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Friday, June 21, 2024

Putellas and Bonmati: Barcelona icons, Ballon d’Or winners, European champions

Alexia Putellas took a left-footed shot and after she saw the ball go in, she took off her shirt in an act that came from her soul.

She ran towards the right corner, straight towards her fans. She started screaming, venting all her rage. It was an uncharacteristic act for Putellas, who tends to play with a captain’s composure.

But she needed it. She went to the stands and bowed, evoking memories of the first Clasico that Barcelona women played at Camp Nou in front of 90,000 fans. Lucy Bronze picked up the shirt that Putellas had thrown away and showed it to the crowd.

Aitana Bonmati was the first to embrace Putellas. She had scored Barcelona’s opener in the 63rd minute, advancing past Lyon defender Vanessa Gilles after a great assist from Mariona Caldentey.

It felt fitting; the last two winners of the Ballon d’Or, Putellas and Bonmati, making the difference in the most important match in Barcelona’s history. The relationship between the two has experienced some low moments, so the fact that Bonmati was the first to hug Putellas was significant.

Bonmati congratulates Putellas after her goal (Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

“Alexia and Aitana are FC Barcelona’s heritage,” Xavi Puig, the Barcelona board member in charge of the women’s team, told Catalan broadcaster RAC1 after the match.

Barcelona have broken down many barriers in the last 14 years: professionalisation, winning titles in Spain, starting to play in the Women’s Champions League and then winning it. They only had one more to achieve: to beat the giants of the women’s game, Lyon — the team with the most Champions League titles and which Barcelona had never managed to beat.

Great players are judged by their ability to show up on the big occasions. And Barcelona’s two most iconic players did just that.

Bonmati was the player of the match, as she was in Spain’s World Cup final victory over England. She confirmed her status as the best player in the world, helping the team tick. All of Barcelona’s danger came via her side of the pitch, with the connection she has with Caroline Graham Hansen.

Bonmati has represented Barcelona’s path to the European elite. In 2019, she played in the club’s first Champions League final. Barcelona lost 4-1 to Lyon in Budapest but Bonmati, then only 21, was one of the best players in the team.

Putellas, 30, has led the shift in the perception of women’s football in Spain. When she started, Barcelona women’s team practised at night with only three coaches. The players had to run to the prefab changing rooms at Barca’s training ground to avoid running out of hot water.

But the world saw the evolution of Barcelona in the evolution of Putellas — a player who improved herself until she led the team to the top of Europe and twice became a Ballon d’Or winner, in 2021 and 2022.

She is the leader of a dressing room that goes with her to the end of the world. She led the #SeAcabo movement (It’s Over, the phrase used by the 81 female players who condemned former Spanish Football Association president Luis Rubiales and the federation) and was the first to speak out publicly after Spain’s World Cup win following Rubiales’ unwanted kiss on Jennifer Hermoso during the medal ceremony.

She has led the football and social transformation of a team that five years ago had no Champions League titles. Now they have three.


Putellas soaks up the crowd’s applause (Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Her contract was due to expire on June 30 and there were tense moments between club and player before she eventually renewed last week. The club did not like that Spain called up Putellas in February in the final stretch of her recovery from the ACL injury she first suffered in July 2022.

Putellas ended up renewing until 2026 with an option for another year, reflecting her commitment to the club of her life. At her renewal, she told Barcelona president Joan Laporta that, for her family, she felt it was the right thing to do.

Her celebration showed the rage at everything she has been through this last year: her injury and the resulting psychological toll, the uncertainty of a new contract, for leading a social movement in the Spanish national team that was dignified from the outside but exhausting on the inside, and for Hermoso.

As she shouted, all that was going through her head was vindication against those who doubted her renewal because of her age and her standing in the team due to her long-term injury.

Putellas made it clear that she is going nowhere just yet. It was especially noticeable in the long hug that Laporta gave her during the medal ceremony. She was the one. She was going to lift the trophy to crown Barcelona as European champions, even after coming on as a substitute.


Putellas lifts the Women’s Champions League trophy (Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

Barcelona celebrated their win in front of more than 40,000 fans, the vast majority supporting the Catalans. It was the largest mass travel in the history of women’s football and something that transcended football.

Cata Coll and Claudia Pina led the party afterwards. Patri Guijarro was the DJ. “The night is going to be long!” they said as Pina came out with a megaphone in the mixed zone. “No sleep today,” another shouted.

The club booked the Bilbao Arena, a basketball court, for a big party attended by the whole club and some guests, and continued the party back at home with an institutional reception on Sunday afternoon at Barcelona’s City Hall.

Now, they have achieved everything. They have won all the titles at stake this season and have finally managed to beat Lyon.

A new era in European women’s football is beginning. And Putellas and Bonmati lead the way.

 (Top photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/UEFA via Getty Images)

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