rolfö says, “so we changed things.” Fourty-five minutes later, two from Alexia Putellas and one from Clàudia Pina completed a comeback. Barcelona had won but that wasn’t the news; the news was that they nearly hadn’t. “It was good for us to get that game,” Rolfö adds. “Hopefully we learned a lesson.”

This was a new experience certainly and Wednesday will be too. The second leg is at the 99,354-seat Camp Nou. Tickets sold out in four days. They come to see perhaps the best team in the world. Barcelona are the European champions, taking Chelsea apart and winning 4-0 in the final to complete a treble last season. A fortnight ago, they won the league with six games left, their third consecutive title secured by a 5-0 victory over Madrid. They had won every game, and haven’t stopped since. Played 25, won 25. Scored 138, conceded seven.

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Women’s football graphic Moving the Goalposts
Illustration: Guardian Design

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In Europe, before going to Valdebebas, their results read: a 2-0, a 4-1, two 4-0s and two 5-0s. Putellas is the Ballon d’Or winner, plastered across billboards in the city. Four of her teammates were nominated. The challenge now is to keep this going.

On Monday, as they prepared for the return leg, the former men’s captain Carles Puyol was at the club’s San Joan Despí training ground, invited to speak to the players. But that cuts both ways, Xavi Hernández insisting the women’s team are an “inspiration”. Sitting just down the corridor after the morning session, Rolfö smiles. “That made us very happy: I hope we can show the world how good we are,” she says.

Very, very good. The Norwegian won three consecutive doubles at Wolfsburg and reached two Champions League finals but insists: “I’ve never played in such a good team.” So good it is tempting to ask whether they could replicate Lyon, who won five Champions Leagues in a row. “That’s not something we talk about but I have to say that’s possible,” she admits. “We have to be humble – there are great teams out there.”

Fridolina Rolfö (left) in action for Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Real Madrid.
Fridolina Rolfö (left) in action for Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League tie against Real Madrid. Photograph: Ángel Martínez/Getty Images

Perhaps none quite like this. “Our philosophy is special: when I talk to players about coming here, I speak in a way they have never heard before,” says the sporting director Markel Zubizarreta. Ingrid Engen, who joined from Wolfsburg in the summer, says: “It is different to other clubs; Barcelona is a reference of the way it should be.”

Barcelona have won 75 of their past 78 games, yet this starts with defeat, or so the story goes. They were at the airport waiting fly home from the 2019 Champions League final, where they were defeated by Lyon, when the players approached the then coach, Lluís Cortés, and demanded to do whatever it took. In the words of the then captain, Vicky Losada, that meant “more … everything.” Unfortunate to lose the semi-final the following season, they were victorious in Gothenburg last year. It had been coming.

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Barcelona Women forward alleges club ‘illegally confined’ her

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The Barcelona Women forward Gio Queiroz on Tuesday wrote an open letter to the president, Joan Laporta, saying that she suffered “abusive behaviour” while at the club and that her complaint had been sent to the board of directors. 

In the letter, the 18-year-old, who is on loan at Levante, claims she was “illegally confined” by Barcelona in February 2021 and could not travel to play for Brazil. “I was devastated. This also meant that I couldn’t travel with the squad for the Copa de La Reina final,” she wrote.

Queiroz says she completed the quarantine and was then given permission by Fifa to join the Brazil squad in the United States. When she returned to Spain though, she claims that a meeting was in held in which she was “unfairly accused of breaching protocol and travelling without club authorisation”.

She added: “From that moment on my life changed forever. I was exposed to humiliating situations for months within the club. It was clear that he wanted to destroy my reputation, undermine my self-esteem, and degrade my working conditions.”

