“The next day, at the airport on the way home, the captains got together with the coach and we told him we would do whatever was needed.”
And what was needed?
Vicky Losada smiles. “Train more,” the FC Barcelona Femeni captain says. “Train more. Work more. Have a more competitive mentality. Look after ourselves more. Be more ambitious. More… everything. To the point where I don’t know if ‘obsession’ is the word, but where we know we have to live this, have to live for it. We told him we wanted to do whatever it took to be at that level. We’ve worked so hard. I’m in the dressing room and I can see it in the girls; the mentality now is to go out there and win. And we’re ready.”
Relentless, too. That team meeting took place in Budapest, Hungary, the morning after Barcelona lost the 2019 Women’s Champions League final to Olympique Lyon, five-time winners of Europe’s biggest competition.
Two years later, Losada and her teammates are in Hjorring, Denmark, the night before Barcelona’s Champions League last-16 tie against Fortuna Hjorring. She’s looking back on her team’s development, and forward to what comes next — starting the following afternoon and a 5-0 win that completes a 9-0 aggregate win, setting up a quarterfinal tie with Manchester City. That follows an 8-2 win over PSV in the previous round. In the Spanish league, Barcelona they are top, having won all 18 games. They have scored 90 goals and conceded three.
Yes, 90. And, yes, three. You want a super team in Barcelona, one that’s full of star players not named Lionel Messi and still in the Champions League? This is it.
There is, though, still a little way to go, and that objective that obsesses them. No-one knows it better than Losada. It’s not just that she’s the club captain who made her debut 15 years ago, or that she is in her fourth spell at Barcelona, spanning 13 seasons; it’s that she has seen a transformation that’s not yet complete, but is getting closer now. Maybe all the more so because three times she left — for Espanyol, New York and Arsenal — and three times she returned, the periods away providing a unique perspective on where Barcelona Femeni are and where they have come from. Where women’s football is going, too.
“Women’s football has grown and it has found itself a place in society, in the media, that means it won’t take a step back now,” she says. “I don’t regret anything as it made me who I am, but if only I had had the chances girls have these days. When I started, I didn’t even dream of playing in the Champions League. In fact, I didn’t even dream of being a [professional] footballer. There was no one to look up to, no one to follow.”
There is now.
It’s been 50 years since Barcelona’s women’s team played their first game: Imaculada Cabecerán convinced the club’s then-president, Agusti Montal, to start a women’s team, although they weren’t called Barcelona, weren’t officially part of the club and only wore Barcelona’s colours on their socks. The shirt was white and the shorts blue, but they did play at the Camp Nou when they beat UE Centelles on penalties on Christmas Day, 1970. The following year, they were set up as a Barcelona supporters’ club team, only officially becoming part of Barcelona when women’s football was incorporated into the Spanish football federation in 1980, and only officially turning professional in 2015.
As Club Femení Barcelona, Barcelona won their first Copa del Reina (the women’s equivalent of the Spanish cup, or Copa del Rey) in 1994. They have won five league titles since; Losada was there for all of them. She was there too when the team was restructured under then-coach Xavi Llorens, the origins of the side there is now. “A key figure,” Losada says. “He coached Lionel Messi as a 10-year-old, knows the club, how it works, and lived through all those changes. He’s one of the pioneers.”
“I made my debut in 2006 and we weren’t professional,” she continues. “No one knew us, we played half as many games as we do now, we trained at night, we used old kit. Some players received some money, but not enough to live off and on a structural level it was 100% … erm …”
There’s a pause. Amateur? “We weren’t professional in any sense,” she says. “Any sense.”
“When I went to the U.S. [Losada played one season for the now-defunct Western New York Flash in 2014] I had been playing for six or seven years in Spain. I’d won the league four times in a row with Barcelona and I was captain at 22, but I went because I wasn’t professional; I couldn’t make a living from football. I saw there that it could be different.
“In the United States, people [women] make a living from football — they dedicate themselves fully to it. The stadiums are full, it’s more of a show, there’s more of a commitment to sport at a cultural level. There were sponsors, marketing, promotion — not the slightest suggestion that football is only for men. It’s seen as totally normally because culturally girls choose football as their first sport from a very young age.”
