Premium: Barça Femení—Redefining the Sport, Redefining the Culture
Barcelona's European Champion Women's Team Has 39 Wins in 39 Games, a Goal Difference of 192-13 and Another 90,000+ Crowd Coming This Week. I Visited Catalonia to Learn More.
BARCELONA, Spain — They’re filling the giant old stadium again on Friday.
The women of FC Barcelona are making a habit of producing numbers that make you blink twice in wonder, but they’re real.
Barça, the reigning European champion and perhaps the greatest women’s club team of all time, really has won 39 times in 39 games this season. It really has outscored opponents by a total of 192-13. And it really has obliterated its competition not just in the Spanish league, where it clinched the title on the absurdly early date of March 13, but also in the UEFA Champions League, the global gold standard, where it slammed English heavyweight Arsenal by scores of 4-0 and 4-1 in this season’s group stage.
And yet the number that may resonate the most from Barcelona’s relentless pursuit of perfection is a different one: 91,553. That’s how many fans filled the Camp Nou, one of the sport’s greatest cathedrals, on March 30 when Barça beat archrival Real Madrid 5-2 to advance to the Champions League semifinals. The attendance broke the 23-year-old record for an official women’s soccer game (90,185) set at the 1999 women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and China in the Rose Bowl. (An estimated 110,000 people attended an unofficial women’s global final between Mexico and Denmark at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca in 1971.)
Now Barça is on the verge of breaking the record again. The club announced it had sold out the Camp Nou in just over 24 hours for Friday’s opening leg of the Champions League semis against Wolfsburg (free on DAZN’s YouTube, 12:45 pm ET). It remains to be seen if the final total will eclipse the March 30 number, but clearly change is afoot in the culture of Spanish fútbol, to say nothing of Spain itself.
Marta Torrejón knows. When the Spanish international right back joined Barcelona at age 23 in 2013, she and her teammates weren’t even professionals. They trained in the late afternoons, had other full-time callings (Torrejón was earning a university biology degree) and fended for themselves when it came to meals.
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Slowly, things changed. In 2015, the year Spain played in the women’s World Cup for the first time, Barcelona Femení professionalized. Torrejón and her teammates not only started earning a living wage, but also began practicing in the mornings at the same facility as Barça’s men’s team and had training-table breakfasts and lunches provided for them by the club every day.
Performances followed suit: Barça reached the Champions League semifinals in 2016-17 (when its Dutch winger Lieke Martens was named world player of the year) and the final in 2018-19 (a humbling 4-1 loss to Lyon) before eventually winning the trophy in 2020-21 (the run capped by a 4-0 blowout of Chelsea in the final). But drawing fans hasn’t been easy. Even this season, the team has averaged slightly more than 3,000 fans in the 6,000-capacity Estadi Johan Cruyff at Barça’s training facility on the outskirts of town.
Yet the club has been smart about creating the conditions for crowds to fill the Camp Nou on two occasions. For this week’s Wolfsburg game, the first 50,000 tickets were made available for free (with a €2.50-per-ticket processing fee) exclusively to dues-paying members of FC Barcelona during a short 24-hour period. After all those tickets were claimed, generating interest, the rest went on sale to the public for between €19 and €37 ($20.53 and $40) each.
Even after the game was announced as a sellout, the club has continued to promote the chance to be a part of history, employing the slogan #MoreThanEmpowerment, knowing that it’s one thing for free tickets to be claimed and another to have those fans actually come to the stadium. It worked for the game last month—there were literally 91,553 fans inside the Camp Nou—and expectations are at least as high for Friday.
During a recent interview at Barça’s training compound in suburban Sant Joan Despí, Torrejón—who’s 32 now and still starting at right back—shared her story with me and reflected on what playing in front of a full Camp Nou means to her.
“There are many emotions,” she told me in Spanish. “First, you feel very happy to see the response of your fans, who know that it’s an important game in an emblematic stadium such as the Camp Nou. And in the end, I’m also proud to be part of all this change. I can count the times that women’s games have been played at the Camp Nou on one hand. And to be able to enjoy a game like this with all your fans who have had this response to get the tickets and more, what we have left to do is play good football, to put on a good show, and for people who come to support us to have a great time.”
