“We got our act together,” says Aitana Bonmati, her memories of Barcelona’s last Women’s Champions League final against Lyon in 2019 still fresh.
“For us, playing against Lyon was like holding up a mirror, seeing ourselves and having something to aspire to,” she told AFP ahead this year’s final on Saturday when the two sides meet again in Turin.
“We thought technically and tactically we were good, and we were good. But on a physical and competitive level we were simply not up to the task.”
Lyon had won 4-1 and even that arguably flattered Barcelona. They were three up after 19 minutes, four ahead after 30, with Ada Hegerberg completing her hat-trick.
Barca’s goal, meanwhile, came in the 89th minute, when the blue and red ribbons were already being tied around the trophy.
Losing to Lyon was no disgrace, the French side crowning a fifth Champions League triumph in a row in Budapest to underline their status as the behemoth of women’s football. In that year’s knock-out stage, they had scored 33 goals in nine matches.
On the plane home, Barcelona’s players gathered round to discuss next steps, not so much deflated but determined, their resolve stiffened to close the gap.
“When you reach the Champions League final you think, ‘Okay, you’re doing quite well, you’ve reached the final for the first time in your history but you’re still a long way from the greats of Europe, like Lyon’,” Bonmati says.
“But afterwards, all of us, the players, the staff, the club, we knew that we had to put in many more hours of work to get to the level that we’re at today, where I think we can compete with anyone. It’s been years of ups and downs but these bad times have helped us to be who we are now.”
The following year, Barcelona won Primera for the first time in five years, finishing the season unbeaten and scoring 86 goals.
In 2021, they won the league again, this time scoring 167 goals and elevating it by retaining the Copa de la Reina and winning the Champions League for the first time in their history.
“That 2019 final showed us we were doing things right but that there was still something missing,” Bonmati adds. “I look at that final now and I see it as something positive, because without that final we probably wouldn’t be here.”
It has not gone unnoticed that the success of Barcelona’s women’s team has coincided almost exactly with the recent downturn for the men’s side, their dominance bringing joy and relief to a club consumed by financial crisis, political wrangling and the departure of its best ever player, Lionel Messi.
Barca supporters twice packed out Camp Nou to see the women’s team beat Real Madrid and Wolfsburg, each time breaking the world record attendance for a women’s fixture, while players like Bonmati, and Ballon d’Or winner, Alexia Putellas, have become icons in their own right.
Bonmati believes female players have an opportunity to talk more openly, to desensitise issues male players still see as off-limits. The 24-year-old Spaniard openly says she has therapy sessions when she needs them.
“In the end we are people, not just footballers, with a very large following and people can look at us like role models as well,” says the midfielder, who has 248,000 followers on Instagram and has just published an autobiography.
“It’s not bad to talk about whether you like men or women, it’s not bad to talk about whether you see a psychologist or not.
“I only had male role models in football but why can’t children have female role models too?
“That’s the best thing that can happen because then they don’t grow up with that macho mentality anymore, where the universe only revolves around men.”
On Saturday night, Bonmati’s team will be centre stage again. “Winning the Champions League and filling the Camp Nou twice are dreams that have come true,” she says. “When I was little, I would never have thought that I could be living this.”
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