Ballon D’Or winner Alexia gives struggling Barcelona a new star | Sports News

By JOSEPH WILSON, Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — When Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas started kicking a ball in the small square of her Spanish village, she did so with the typical disadvantages of a young girl with big dreams in a country that was crazy about football – as long as it was played by men.

But after two decades of hard work, as well as the slow but steady growth of women’s football towards the mainstream in Spain, Alexia has reached the pinnacle of her sport.

The 28-year-old midfielder has won every major individual award after leading Barcelona to a hat-trick of titles last season, including their first Champions League. She became just 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 was also named UEFA Women’s Player of the Year. UEFA in August and won FIFA’s The Best award in January. .

Although she never felt discriminated against by the boys she played with growing up in Mollet del Vallès near Barcelona, ​​she had to overcome second-rate treatment like other girls who wanted to turn a hobby into a profession.

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“I just trained in the worst conditions, at the worst time of day, with coaches who were the fathers of my teammates, so really when you’re young you don’t learn much,” Alexia said. to the Associated Press in an interview at the Barcelona training center.

“Now it’s completely different. That’s why I say 12, 14 year old girls who are training to be players now, when they get to the senior teams, they will be much better than us.” she declared. “Because we haven’t have what they have now and yet look at what we’ve achieved. So imagine what the next generation can do.

Shaken by Lionel Messi’s departure from their struggling men’s side, ballooning debt and an outrageous turnover in their presidency, Barcelona needed their women’s team to maintain their league tradition.

From the ruins, Alexia became the star of the club.

Playing in a talented Barcelona side with Jenni Hermoso and Lieke Martens, Alexia stands out thanks to her goalscoring touch, passing skills and cool-headed leadership. She scored a penalty and assisted on another goal in Barcelona’s 4-0 loss to Chelsea in the Champions League final last season, despite a hamstring injury. She also scored twice in the Copa de la Reina final and scored 18 Spanish league goals to help Barcelona defend their title.

“I suffered like any Barcelona fan,” Alexia said of the club’s recent troubles. “But we had the opportunity to give back some happiness to the club’s supporters in these very difficult times. And that’s what we decided to do, to continue with our plan, with our style of play, to win matches and to do what was in our power to help make our fans happy.

During her decade at Barcelona, ​​Alexia weathered the difficult years without titles to become a European powerhouse. This season, Barcelona are crushing the competition in the Spanish league and preparing to play at Camp Nou with fans in the stands for the first time later this month against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals.

As well as keeping Barcelona on top, Alexia now wants Spain to culminate their huge progress in recent years with a title. The next European Championship in England is the first chance.

Alexia applauded the victory for the United States women’s team after securing a commitment from the United States Soccer Federation to match their salaries with the men’s team.

“I think it was overdue for a long time,” she said. “The typical thing you hear in this debate is ‘they don’t generate income.’ But (American women) actually generate more income. … And on top of that, they had won four World Cups, so that made no sense for them to earn less.

Equal pay, however, seems elusive for her and her teammates.

“Here in Spain I see it as still far away. It could happen, but I don’t know if I will see it,” she said. “The reality is that it’s still a little too early, because we haven’t played at a professional level for many years, while the United States, the Scandinavian countries and Germany have given their help and support (at the women’s football) for many years.

Barcelona, ​​despite their financial difficulties, have maintained their efforts to have an elite women’s team. On Tuesday, the club transformed the central circle of the Camp Nou into a symbol of women to celebrate International Women’s Day and underlined their desire to broaden their ‘more than a club’ message to put more female athletes at the forefront. .

The first battle that remains to be won is that all women in the Spanish championship benefit from the same conditions as Alexia and her Barcelona teammates.

The Spanish government announced last year the professionalization of the women’s league, but clubs have yet to agree on the statutes of the competition. As Barcelona, ​​Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid invest in their women’s teams, players threatened to go on strike last fall in protest at poor conditions at some clubs. The protest followed an incident in which an injured Rayo Vallecano player had to be treated by an opposing team’s doctor because her team did not have a doctor at the game.

“I think here at 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 sport and our goal is to be the best. And then there is other clubs… I would like all my team-mates to have the opportunity to play for clubs that really believe in building teams for professionals.

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