Yet Torrejón would be selling herself short, she said, if she thought the impact of a full stadium for women’s soccer was limited to being just a sports story. What’s happening right now transcends sports, and she would argue that Spanish society is ripe and ready for the change.
“Many years ago, there were many people against women playing football. Not just competing [professionally], but playing [recreationally],” she went on. “I think unfortunately women have always been a little behind because of this whole mentality, because of society. And I’m happy to have lived through this change to see how women not just in sports but in jobs—to say it badly, ‘normal’ jobs like medicine and science—are making room [for themselves] and managing to be in a world that I think has been very masculinized.”
Caroline Graham Hansen on Barça’s 4-0 blowout of Chelsea in last season’s UEFA Champions League final: “It was one of those moments where I was so sure that we were going to win—and win big. And I was not the only one. The whole group had this feeling. And that gave you this sense of confidence and feeling of being unbeatable that we also brought into the field.”
How fast is the change happening? Well, just six seasons after Barça Femení professionalized, it became the European champion. And just seven years after playing in the planet’s biggest tournament for the first time, Spain and its Barcelona-heavy squad are one of the favorites to win next year’s women’s World Cup.
But do you want to know something? While the numbers surrounding Barça may knock you over, they’re not even the best part of what makes the team so special.
Soccer is a sport of failure. Even on the elite teams, you’re regularly losing the ball, and the vast majority of goal-scoring chances aren’t converted. If you’re bothered by imperfection, you will be paralyzed as a soccer player. And yet there is a rarefied place in any pursuit where the finest practitioners have both the awareness of the difficulty and the audacity to believe that perfection can still be sought, if not perhaps fully attained. It may just come in a fleeting instant, but it’s out there.
Caroline Graham Hansen, Barcelona’s Promethean Norwegian winger, is in that rarefied place with her team right now. And you don’t have to be a soccer person to appreciate it.
“I think everyone who does something in their life that they are good at, they always want to be better,” Graham Hansen tells me after a day of training at the club. “They always want to come closer to that perfect moment of a game or a training or a shot or a goal. And that’s why you work. You try to develop as a person, as a team and as a player. And when everybody has the same mentality, you also have a bigger chance of having success and reaching your goals in the end.”
If your idea of a Norwegian soccer player is longballs and kick-and-run, please remove that stereotype from your mind when the topic is Graham Hansen. Her creative vision and ball skills are something to behold, and her addition to Barcelona in the summer of 2019 coincided with the team’s jump to a new level in the sport.
She’s also an absolute killer when it comes to competition. What did you feel, I ask, when Barcelona destroyed Chelsea with four goals in the first 36 minutes of last season’s Champions League final?
“It was one of those moments where I was so sure that we were going to win—and win big,” says Graham Hansen, who scored the final goal that day. “And I was not the only one. The whole group had this feeling. And that gave you this sense of confidence and feeling of being unbeatable that we also brought into the field. And of course they had chances in the beginning that could have brought the game back for them, but in the end they were not even close. And that was a nice way to put straight the blast that was in the media between the teams before, people putting out that Chelsea would just fight Barcelona easily out of their style, that we wouldn’t have a chance physically. And that was not the case.”
Barcelona has managed to be even more dominant this season. The challenge when you have won all 39 of your games, by a margin of 192-13, is obvious, though: How can you do better than that? Is there any way to improve? It’s the constant question facing Jonatan Giráldez, Barça’s 30-year-old first-year head coach. He joined the staff in 2019 and took over the top job this season after the departure of Lluís Cortés.
“The numbers are not possible to do much better, but our mind all the time is thinking of different areas for us to improve,” Giráldez tells me in English. “We analyze all the games. Sometimes if you are only paying attention to the result, you are missing small details for the important games. I can speak for hours about different areas. For example, why the opposing team overpassed us when we were doing our high press. Or at the beginning of the season why we conceded three goals on set-pieces. Sometimes we create many more chances than we score. So yeah, we scored maybe seven goals, but we could have had 10 or 11. It doesn’t matter what the result is. We have to try to do everything perfect.”
