Barcelona, Catalunya. It’s a city well-known for an incredible footballing history, and a landscape dominated by the Camp Nou that nestles beautifully in the west of the Catalan capital. For fans of a certain age, Barcelona is almost synonymous with Xavi and Lionel Messi. But the tide is turning now – and when the younger generation think of the Blaugrana, their mind is just as likely to turn to Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí.
Barcelona have done precisely what other clubs have struggled to do – create a ‘one-club’ mentality. It’s something rarely seen across women’s football, for a multitude of reasons that combine to ensure a somewhat stagnant atmosphere lingers across the terraces.
Putellas: The Next Messi?
It would be an injustice not to mention Alexia Putellas’ influence on Barcelona’s success, and she’s become a real fan favourite in Catalunya. Lionel Messi departed Barcelona just before the 2021/22 season – coinciding with Putellas being named as the new captain of the women’s side.
Just months later, Putellas received her first Ballon d’Or as Messi received his record-breaking seventh – completing the poetic transfer of power on the Catalan coastline. That wouldn’t be the only individual award the midfielder lifted that year though, as she was also named as UEFA’s Women’s Footballer of the Season and The Best FIFA Women’s Player.
Putellas’ importance is such that despite missing out on the majority of the 2022/23 season through an ACL injury, her name was sung loud and proud at every single fixture. She’s on first-name basis with the fans, with chants of ‘Alexia, Alexia’ heard around Barcelona before every Barça Femení match – and it was no different in Eindhoven.
Football for Families?
One of the major stumbling blocks in English football is the atmosphere. There is no denying that it simply isn’t able to rival that of many European clubs, especially Barcelona. The Women’s Super League is marketed to attract families – and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it certainly hampers the ability to create a raucous atmosphere.
Ticket prices in the WSL are, for the most part, well received by English fans – allowing fans who may not be able to afford a trip to watch the men’s team a chance to watch their club play a competitive match. Unfortunately though, filling the ground with children rather than diehard fans willing to create an atmosphere has resulted in a rather stagnant feel to most games – even those between the fiercest historical rivals.
Barça have done brilliantly, almost completely eradicating the problem. I had the pleasure of travelling to the Camp Nou for the second leg of the club’s UWCL semifinal against Chelsea – and the difference was incredible when compared to Arsenal’s second leg against VfL Wolfsburg. The streets were packed hours before kickoff, and though there were still thousands of children in attendance, it never felt as if the raw emotions of the game were watered down to suit a younger audience.
Ultimately, fans were there because they are Barça fans. There’s no segregation between the men’s team and the women’s team; it’s simply one club. I witnessed groups of men in their thirties sitting in bars outside the ground, then flooding through the turnstiles while belting out countless chants in a 70,000-strong chorus. You simply wouldn’t get that in England – and it’s stunting the growth of women’s football.
Tensions in Catalunya have been heightened for some time, following the 2017 referendum for independence from Spain. Despite an overwhelming majority voting for independence, lawmakers in Madrid deemed that the referendum was not legally binding – and Catalunya would remain under Spanish control.
Something I’ve learned from my short trip to Barcelona is that these people are fiercely proud of their region. The iconic red and yellow stripes of the Senyera fly high on most street corners, draped from balconies or simply wrapped over the shoulders of passionate fans. Such is the importance of their regional pride, that Barcelona’s fourth kit this season mimicked the design of the flag.
Yet for Barça Femení, the connection runs deeper than the shirt. Laia Codina, Jana Fernández, Clàudia Pina, Marta Torrejón, Alexia Putellas, Aitana Bonmatí, Bruna Vilamala, Gemma Font and Emma Ramírez all hail from the region – as well as head coach, Jonatan Giráldez. While perhaps this strong Catalan contingent wasn’t intentional, there’s absolutely no doubt that it helps to create an outlet for fans’ pride in their region.
Success on the Pitch
Barcelona thrive on success – which may sound like an obvious statement, but hear me out. With Barça Femení running away with the Liga F title this season, and their male counterparts winning LaLiga by a comfortable margin, the two teams enjoyed a shared title parade through the streets of the Catalan capital. There’s no better way to enforce a ‘one-club’ ideology than that.
One of the biggest downfalls of English women’s football is the lack of success. Since the WSL adopted the standard season format ahead of the 2017/18 season, no club has managed to win both the Premier League and the Women’s Super League simultaneously. Manchester City have won the men’s title five times since the WSL reform – and while their women’s side have finished as runners-up on four occasions, they’ve not lifted the trophy. Meanwhile, the WSL has been dominated by Chelsea with five titles from the last six seasons; the best the men’s side have finished is third.
Success breeds success, and this Barça side are truly something special.