Ballon d’Or 2023: Catalunya takes centre stage

‘In Catalunya, football isn’t comparable to life. It is larger than it, proclaims Robin Mumford after witnessing Aitana Bonmatí Conca lifting her first Ballon d’Or Féminin. Like many fans of women’s football across the globe, he is certain it won’t be her last.

Thirty minutes west of Barcelona lies the quaint town of Sant Pere de Ribes. Remarkably inconspicuous just ten years ago, its streets are now adorned with murals – each celebrating the phenomenal rise of the world’s latest superstar, who grew up there before making a name for herself in the big city.

Astoundingly, Barça Femení did not win their first domestic league title until 2012, when Aitana Bonmatí Conca was fourteen years old. Eleven short years later, she has carried the burden of filling a gap left in midfield by a serious injury to Alexia Putellas – guiding the Blaugrana to their second UEFA Women’s Champions League title along the way.

She has drawn comparisons with Andrés Iniesta for her style of play, with Pep Guardiola piling on the praise for his fellow Catalan compatriot – and for many, she can now be considered amongst the best talents that la Masia has ever produced.

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‘When women’s football needed a heroine, the world turned to Catalunya but when Catalunya needed a paladin, they turned to Aitana Bonmatí Conca,’ continues Mumford. Eyewitness to the Blaugrana’s remarkable victory over VfL Wolfsburg in Eindhoven, he cites her unmissable subtlety at the heart of the midfield as the leading cause for Barcelona’s success.

But her influence runs deeper than Barcelona, and as the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup rolled around, fans were left to watch in awe as she controlled matches with a remarkable ease – dictating the tempo as la Roja strolled to a rather comfortable first title.

Football in Catalunya intertwines intricately with local politics. Despite the best efforts of Madrid’s central government to silence Catalan voices since the allegedly unconstitutional independence referendum in 2017, it is Catalonian talents like Aitana Bonmatí Conca that have delivered Spain’s finest moments.

That is not the only poetic storyline to be cast as she relishes in the joy of lifting football’s greatest individual honour though. Described as a discreet individual by Didier Drogba during the ceremony, it is perhaps fitting that she lifted her latest accolade alongside another star renowned for his timid persona – and another icon of Barcelona’s footballing legacy.

‘It is poetry that football in the Catalonian jewel and its two incarnations adjoined in Paris in cyclical romance,’ declares Mumford. Of course, he is talking about none other than Lionel Messi – with the Argentine taking centre stage at the Théâtre du Châtelet on Monday to hold aloft a record eighth Ballon d’Or.

Aitana Bonmatí Conca and Lionel Messi pictured with their Ballon d’Or trophies [S. Mantey / L’Équipe]

Yet there are similarities to be drawn beyond their quiet personalities, as these la Masia products have gone on to develop into two of the world’s greatest stars. Not only have they both overseen the brightest periods in the Blaugrana’s history, but they have both played significant roles in delivering the illustrious World Cup to their respective homelands.

Much like Lionel Messi, Aitana Bonmatí Conca is heralded as a hero in Catalunya. Her name adorns the back of thousands of shirts, worn with pride by fans who wave the famed Senyera as they parade through the streets of Barcelona. To the Blaugrana, the lines between men’s football and women’s football are blurring – and the city now celebrates football, without care for gender.

There is one stunning difference between the winning pair though. As Lionel Messi’s career inevitably begins to peter out, Aitana Bonmatí Conca’s time at the top is only just beginning – and she is more than capable of dominating the football scene for years to come.