“It’s about education, and sport is a good way of changing that. You start to see things now that I saw in the U.S. and that were unthinkable here. It’s cultural, educational, it’s the country… I saw there that you can change things, saw how boys and girls are educated as equals. I think it’s a question of learning, and in Spain bit by bit that is changing, although sadly our history is very different and there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
There is an economic component, too — a financial reality driven by what sport generates, its popularity and interest from business and media. The way football was marketed in America is starting to happen a little in Spain too, an evolution apparent. “You could see the way businesses promote themselves, the shift in marketing, technology, social media,” Losada says. “You see companies starting to look for role models in women’s football here now: icons, women who are fighters, who can promote them; that idea has become attractive.”
“When I came back from the U.S., Barcelona had just turned professional…” Losada continues. “…and we stopped winning.”
She stops, pulls a face and laughs. “Which sounds a bit contradictory,” she says, smiling. “But it was a big change. Bit by bit, the team adopted the habits of a professional team, routines we weren’t really used to still. And we also started bringing in a lot of players, and that took us towards a period where we didn’t really know where we were heading, what we were trying to do: lots of new players, five or six a year, with a style that was hard for some of them.”
“And that’s the point at which Atlético Madrid emerged as a really strong side,” Losada adds.
Women’s football in Spain was shifting through various phases, periods of domination by different clubs as levels of investment and development changed. The women’s league had first begun in 1988, won by that initial Barcelona side — still officially as a supporters’ club. The league has been restructured three times since then, in 1996, 2001 and 2011, with another great leap in 2020 when the Spanish sports ministry declared that it would formalise women’s football’s status as a professional sport. By then, most clubs already were, Barcelona included.
Between them, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid Femeni have dominated the past decade, winning eight of the last nine league titles. Barcelona won four in a row between 2011 and 2015, but just at the point at which they officially turned professional, backed by a deal with hardware firm Stanley signed in 2014, Atlético pulled away, taking the title in 2017, 2018 and 2019, a rivalry emerging between the two teams.
“They became this opponent that we just couldn’t beat; they found a style that counteracted ours, they had really good players, and it turned into a kind of clásico,” she says.
Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, on the other hand, is not.
“There’s an attempt to compare it with the men’s game, and to link it to that,” Losada says. “You can’t call it a clásico when it’s only been played a couple of times. But it’s an attractive name, Madrid aren’t going to disappear and with time it might become a clásico, bit by bit. They’re in their first year and that’s hard. For me, it’s not a clásico but on a media level it helps that at last they’re in our league. Those who don’t follow women’s football might think it’s a clásico; those that do, know it’s not. They still have to work; they’re not going to be a historic team overnight, just because the men’s team was.
All of which poses a difficult question. Is there a risk of appropriation? Are big men’s clubs co-opting women’s football, using their financial muscle to take the plaudits and take control, moving in where they see opportunity and potential benefit, while clubs that have genuinely worked to develop the women’s game going back years get pushed aside?
“Well,” Losada says, “but, who does that? The clubs? Or society?”
“I understand that concern perfectly. Teams like Espanyol and Rayo are historic, league and cup champions, and are lower down the table. Teams like Doncaster Rovers [in England], who were historic. And we have to appreciate those teams that have a history behind them, that have worked really hard. But you reach that point where economics play a central part in everything and some of the smaller teams sadly don’t have that economic strength, some can’t afford to pay players, even less so now after the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We were fortunate that we didn’t have to face pay cuts. The [men’s] first team did, and Barcelona B, but not us. But then our salaries are nowhere near theirs.”
That’s certainly true. Barcelona’s best paid player, Lieke Martens — winner of The Best FIFA Women’s Player prize in 2017 — reportedly earns around €200,000 a year. Messi makes more than that in a day. Figures from late 2019 showed the budget for Barcelona’s entire women’s team to be €3.5m, which is less than Jeison Murrillo alone was paid. He played two games as a loanee.
They are, though, decent salaries in the context in the women’s game: Barcelona, Madrid and Levante are a case apart, with the players’ union revealing that the average salaries of players at the rest of the league’s clubs was €17,000 a year. Sixty of the 248 salaries were less than €1,000 a month.
“We have salaries you can live on, not just survive,” Losada explains. “But half the teams in our league, lots of the girls playing just about survive on what they earn. Some have other jobs as well still — that’s the reality. Barcelona is the ‘cara bonita‘ [the acceptable face, the pretty face] of the league, along with teams like Atlético and Levante, but that’s not a reality at 100% of the clubs.”
