BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — When Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas first started kicking a ball in the small square of her Spanish village, she did so with the typical disadvantages for a young girl with big dreams in a country that was crazy for soccer — as long as it was played by men.
But after two decades of hard work, along with the slow yet steady growth of the women’s game toward the mainstream in Spain, Alexia has reached the pinnacle of her sport.
The 28-year-old midfielder swept up all the major individual awards after leading Barcelona to a treble of titles last season, including its first Champions League. She became only the second Spaniard to win a Ballon d’Or in November, ending a long wait since Luis Suárez won the men’s award in 1960. She also was named UEFA Women’s Player of the Year in August and won FIFA’s The Best award in January .
While never feeling discriminated against by the boys she played with growing up in Mollet del Vallès near Barcelona, she did have to overcome the second-rate treatment like other girls who wanted to turn a hobby into a profession.
“I have come from training in the worst conditions, at the worst time of the day, with coaches who were my teammates’ dads, so that really when you are young you don’t learn much,” Alexia told The Associated Press in an interview at Barcelona’s training center.
“Now, it is completely different. That is why I say that 12-, 14-year-old girls who are training to become players now, when they arrive to the senior teams, they will be much better than we were,” she said. “Because we didn’t have what they have now and yet look what we have achieved. So imagine what the next generation can do.”
Rocked by the departure of Lionel Messi from its struggling men’s team, its ballooning debt, and a scandal-ridden turnover in its presidency, Barcelona needed its women’s team to uphold its championship tradition.
From the ruins, Alexia emerged as the club’s star.
Playing on a talent-packed Barcelona squad with Jenni Hermoso and Lieke Martens, Alexia stands out thanks to her scoring touch, passing skills, and cool-headed leadership. She scored a penalty and assisted on another goal in Barcelona’s 4-0 route of Chelsea in last season’s Champions League final, despite playing with a hurt hamstring. She also struck twice in the final of the Copa de la Reina, and she scored 18 goals in the Spanish league to help Barcelona defend its title.
“I suffered just like any lifelong Barcelona fan,” Alexia said about the club’s recent troubles. “But we had the opportunity to give back some happiness to the club’s supporters in those very difficult moments. And that is what we set out to do, to keep going with our plan, with our style of play, winning games and doing what was in our power to help make our fans happy.”
In her decade with Barcelona, Alexia has lived through the lean years without titles to becoming a European powerhouse. This season, Barcelona is crushing the competition in the Spanish league and is gearing up to play at Camp Nou with fans in the stands for the first time later this month against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Besides keeping Barcelona at the top, Alexia now wants Spain to culminate its huge progress over recent years with a title. The upcoming European Championship in England is the first chance.
Alexia applauded the victory of the United States women’s team after they secured the commitment by the US soccer federation to equal their pay with the men’s team.
“I think it was long past due,” she said. “The typical thing you hear in this debate is that ‘they don’t generate income.’ But (the US women) actually generate more income. … And on top of that, they had won four World Cups, so it made no sense for them to make less.”
Wage equality, however, looks elusive for her and her teammates.
“Here in Spain I see it as still far off. It might happen, but I don’t know if I will see it,” she said. “The reality is that it is still a bit too soon, because we have not been playing at a professional level for many years, while the US, the Scandinavian countries, and Germany have provided help and support (to women’s soccer) for many more years.”
Barcelona, despite its financial woes, has maintained its push to have an elite women’s team. On Tuesday, the club turned the center circle at Camp Nou into the female symbol to celebrate International Women’s Day and underscore its bid to expand its “more than a club” message to bring more female athletes into the forefront.
The first battle still to be won is for all the women in the Spanish league to enjoy the same conditions as Alexia and her Barcelona teammates.
The Spanish government announced the professionalization of the women’s league last year, but the clubs have yet to agree on the statues for the competition. While Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid are investing in their women’s teams, players threatened to strike last fall to protest the precarious conditions at some clubs. The protest followed an incident where an injured Rayo Vallecano player had to be treated by the doctor of an opposing team because her team did not have a doctor at the game.
“I think here in Barcelona we are in a kind of bubble,” Alexia said. “I think there are two realities, one like the one that Barça has created, in which we are players who dedicate 100% of our time to the sport and our goal is to be best. And then there are other clubs … I would like for all my fellow players to have the opportunity to play for clubs that truly believe in building teams for professionals.”
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