Football Has No Gender

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

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The night of the Ballon d’Or is still a blur. One moment, I’m leaving the Spain national team training camp, the next I’m on a private plane to Paris, then suddenly Kylian Mbappé is handing me the trophy. I’m looking out on this beautiful theatre and in the front rows and I can see my family and Leo Messi! It was a historic night, not just for me but all of my Barça teammates who were also nominated — four of us from Spain. We could’ve skipped the ceremony because we had the Euros qualifier against Scotland the day after, but we knew we had to squeeze it in whatever it took. The last time any Spaniard had won it was Luis Suárez — the other one — in 1961. How could I not be there? 

My mum and sister don’t know much about football. They mean everything to me and I’m so glad I got to bring them to Paris to share in the moment, but I don’t think they fully knew what was going on. During the gala, they were coming up to me like, “Alexia, look, I got a picture with this person.... Can you tell me who it is?” Hahaha!

I haven’t been reunited with my trophy yet. After the ceremony and the press duties, I said goodbye to my family and we flew straight back to Seville for the Scotland game. No time to celebrate or take it all in. I left the Ballon d’Or in the hotel room, played the game and then took it back to Barça, who have held onto it since then. 

I only realised I was on the Burj Khalifa when I looked at my phone. After the Globe Soccer awards in Dubai, they projected my image across the skyscraper, hundreds of metres high, but because we were inside the building when it was happening, I didn’t see anything. It was only when my phone started going off that I saw it. I heard it’s the first time they’ve put a woman’s image up like that. That’s pretty cool for the visibility of our sport.

Fame is just another thing you have to deal with. My life has changed in the last year and it’s still changing, but I’m just concentrating on what I do every day. The rest doesn’t bother me. 

Since I was a little kid, the goal was to play for Barça. When I'm playing for this club, I truly feel like I am representing my family, my history, my home. When I was six, I remember watching the Clásico from on top of a pool table. My family are big Culers and when they couldn’t go to the stadium, they often watched in this bar — La Bolera — next to where we lived in Mollet del Vallès. It would always get packed out for big games, and my dad would pick me up and stick me on the pool table so I could see the big screen over all the adults. I remember being super nervous even though I barely understood what was going on. I just knew that this mattered.

I used to think that the Camp Nou was just for men. As a kid I would go with my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents — all on the bus with the Mollet penya. In those days, I wanted to sit as close as possible to the players. I was always insisting that we move a little closer, even if the view was actually worse. I just wanted to be part of the action! Back then, if you’d have told me that one day I would set foot on that grass, I’d have been like, “Pffft no way.… Only men play here.” When I played there last year, it was the realisation of a dream I’d had since I was six years old. When you’re actually in the dressing room, or on the centre circle — wow —  you really have to stop and take it all in for a moment. The place commands respect.

I used to overhear things like “This girl has something.… She’s special.” But I didn’t really pay attention. I just wanted to play. And I played whenever, wherever I could. If my parents were getting a coffee in the plaza, I would grab my ball and do shooting practice against the wall of the town hall and return to them sweating, begging for some water. I played in the street so much that I would get these big bruises all over my legs, and eventually my mum was like, “Right, we need to sign you up for a club for the sake of your legs!” (It didn’t work, though. I still played on the street and the bruises continued. Haha!)

My football career started with a white lie. My family took me to Sabadell, where a family friend was already in the team, but the minimum age was eight and I was only seven, so they had to “cheat” a little to get me in. I remember my family used to take it in turns to do the half-an-hour trip to training after work. When it was my aunt’s turn, she would stick a helmet on me and I would go on the back of her massive six-cylinder motorbike. I was playing with girls who were like 11 or 12 and I would come home complaining to my parents that I couldn’t kick the ball as hard as them, but I loved it anyway.

When I was a student, I still couldn’t get enough. I was studying at uni in the morning and training in the evening, but in my head I was already a pro. Back then, if I could’ve trained 24 hours a day, I would’ve done it.

Alexia Putellas | Football Has No Gender | The Players' Tribune
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

Barcelona believed in women. When I rejoined the club in 2012, we went a few years without winning the title. We just couldn’t get it over the line. But instead of re-evaluating, Barça doubled down. Even when the results weren’t immediate, the club committed to the project. They knew what it takes to create success.

Getting crushed by Lyon in the 2019 Champions League final helped us. It was actually one of the most important moments in our journey. All credit to Lyon, they were on a totally different level to us. We never got close to them in Budapest, but we never felt like we failed. It’s weird to say about a defeat, but afterwards I was kind of at peace. It was like, So, that’s where the bar is, huh? The path was clear and we knew we had to get to work. 

I played the 2021 Champions League final injured. In training, three days before the final, I felt my hamstring just go. I spoke to the coach and the medical team and they told me they would do everything they could. The next day the pain was still there and after 10 minutes of training I couldn’t go on. I could see the doors closing on my dream — the chance to rectify what happened in Budapest. So, 24 hours before the game I started to do some “mental work,” telling myself I wasn’t injured. I really had to believe it. Out of respect for my teammates, I couldn't afford to play in a lower gear. I told people around me, “What injury? Don’t talk to me about an injury.” After we won the game, I was out for two weeks because the damage was worse than I thought … but it was worth it. During the celebrations, you better believe I didn’t feel a thing in that hamstring.

I was certain we were going to beat Chelsea. Maybe because we’d already been through a previous final, but everything felt different. We had total confidence in our game plan, each other, ourselves. It’s a kind of certainty I can barely explain. When I went up to take the penalty in the first half to make it 2–0, I was totally calm. That ball was always going in and we were always going to win.

Pressure is an addiction. I’ve always loved winning and hated losing. Even as a kid I needed stakes when I played. But after 10 years at Barça? Well, the spirit of this club gets inside of you … and if it doesn’t, you don’t last long here. You know you have to win absolutely every single game. There’s no other option. For me, I just can’t imagine ever playing for a club without such high aspirations. I don’t know if I could perform. 

Football has no gender. As a kid in Mollet, I was the only girl playing with the boys in the plaza or at the park, but there was never any problem. I never got told I couldn’t play, there were no insults. Nobody raised an eyebrow when this girl said she wanted to be a footballer. I know I’m lucky for the family I have and friends that I grew up with, but my experience is what it should be like for every young girl. The new generation needs to normalise this. Football belongs to everyone.

When I’m retired, I’m going to take my shirt and my scarf and get back on that bus with the Mollet penya — the same one I took as a kid — and come watch the next generation of boys and girls play for the club that I love. 

It’s all about supply and demand. Previously, people would question whether the demand was there for women’s football, but now it’s the supply that needs to catch up. In the 20 years I’ve been playing, the world has changed and it’s only going to keep changing. And if you think that the level of engagement in women’s football is good now, you are going to look back and laugh in a few years. It’s going to be insane.

Alexia Putellas | Football Has No Gender | The Players' Tribune