Barcelona femení have been the “cara bonita” within the club too, rising to the challenge from Atlético – by being themselves. “Our style is recognisably Barca,” Losada says, citing an identity that runs across generations and across genders.
“Today, the basis of the team, the way we ensure the style doesn’t change, are homegrown players, people who have grown up in Barcelona with the Barcelona style. They’re not all Catalan, but there are players — like [midfielder] Patricia Guijarro, [forward] Mariona Caldentey, [goalkeeper] Sandra Panos — who have been here five years or more. This is a project with a lot of work behind it, years of it. And those players then help when new ones arrive from outside.”
“The style of the club is sacred.”
“We have all grown over the years, myself included. We have improved physically and tactically, but that idea will always be there underlying it all. You bring in players like Lieke [Martens], Asisat [Oshoala], Caroline [Hansen] who give you something extra, but they connect to that idea, they continue the style. There are fewer signings each year than there was before, three or four at most. That us gives stability. Our football is maintained.”
Even when the club is faltering, too.
“Obviously, at a club as big as Barcelona, when the men’s team is having a bad time of it, because all the money comes in there, it’s not good for us,” Losada says. “And look, most eyes are on the men’s team, because of the money it moves, but we have earned a place in society that means that we have to continue to be supported, part of it all. The club was in a position where it was very broken, there was no happiness, but the femení has been there at the forefront, still fighting.”
And still winning. Champions last season, the title awarded to them after the pandemic brought the campaign to an early end, Barcelona are top again. They seem unstoppable, which Losada admits may not be a good thing when it comes to their obsession: the Champions League. Two years ago, they lost 4-1 in their first-ever final against Lyon, already defeated within half an hour. They had been overwhelmed, their manager Lluis Cortés admitted, and such is Lyon’s dominance that for some at the club, there was a sense that even getting there was a success. As if, in Losada’s words: “in a final against Lyon, you have nothing to lose.”
The following morning, though, came the meeting at the airport and that promise, a vow, to take one more step in a long journey.
“It’s a process, a question of time,” Losada explains. Good conditions, good facilities, fully professional coaching, money — in these areas, Lyon stole a march on the rest, but the gap is narrowing. Not least because at Barcelona they are so determined that it should: Lyon provided a target, a level to aspire to, someone to shoot at. That defeat became determination, driving this Barcelona team to where they are now.
“If we were novices that first year, now we feel we’re not. We have worked towards this for many years now: we have the talent and we have improved tactically and physically. This season maybe the [domestic] league hasn’t worked in our favour, the standard has dropped a bit and that might take something away from us, but we’re working to be at the best level in the Champions League. It’s no longer reward enough to be in a final and you can see that in the mentality of the girls; that’s why this team is where it is. The Champions League is very hard, but we’re ready.”
In the quarterfinals, Man City stand before them and after that there are some familiar, powerful faces. Bayern Munich play Rosenburg. PSG, semi-finalists last year, will play Lyon or Sparta Prague. And Chelsea meet Wolfsburg, finalists in five of the last eight years, and the team that edged past Barcelona 1-0 in last season’s semifinal despite Losada’s side dominating. Lyon, the richest, most powerful club will still be the favourites and yet Losada insists: “They have great players with the experience of lots of finals, but teams are getting closer.”
It would be huge, the culmination of a journey – and yet also the start. For Losada, especially. “These last two years I had an injury that really hurt me emotionally: I got injured, went back, got injured again and I didn’t feel right. But now I feel full of energy, so much enthusiasm to play. Thirty is the new twenty. People seem to want to retire me but I’m in one of the best moments of my career, and I see football differently now. I’ll stay in the game for sure. I have a football school. And I would love to be linked to women’s football: those of us who are here, who have lived all this, have to help build the future for girls. But first I want to keep playing for as long as my body will let me.”
“I turned 30 the other day,” Losada says, smiling. “I made my debut at 15. I started playing at seven. I’ve spent half my life at the highest level and more than half my life with a ball at my feet. It sounds like a cliché but football is my life. No one handed me anything on a plate, since I was a kid. Everything I know, everything I have learned comes from football.”