From a stylistic perspective, Barça Femení has the same desire to control games through possession that has been part of the club’s identity going back to the days of Cruyff. No player represents the modern manifestation of Barcelona DNA better than central midfielder Alexia Putellas, 28, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner who grew up as a fan attending Barcelona men’s games with her father, Jaume.
At the Barcelona team store outside the Camp Nou these days, it’s Alexia who’s front and center alongside the club’s men’s players in the giant promotional posters greeting anyone who arrives. She’s a genuine superstar now, complete with endorsements from multinational companies like Nike and Visa.
“Alexia’s improvement has been spectacular,” Torrejón tells me. “I have known her practically since she was a child. We played together at Espanyol. For her, soccer has always been everything. She went after challenges, experiences, growth. So she went to Levante, where she had her place. Then she returned to her home [Barça, in 2012] and little by little, each year, the people who have always followed us, which is not that many, have seen it. When you see a girl from a very young age, who just turned 28, who still has many battles to fight and has achieved everything in this team, in her home, with her people, the truth is that it’s admirable.”
Alexia—like most Spanish players, she wears her first name on the back of her jersey—entered Spain’s national sports consciousness at the age of 19 in 2013 when she scored a remarkable individual goal for Barça in the Copa de la Reina final.
“It went viral,” says Kelsie Smith, a University of Northern Kentucky student, hard-core Barça Femení fan and writer who goes by @putellasmessiah on Twitter and has authored most of the English-language Wikipedia entries on Barça players. “It hit over a million views on YouTube, and that was one of the first moments that Barcelona women had ever made national news. That was a defining moment in the team’s history, let alone her career. I know I have my bias, but she started getting ‘best player in the world’ shouts in 2019, when they made their Champions League run to the semifinals, and since then she just been on this insane upward trajectory.”
Giráldez says he can give Alexia instructions with little more than a word or two, and she’ll execute exactly what he’s looking for on the field. But her greatest talents are things that coaches often can’t teach.
“Alexia is so good with the ball, with her vision, with her touches,” says Graham Hansen. “She’s the perfect fit for a number eight in the Barça style of play. For us up front it’s really important to have both the eight and the six filter good passes and do combination play to take away the tension from us, so when we actually get the ball we have a 1v1 or we can make a 1v2. I think it’s every winger’s dream to play in the Barça team like this, because you’re kind of just waiting for them to give you the ball in the right situation to get the 1v1 or put the cross in or attack the goal.”
Personnelwise, Barcelona has some phenomenal individual players, including international stars such as forward Asisat Oshoala (Nigeria); midfielder Ingrid Engen (Norway); wingers Martens (the Netherlands), Fridolina Rolfö (Sweden) and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic (Switzerland); and Spanish national team players including forwards Jenni Hermoso and Claudia Pina, midfielder Aitana Bonmatí and fullbacks Leila Ouahabi and Jana Fernández.
But the whole has been even better than the sum of the parts. For example, while the Spanish national team has joined the global elite, it hasn’t destroyed opponents the way Barcelona has in the club game.
What has taken Barça over the top in the last two years? People inside the team told me that while they had been satisfied with their skills, tactics and identity, the biggest gains have been made in the game’s physical aspects.
“In Spanish soccer, we like to have the ball, we like to touch it, we like to play short,” Torrejón told me, “but we lacked a little more on a physical level, a work level, the level of moving the ball at a higher speed. And that work is what we’ve been doing the last two years.”
In a way, it’s almost the reverse of the challenge facing the U.S. women’s national team, which in the coming years will have to add more skill to its traditional dominance in athleticism. But the truth is it’s easier to add physical traits than ball skills in this sport.
Graham Hansen noted that when she joined Barça in 2019, the club had just been handled by Lyon in the Champions League final and resolved to be more physically tough. “They were pretty clear that with the ball and tactically we were good, but what’s missing is the physical part,” she said. “So they changed all that the summer I came. They brought in a new [assistant coach for physical preparation] and changed the system of how they were training.”
Or as Giráldez put it, “The main change in the last years here at Barça is to improve very much the physical condition to hold 90 competitive minutes.”
