It felt like a belated coronation when Alexia Putellas was announced as Globe Soccer Award’s Best Women’s Player at an end-of-year event in Dubai.
She was the star player in an FC Barcelona Femení team that dominated Spain and Europe in 2021, and she had already been awarded the Ballon d’Or Féminin in November, which recognizes the best women’s player in the world each year.
She hasn’t let that success go to her head though, and the 27-year-old Spanish midfielder is as hungry as ever to add to her trophy cabinet.
“Really, I haven’t realized what has happened yet,” she told CNN’s Becky Anderson in Dubai ahead of the awards ceremony on December 27. “And I don’t really want to because it’s a way of keeping up my motivation and being better each day – and what we have gone through doesn’t matter, so that we can go back and repeat it.”
It will be a tough task bettering, let alone repeating, her accomplishments from last season. Putellas captained Barça to an unprecedented treble by winning the Women’s Champions League, the Spanish League and the Spanish Cup.
Along the way, her team was utterly dominant, scoring 208 goals in the 2020/21 season and conceding just 25. The zenith was thrashing Chelsea 4-0 in May to capture the Women’s UCL for the first time.
Results this season have often read like rugby scores: 10-1 vs Sevilla; 8-1 vs Real Sociedad; 9-1 vs Alavés; 8-0 vs Villarreal; 6-0 vs Juventus; 4-0 vs Arsenal – and the list goes on.
Putellas puts the sensational form down to belief in the team’s style of play and the length of time they have spent together.
“We trust 100% that this will take us to success … all this helps us achieve great objectives.”
Pay gap ‘closer’ but still ‘lacking’
The Blaugrana’s domination is helped by the fact that the club clearly values the Femení team, which turned professional in 2015.
According to its annual report, the club as a whole spent more than $8 million on wages and other expenses for its women’s team in 2020/21. In August, for the first time in 40 years, the famed La Masia academy – whose graduates include football greats Lionel Messi, current Barça men’s coach Xavi and Andrés Iniesta – opened its doors to female students.
“Barça has created the structure for an elite female squad, [at the] top globally, that can be self-sufficient,” said Putellas. “But I want to say that the investment and the bet, the belief in this project kept up even when we couldn’t win the league, for example, or an international championship.”
That investment has indeed paid dividends. By qualifying for the Champions League this year, the team are guaranteed a payment of at least $452,000.
This payment has risen substantially since the team has won all six of its group games. The victors of this year’s edition will earn $1.58 million from the final. The overall prize pot of $27 million for this season’s competition is four times larger than last year: a sign that the women’s game is growing exponentially in Europe.
“They [Barcelona] treat me 100% like a footballer, the gender doesn’t matter,” said Putellas. “Twenty years ago, it wasn’t the same as now and I’m sure that not even in 20, but in five years, it will change even more. The profession of a female footballer will be respected around the world, despite the different cultures that exist or different religions.”
Still, the gap in prize money and wages between the men’s and women’s game is astronomical. The winner of the men’s edition of this year’s Champions League can expect to receive more than $60 million minimum, before any of the win bonuses are paid out. Barça men’s legend and current PSG star Lionel Messi was paid $167 million in each of his last four seasons at the club.
The entirety of Putellas’ career has played out in the heat of this fiery global debate surrounding equal rights between men and women in the sport. The disparity in pay has been a particularly contentious topic, highlighted prominently by United States football player Megan Rapinoe. She is one of 28 current and former members of the US Women’s National Team battling for equal pay in an ongoing lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation.
“Every time, we are getting closer, but it’s still lacking,” said Putellas. “There’s still a long way to go and now I know that I have an important voice. In fact, I’m here for this.”
Putellas grew up far from the glitz and glamor of a Dubai awards night.
Born in Mollet del Vallès, on the outskirts of Barcelona, her biggest supporter was her late father, a lifelong supporter of the club she now plays for.
“The truth is that what hurts me is that he wasn’t able to live with me everything that’s coming to me now; playing with the club that we have always supported, and everything that’s happening, the titles. This is what I pity.”
Fame has not changed her and she still has the same friends from where she grew up. They are not interested in football, or her career, which she finds to be an important escape from the game.
“They help me a lot and they help me never forget where I come from and what I’ve done to be where I am today.”
Putellas now sees her playing career as an example of what young girls can achieve, and the game itself as a “reflection of society.”
“I believe that football is one way of managing to end many historical inequalities of women, or how we see women,” she told CNN. “I only saw men playing football and being professional … as a spokesperson, we can give the voice to women who want [to play] and can’t because no one is making structures or teams.”
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Reflecting on her own childhood, and who inspired her, she said she “never stood still.”
She certainly didn’t in 2021. She rounded out the year with a hat-trick in her final game before taking the well-earned rest in Dubai during the club’s winter break.
Barça look on course for another award-winning season, and in 2022, she will hope to make the people of Mollet del Vallès even more proud.