When the whistle blew on June 17th, 2015, Spain’s hopes in the Women’s World Cup were crushed. They hadn’t even been able to make it past the group stage. But what looked like the end that day soon turned into something else. A whole new story unfolded: a tale that had been hidden behind the scenes for over 25 years, a story about a group of women who wanted more, but were held back by an organization that didn’t believe in them or what they did.
Imagine a national team that has been led by the same head coach for 27 years. A head coach that has been never held accountable for the performance of his team, that has never put together a proper development plan and doesn’t even travel abroad to scout the best players, who have had to emigrate to play the game they really excel at. Now add a big amount of totalitarianism, a patronizing attitude and a total disrespect for the players. Stir it all and spice it up with a federation that overlooks and underestimates the players’ formal complaints about the way the team is run. Finally, top it with the fear of never being called up again if, as a player, you ever decide to speak up about the situation. There you go, you got yourself the Spain women’s national team.
The story of Spain’s very modest contribution to women’s soccer is as much about the national team as it is about its league, established in 1988. Even though it has never folded, it has never fully been a professional league either, with only some players in a few teams securing contracts that would cover them in case of injury or pregnancy (although that didn’t mean they could make a living just by playing soccer). The growth over the years has not been steady either. It was slow for a while, reaching its best before the economic crisis hit Spain hard in 2012.
Then everything stopped. Most teams cut funding and terminated any contracts they had signed. Players in most squads went back to being amateur, with no salaries and working hard to balance their daily jobs and soccer training on a regular basis. Many of Spain’s best players, like Vero Boquete, Laura del Río and Vicky Losada, left to try their luck in other countries. Over the past few years, the situation within the league has started to pick up again, a change that has also been mirrored by the national team.
The 2015 World Cup was Spain’s debut at the most important competition in women’s soccer. The team had barely been tested against the top teams in a competitive environment before, having always refused to attend the Algarve Cup, overlooked the FIFA windows and having only made it into the European Championship twice (in 1997, when they made it all the way through to the semifinals, and in 2013, when they were eliminated by Norway during the quarter finals).
While the way the Federation viewed and valued the women’s squad had barely changed, the qualification was a massive improvement for the Spanish team. The expenses paid for national duties were slightly raised ahead of the tournament and the media started talking about the evolution of women’s soccer in the country. We were in a new era, they said. An era in which Spain would finally step up and join the top teams at an international level.
But it is at events like this that the structure and the basis of a nation’s women’s soccer is tested and the new era proved to be still far away. Regardless of how impressive their qualification had been, the team was clearly not prepared for the intense road ahead of them. Spain hadn’t lost a single a game during the qualification stages, but it had taken an amazing effort to qualify for the World Cup, completely unsupported by their federation and without a professional league in the country to foster local talent. Motivation had been the driving force for the national squad, but that didn’t mean this strategy would work out in Canada.
Even the slogan used to promote (even if just barely) the amazing feat accomplished by the Spanish squad was hopeful: Soñar en Grande (Dream Big). Dreaming is good; it is engaging, moving, it attracts the audience and tells a story. Everyone loves an underdog. Dreams are powerful motivators too. Players are driven by passion and a work ethic that’s fueled by their dreams. But it can’t just be about fantasizing. National soccer federations should not be allowed to evoke the idea of dreaming as a way to achieve goals. Great teams don’t just dream – they go and get what they know they’re worth.
The Spanish Federation never truly believed, probably never even cared. When dreams fail to turn into goals, chances are they’ll end up being crushed. Soccer federations around the world, regardless of whether they are working with men and women, should have a plan, a strategy, a clearly defined roadmap to identify potential challenges and set clear goals. When that final whistle blew in Canada, the bubble the Spanish players had been living in burst. The lack of preparation, friendly games, analysis and even acclimation ahead of the event proved to be stronger than their dreams, and reality hit them hard: their dedication and commitment alone would never be enough to beat the top teams. Without their federation’s support, the story of the underdog would continue to be an illusion, a narrative they’d hear over and over again to hide the fact that, until something changed, their hopes would be condemned.
If something good came out of the 2015 World Cup was that, for once, there was a small, yet meaningful interest from the media. A tiny hope that maybe someone, somewhere, was watching and wanted to know about what this group of women had accomplished just by going all the way to Canada. And it was that interest from the media that allowed them to, for once, speak up, to reveal what had been happening behind the scene for 27 years. The tale of a misogynist and depraved federation for which the women just didn’t count.
Ignacio Quereda, Spain’s head coach since 1988, stepped down barely 10 days after the World Cup fiasco, following the publication of a letter signed by all the Spanish players, in which they voiced their opinion regarding the way the team had been ran for the last three decades. Even though his replacement, Jorge Vilda, was still a man of the Federation, his impeccable work with the U-19 and his more modern approach to soccer was welcomed with opened arms by the team. Since he came on board a year ago, La Roja has not lost a single game, a statement to his efforts to unite the team and strengthen a relationship that was very close to being broken beyond repair.
During this past year, Spain successfully qualified for the European Championship as first in their group, having won all their games with 39 goals scored and only two against. But his achievements go beyond these results. The Spanish squad is better supported by the Federation, which has signed a sponsorship deal with Iberdrola, one of the top energy companies in the country, and is already working on securing friendlies and maybe even a spot at this year’s Algarve Cup. The last few qualifying matches were broadcast live in one of the country’s top TV channels and their final game against Finland attracted over 5000 people, an unprecedented crowd for women’s soccer in Spain.
And the interest and the evolution have not been limited to the national squad. La Liga, the organization that runs the men’s competition, took over the women’s league as well. They’ve put together an actionable plan to grow the game that includes a two-year sponsorship deal with Iberdrola (with a €2m investment), a solid marketing strategy to raise awareness and a TV deal to broadcast three matches per week. The media coverage of the league has also improved significantly, with bigger exposure in online media, print, TV and radio.
Although this new interest is promising, there are still big differences between teams. Those backed by a men’s soccer team, like FC Barcelona and Athletic Club (both playing in the UEFA Women’s Champions League this year), have the financial support to provide better conditions, sign top players and sometimes even offer a full professional environment. On the other side of the spectrum, smaller, independently-owned teams like Transportes Alcaine, Granadilla or Santa Teresa, have fewer resources and not-so-good conditions, relying mainly on younger, amateur players coming from their strong youth systems.
At minimum, though, this has meant better conditions for teams and players. Televised games are being played in natural grass rather than turf, the investment of clubs is again gradually raising and the league is starting to generate interest both in and out of Spain. A slow journey towards professionalization was triggered by the shift in mentality that followed the World Cup crisis, and the stakeholders are taking the first key steps to ensure that the players start to be viewed as professionals and not just amateurs. After many years of waiting around for the Federation to take women’s soccer seriously, La Liga has stepped in and taken the lead, working closely with the teams to support the game and the players.
Overall, soccer in Spain is changing. Even if the growth is not yet evident, the clear shift in mentality has made a massive difference. The combined efforts to power the game, both in the league and in the national team, are showing their first results, and the expectation is that, if La Roja leads the way, the league will follow suit. The soccer community in the country eagerly awaits Euro 2017, with the hope that a good performance by the national team will finally solidify the presence of the women’s game in the country and give the league the final push it needs to become a fully professional environment – one that will not only nurture the national players, but also attract talent from all over the world.