There has been one significant drawback, however. Barça’s training sessions have become ferocious and far more competitive than the team’s actual games, and that redlining has contributed to a spate of injuries. Players who have missed significant time this season due to injuries include Oshoala, Martens, Fernández, Crnogorcevic, defender Irene Paredes, goalkeeper Cata Coll and forwards Pina, Graham Hansen, Mariona Caldentey and Bruna Vilamala. Some of those injuries happened when players were with their national teams, but Barça’s depth has been tested as a result.
“Right now it’s very hard,” Giráldez told me recently. “We try to push the players to the limit while being conscious that you will have injuries when you are pushing. We have to analyze what’s happening with these players and try to avoid [injuries] in the future. But when you are at the limit, you are taking a risk. It is the only way to improve.”
At times it seems like the only thing that could blemish a perfect season for Barcelona isn’t an opponent on the field. It’s the foe that keeps sending Barça’s own players to the medical department.
Is Barcelona the best women’s club team of all time? It depends on how you measure these things. Going by single seasons, it would be hard to argue with Barça if it can go an entire season winning every game in every competition. But even if that happens, Graham Hansen isn’t ready to anoint her team as the GOAT. Not yet.
For her, longevity should be part of that discussion as well. And that’s why she thinks Barcelona has more work on its plate to catch Lyon, which has won seven Champions League titles going back to 2010-11.
“I think it’s a bit early to say that this is the best of all time, out of respect for what Lyon has been doing the last 10 to 15 years,” she tells me. “What you can say is we win in a different way than Lyon have done. And the only way to eventually be recognized as the best team ever is to continue winning the biggest tournament. And if you continue to do that over a period of five or 10 years, not every year is possible, but with playing this type of football, maybe you can sit down and discuss it then.”
What’s undeniable is that this Barcelona team is changing the culture of sports. Barça Femení fans are watching from around the world. In her dorm room at Northern Kentucky, Kelsie Smith manages to catch almost every game with the use of a Barça TV+ subscription and a VPN that gets Spanish TV channels. Her analysis of the team sounds like what you’d hear on a good sports-talk radio show.
“The summer of 2019 is where it really changed, because that’s when you brought in Caro and brought back Jenni from Atlético Madrid,” she says. “Caro’s entrance into the team transformed it, since Lieke didn’t have to play on the right wing anymore. Then with Vicky’s injury, you had the consistent integration of the Alexia-Patri-Aitana midfield. That midfield three and the front three of Lieke, Caro and either Jenni or Oshoala was completely transformative in how they play their football.”
Victoire Cogevina Reynal hears commentary like that and smiles, knowing that she’s betting on the future based on what’s starting to happen now in the culture. Cogevina Reynal is the U.S.-born, Argentine-Greek founder and CEO of Gloria, a soon-to-be-released soccer community app. She was in the Camp Nou for Barcelona’s record women’s crowd last month, and the next day she announced a €10 million commitment for the naming rights of the still-evolving Spanish women’s pro league if it ends up being run by the women lawyers María Teixidor (a former Barça board member) and Reyes Bellver.
“I never thought this moment would come this fast, even though I was bullish about this moment happening,” Cogevina Reynal told me about being in the stadium that day. “The audience was very much a family-oriented audience. There were a lot of little girls, there were a lot of mothers, and it felt like they took the opportunity to show them what the future could look like for them. And to me that’s the most important thing that happened. It meant much more than a crowded football game. It was a world where women really are treated the same way as men.”
They’re filling the giant old stadium again on Friday. The momentum is only gathering. And for Marta Torrejón, a Barça player for the last decade, what’s happening right now is a cultural inflection point in Spain.
“This is one more step,” she says. “A year ago, we played at the Camp Nou without a public because of the pandemic. A year later, we can play in a game with the stadium at full capacity. I hope it doesn’t stop there, because I’m sure many more will come. In the end, it’s a show that people can come and see us, and if we can get it to be like that, the people will get hooked on what football is.”
“I don’t like saying ‘women’s football,’” she continues, “because football is football. But let them get hooked on our football, how we play, how we compete. Because we give everything in every game.”