Hosting the final eight of the UEFA Women’s Champions League has turned the spotlight on the progress being made by the women’s game in Spain, where greater investment is now paying obvious dividends.
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“Let’s hope it’s the start of a new era,” says Amanda Sampedro, as the Atlético de Madrid and Spain midfielder surveys the landscape of Spanish women’s football in summer 2020. It is a landscape marked by promising signs of progress, notwithstanding the challenges brought by COVID-19.
“We’re doing things very well,” she explains. “Last year, Barça made it to the Champions League final because of their great performance in this competition. And this year, there’ll definitely be a Spanish side in the semi-finals, and hopefully one of them can make it to the final. Regarding the national team, they’re doing things very well too. I think we’re taking very good steps forward.”
For Sampedro, the meeting of her Atlético side and Barcelona in the quarter-finals of this UEFA Women’s Champions League tournament is a reminder of one of the biggest milestones of a bright new age. In March last year, the teams’ encounter at the Metropolitano in Madrid drew a crowd of 60,739 – a world-record figure for a women’s club fixture. Meanwhile, the San Mamés location of their forthcoming tussle recalls another breakthrough game, Atlético’s Copa de la Reina tie away to Athletic Club last January, attended by 48,121 spectators.
Both those matches underline the efforts of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) to increase the visibility of the women’s game, and for Sampedro they represent “a crucial step for young girls to grow and dream about becoming football players”. Reflecting on that record-breaking turnout in particular, she adds: “To reach that goal in front of so many people, in our own backyard, with our fans in Madrid, with our families and our team, which is also our family, it was just indescribable.”
A bigger audience
Vicky Losada, the Barcelona captain, was also playing at the Metropolitano that day – “It was historic and we managed to win the game [2-0]!” – and she offers her own view of the rising popularity of the women’s game in Spain. “Clubs are investing at a professional level in their women’s sections so the conditions are better for the players,” says the Spain midfielder. “TV and communications have helped a lot too to show the whole of society our football. And the response has been good, which shows that there’s an interest.”
This drive for greater visibility meant, for instance, the presence of Queen Letizia at the 2019 Copa de la Reina final in Granada – a match which drew an audience of 1.6million viewers to Telecinco, one of Spain’s main free-to-air channels, with 2.2 million tuning in for the trophy ceremony. Coverage of last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup marked another step forward, with 35 Spanish journalists attending the event over the border in France, after just four travelled to Canada in 2015. Four months later, a record 10,444 spectators turned up to watch Spain’s opening UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 qualifier against Azerbaijan in La Coruña.
The professional pathway
The RFEF has the goal of overtaking basketball as the most popular sport for girls up to the age of 16. The move in June to grant the top two tiers of women’s football professional status, as well as an agreement over a national minimum salary for players in the women’s top flight, should provide encouragement that there is a clear pathway in Spain for female professional footballers. And their top flight should draw even more attention from 2020/21 with Real Madrid joining the party, having taken over the capital-based club CD Tacón.
For Sampedro, 27, so much has already changed since she started out. “They may look like tiny details or trivialities, but we’ve moved from training from 8pm to 11pm and having to balance that with our regular work or studies – as was the case for many female football players – to being able to focus solely on our sport, our dream. We no longer need to be working or studying at the same time because our football is [judged as] ‘not worthy’.”
Losada has likewise noted positives and feels hope for young girls taking up the game today. “When I was little, you had to start playing with boys,” she says. “Few clubs had girls’ teams, but now that’s changing a lot. The development of girls when they start today is good in terms of quality and quantity, with more teams offering opportunities. And they can dream when they watch players like us in the top division, in the Champions League and simply being professionals and dedicating ourselves to football.”
Turning potential into progress
It is worth noting that Spain has long had the raw talent, with an outstanding record at junior level. Spain’s Under-17s were world champions in 2018 and have reached eight of the last 11 European finals, winning four times. There were back-to-back U19 EURO titles as well, in 2017 and 2018. “What we still have to do is win something for real,” notes Sampedro, desperate to translate Spain’s youth success into senior silverware.
Here too, though, there is clear progress. Spain reached the knockout stage of the Women’s World Cup for the first time in 2019, losing 2-1 to the United States in the last 16. They followed that up with a first appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in the US in March, defeating Japan and England – Barcelona’s Alexia Putellas a scorer in both matches – and losing narrowly again to the US, this time 1-0 following an 87th-minute Julie Ertz goal.
In short, there is much cause for optimism, and the fact that the Women’s Champions League spotlight has shone on the Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián is another. “Although there are no spectators this year because of COVID, I think it’s special to have the Champions League taking place in our country, in an area where women’s football has been important for years now, where people do respond and show an interest in us,” says Losada. “I think it’s a big step for the growth of our football.”
“I’ve always said that in the north of Spain, football is lived and breathed in a wonderful way,” adds Sampedro. “I think they’re both perfect stadiums and they’re two perfect cities to host the Champions League quarter-finals – and to help women’s football to keep growing and progressing in Spain.”
This article is reproduced and adapted from the official 2020 UEFA Women’s Champions League final programme. You can pre-order your copy here.