Barcelona said on Tuesday: “Government rules did not permit the travel with Brazil. A complaint was filed by the player to both FC Barcelona and Fifa and the investigations into both found that FC Barcelona acted properly.” Guardian sport

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That was the final step, symbolic of an iron determination, but the roots of this success and the commitment to women’s football run deeper, good reasons why Engen calls Barcelona a reference. It is 50 years since they played their first game, but that pioneering team were not officially linked to the club until women’s football was incorporated into the Spanish federation in 1980. Founder members of the league in 1988, officially a section of the club in 2001, they became fully professional in 2015. “In seven years, we’ve changed everything,” Zubizarreta says.

“We have everything you need; everything is taken care of,” Engen says. “It’s super-professional, different to other clubs.” The budget is €4.5m (£3.8m), an important advantage at least domestically. There are signings and significant ones, particularly in attacking positions – Lieke Martens, Asisat Oshoala, Rolfö, Caroline Graham Hansen – but economics do not explain everything. It is about construction, not appropriation.

Marta Torrejón and Jennifer Hermoso enjoy last season’s Champions League final win over Chelsea.
Marta Torrejón and Jennifer Hermoso enjoy last season’s Champions League final win over Chelsea. Photograph: Lukas Schulze/Uefa/Getty Images

Only six of the 23-strong women’s squad are foreign, and there are academy players getting opportunities. “We wanted to develop players, not just buy them.” Zubizarreta says. For the first time, there are nine girls living in the club’s La Masia residency. Eight are Catalan, one from Mallorca. The second team are professional too. Until 14, the girls’ teams play in boys’ leagues.

Above all, there is an idea, an identity. And it is a familiar one, imposed through an idea for training as much as games: about a way of playing. “There is something in the DNA of the club,” Rolfö says. Zubizarreta says: “It’s not ‘women’s football’, it’s football. There is no point in playing a certain way for seven or eight years and then it’s different in the first team. If you put the television on and you can’t see if it’s men or women, you can see that it’s a Barcelona team. It is easy to stick to an idea when you’re winning; it’s harder when you’re losing.”

Zubizarreta speaks from experience. The turn to professionalism brought a shift in habits, a process of adaptation that was not always easy, and it also brought doubts. Defeats, too: previously champions, from 2015-19 Barcelona were runners-up four years in a row, Atlético Madrid emerging as the dominant side. But the idea survived relatively unscathed, continuity kept.

Many players remained too, reinforcing that and when Cortés left immediately after the Champions League final win, everyone burned out, the objective that obsessed them achieved, Zubizarreta says he must have received “a hundred coaches’ CVs”. The decision to instead promote Jonatan Giráldez was, he says, “obvious”.

“We have players who have been here for many, many years, who have grown up with this style, so to have them in the team is super-important,” Engen says. “Alexia, Patri, Aitana: you see how they understand each other. You get international players in to give you something else: maybe more physicality or speed. But this is the Barcelona style and that’s what I’m trying to learn.” In her case, she explains, that means adapting to the No 6 role, a positional game, “learning to stand still. Not to pass and go, but to stay sometimes.”

Ingrid Engen (right) shields the ball from Eibar’s Ana de Teresa.
Ingrid Engen (right) shields the ball from Eibar’s Ana de Teresa. Photograph: Joan Valls/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

She adds: “At Barcelona it is not enough to win – it is how you play and that’s in the roots of this team.”

And win they do, relentlessly. The surprise may be that there is no relaxation, no falling away: when every week brings a huge score, some decompression might be inevitable; when you walk the league there is a risk of walking, full stop. But this is a hard, tough team, Rolfö says, “a group of really competitive players. The coach sets small short-term goals: it’s not about winning a game, it’s [that] we have to play good. You have to do this, this, this. So, you’re putting pressure on. That’s helped us to be focused 90 minutes, every game. If you drop in the league you won’t win in the Champions League.”

“It’s not an option to not go and compete every game,” Engen says. “It is the mentality: we talk about it in the dressing room. We’re not happy to stop doing our best. That’s also why we have the results we have, with so many goals. We want more every time. And we don’t change anything. If we lead a lot it is not like someone does something on their own because they can. We are not happy at the break if we’re leading 3-0.”

So imagine how they feel if they’re actually losing 1-0.



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