Why the best team in the world is only just getting started | OneFootball

Why the best team in the world is only just getting started | OneFootball

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Icon: The Independent

The Independent

·24 May 2024

Why the best team in the world is only just getting started

Article image:Why the best team in the world is only just getting started

Thousands are expected to make the journey north west from Barcelona to Bilbao, from Catalonia to the Basque region. As the Women’s Champions League reaches its conclusion at San Mames, it could feel like a home final for Barcelona, or as close to it without it being held in the Camp Nou itself. That is fitting, perhaps, given how much of Barcelona’s success is home-grown and the influence its iconic La Masia academy may have over this European showpiece against Lyon.

For the past decade, Lyon have been the superpower of women’s football in Europe, its star-studded squads lifting the Women’s Champions League a record eight times between 2011 and 2022. Barcelona have never beaten Lyon, losing Champions League finals to the French side in 2019 and 2022, but they now stand on becoming the new undisputed force in the women’s club game, unbeaten in Spain this season and going for back-to-back Champions Leagues. For that, Barcelona have their own identity to thank: it runs through its past, present and future.

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“It’s not just winning,” Vicky Losada, the former Barcelona captain who led the Catalan side to their first Women’s Champions League title in 2021, tells The Independent. “For us it’s how you win, the way you play.” It was how Barcelona produced the core of the Spain team that won its first Women’s World Cup, a group of players who grew up together learning to play in Barcelona’s specific style. “They were teaching us the Barca way,” Losada says as she remembers the messages she grew up hearing at the training grounds. “Always enjoying the ball, asking for the ball.”

Losada’s idols were Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez - she does not remember seeing women’s football on TV as a child, apart from the powerhouse of the United States national team. But Iniesta and Xavi were themselves former graduates of La Masia, under the same philosophy distilled by Johan Cruyff that would shape Pep Guardiola. And as Losada came through Barcelona in the mid-2000s and the men’s team enjoyed a resurgence, winning its first Champions League in 15 years in 2006, the influence of Barcelona’s identity touched upon the emerging women’s side, as well.

When Losada departed Barcelona after winning their first Women’s Champions League, she had been part of a side that had developed together under those defining principles until they were the best in Europe. There were tough defeats in Europe, particularly to Lyon, but Losada and her team-mates focused on remaining true to their identity: of wanting the ball and dominating through possession. “That’s so important at Barca,” Losada says. “A massive thing. We knew our objectives, we knew how we wanted to win. If we lost, it was our way.” Now, girls in Barcelona have different role models to look up to when they watch football on TV.

By Losada’s final season, Barcelona completed the perfect year: winning every game in Liga F and thrashing Chelsea 4-0 to win the Women’s Champions League; a statement victory as Barcelona truly announced themselves. But the highlight of that night in Gothenburg, Losada says, was in the contingent of the team who had made the journey together: Aitana Bonmati, Alexia Putellas, Mariona Caldentey, Mapi Leon and Patri Guijarro among them. Losada was part of the Barcelona leadership group who pushed for the younger players to be brought into the first team. “We knew we had good players with talent, but the conditions needed to improve for them,” she says.

Article image:Why the best team in the world is only just getting started

Vicky Losada lifts the Women’s Champions League trophy after beating Chelsea 4-0 in the 2021 final (Getty Images)

Three years later, and Barcelona formed the core of the Spain team that won the Women’s World Cup for the first time - it would have been more, had the likes of Leon and Guijarro made themselves available to play. After all - despite the off-field issues that were brought into sharp focus by Luis Rubiales, the former president of the Spanish Football Federation, in the aftermath of the Women’s World Cup final, and which continue to linger - Spain’s victory over England in Sydney was the confirmation that the country was now the leaders in the development and production of young talent.

It could also only be the beginning of their dominance.  Spain are also world champions at Under-20 and Under-17s. Their Under-17s thrashed England just two weeks ago to become European champions, as well. “It feels like it’s the start of it,” Losada agrees. “There is more to come.”

Spain, with its huge football culture, was always likely to be taken by the explosion of popularity of the women’s game, but an institution like Barcelona, with its world-record crowds at the Camp Nou, always had the capacity to take it further. There are now the first female boarders at La Masia, a tradition that goes back generations in the men’s team.

Article image:Why the best team in the world is only just getting started

Barcelona broke the world record for a women’s club match during their run to the 2022 Women’s Champions League final (Getty Images)

“We pushed for that,” Losada says. “It’s a huge step. You have breakfast there, you eat there, you go to school, if you train in the morning, you go school in the afternoon. Football is teaching them everything. Today it’s 10 girls. Maybe in five years it’s 20.” About a month ago, Losada watched Barcelona play in Liga F when they had five starters from the development team, mixed in with the senior pros and established stars. “You couldn’t see any difference,” she says.

Barcelona’s ability to produce talent has been matched by their capacity to attract it, too. As what Barcelona developed had focussed on intricate, ball-playing technicians in central areas, their success has also been fueled by signing some of the best wide players in the world, in Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen and Sweden’s Fridolina Rolfo, and the Netherlands winger Lieke Martens before then. As European champions, Barcelona have still looked to sign the world’s best by position when they have come available, offering different skillsets and attitudes, England’s Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze among them.

A first-ever victory over the record eight-time European champions Lyon in Bilbao would be the final obstacle to this era becoming Barcelona’s own. And yet, it may only be the start as well.

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